October 22, 1962 started out like a normal day aboard the USS Canberra (CAG-2), an old heavy cruiser in port at Norfolk. But then word came from President John F. Kennedy himself that we were to head south toward Cuba to blockade the island. It was the culmination of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a time I’ll never forget.

Rich Curnow

U.S. Navy guided missile cruiser USS Canberra during Cuban Missile Crisis

The U.S. Navy guided missile cruiser USS Canberra (CAG-2) underway on 9 January 1961 (USN)

October 22, 1962, started out like a normal day aboard the USS Canberra (CAG-2), an old heavy cruiser in port at Norfolk.

But something wasn’t quite right. In my roving work as an Electronics Technician, I was above decks, below, and above again before it hit me: the exterior speaker system wasn’t operating. All was too quiet that morning.

Then, the order came: all hands were to report to our respective division offices at 1100.

Our division heads told us to remove our personal, non-military items from the ship and return them home. And while we were at home, we were to bring back to ship any gear we might need at sea. We were told we’d be shoving off that evening. We didn’t know where we were going or how long we’d be away. All we knew is something big was happening.

The scuttlebutt was we were headed for Lebanon, where a civil war had prompted US intervention several years earlier. Tensions were rising again, and maybe the President was dispatching another Task Force there.

I hitched a ride with a fellow sailor to my home in Norfolk in the early afternoon. My apartment was on the second floor with its own entry. Drapes were at the top of the stairs for privacy. No one ever went up there except my wife and me.

As I bounded up the stairs, I saw my wife looming above with a switchblade in each hand, ready to take on the unexpected intruder, me. I screamed at her to stop. I’m lucky she did or I would have gone to the hospital instead of back to the ship.

I dropped my stuff off, picked up the items I needed and met my ride outside to go back to the ship. My wife and baby daughter came along for the ride. The driver’s wife also came, as did another sailor and his wife, all of us crammed in the car.

We arrived at the pier and parked next to the gangway. President Kennedy’s spoke from the car radio, and we all froze and listened.

President Kennedy addressing the nation

President Kennedy addressing the nation on October 22, 1962 Courtesy of John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum

Within the past week unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island. The purposes of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere. . . . To halt this offensive buildup, a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. All ships of any kind bound for Cuba from whatever nation or port will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, be turned back. This quarantine will be extended, if needed, to other types of cargo and carriers. . . . The path we have chosen for the present is full of hazards, as all paths are–but it is the one most consistent with our character and courage as a nation and our commitments around the world. The cost of freedom is always high–and Americans have always paid it. . . . .Our goal is not the victory of might, but the vindication of right- -not peace at the expense of freedom, but both peace and freedom, here in this hemisphere, and, we hope, around the world. God willing, that goal will be achieved.

 We said goodbye to our wives and boarded the Canberra. In short order, we were underway, heading south toward Cuba at DEFCON 3.

On board, we had a full Bird captain, Robert Irvine, and a Rear Admiral, John Ailes, who took command of the “Quarantine” of Cuba ordered by the President. We called it a “Blockade.”

At 1400 on October 24, our ship took its position 500 miles east of Cuba along with dozens of others. We formed a great arc, the Walnut Line. Our position was Walnut Five. Our job was to watch the surface and stop any ship in route to Cuba.

Planes flew overhead constantly searching for underwater intruders, Soviet submarines. More ships arrived in the area to enlarge the picket. By the time it was over, more than 200 ships worked the blockade, including seven aircraft carriers. The sight of so much manpower, so much firepower, was awe-inspiring.

After 14 days as the command ship under DEFON 3, we passed command to the USS Newport News and returned to Norfolk to replace the middle eight-inch gun on Number Two Turret.  While in port, we picked up some Communications technicians and headed back towards Cuba. This time, we took position on the newly-formed Chestnut Line, closer to the island.

Cuban Missle Crisis Military Map

There, with some depth charges, we helped bring a Soviet submarine to the surface. My post was Counter-Intelligence, so I got to hear some conversations between pilots and the ship.

In Counter-Intelligence, they had a plotting board that showed the position of all of the associated ships on both the US side and the Russian side. It was fascinating. Looking at that board, you could see the two sides “eyeball-to-eyeball,” confronting each other in a nuclear showdown. It was a scary time. World War III was a real possibility.

We finally returned to Norfolk and ended our participation in the Cuban Missile Crisis on November 22, 1962, Thanksgiving Day.

We gave special thanks that day for living to see it.