Thursday, July 29, 2021

Beans, Bullets, Black Oil, and Drink Cups: Fleet Logistic Support in the Cuban Missile Crisis

By Captain Alexander G. Monroe, USN (Ret.)
HRNM Docent and Contributing Writer

In the early evening of October 5th, 1962, Ensign Michael Mulford, Officer of the Deck (OOD) aboard USS Altair (AKS 32) set course for home, beginning a 12-day Atlantic crossing from Rota, Spain to the Naval Operating Base (NOB) at Norfolk, Virginia. After a brief preparation, Altair would sail to Boston for a periodic overhaul. The venerable ship had been permanently forward deployed to the Mediterranean since 1956, home ported at Barcelona, Spain and Naples, Italy. It returned to the United States only occasionally for periodic overhauls. On October 14th, at 2:20 A.M., three days before the ship reached Norfolk, Major Richard Heyser, USAF, left Edwards Air Force Base in a U-2 ”spy plane” for a photographic mission. Seven hours later, he overflew Cuba at 72,500 feet and made photographs of Soviet missile sites being constructed at San Cristobal. On October 16th, as Altair neared its destination, President John F. Kennedy and senior leaders were briefed at the White House on the unsettling news disclosed in photographs made during the overflight noted above.[i] When the discovery was announced by the President in a nationwide television address on October 22nd, it shocked United States citizens and the world. Now there was the possibility that Soviet forces could launch missile attacks against cities throughout the western hemisphere. The planned Boston overhaul for Altair and its crew was postponed. It would instead perform critically important duty in a watershed operation, the quarantine of Cuba, both to prevent further buildup and force the removal of the equipment surreptitiously introduced.

This map indicates the range of the missiles placed in Cuba. (Kennedy Presidential Library)
The ship was moored in Norfolk from the 17th until the 29th of October, and activities were generally uneventful.[ii] Apart from official deck log entries, other events occurred. Soon after arrival, Ensign Bob Rati and another officer went to supper and stopped at a bar outside gate two. As they had a beer, a Sailor entered and called out that Enterprise was, “recalling all crew members to the ship.” He remembered that the next morning, the ship was gone.[iii] Response to the Soviet steps was in motion, unbeknownst to most citizens. He noted a clear increase in activity. A nearby transport ship was embarking Marines, and he saw a submarine behind Altair proceeding seaward. He observed jet aircraft taking off in rapid succession headed in a southerly direction. Though not familiar with Norfolk operations, he noted that “this was surely a busy place.” It was announced by Press Secretary Pierre Salinger that President Kennedy would address the nation on a matter of national importance on live television.
USS Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. (DD 850) stops Lebanese freighter SS Marucla on October 26, 1962. No contraband was found, and Marucla was permitted to proceed to Cuba. (NHHC)
The remainder of the in port period was spent in loading cargo and otherwise preparing for deployment. Monday, October 29th was a clear, mild day in Norfolk with gentle winds from the west. At 10 A.M. the ship’s company began preparations for getting underway. About an hour later, Altair was underway for operations in accordance with Commander Service Force Atlantic Fleet Order 62-65 to carry out logistic support of a massive show of force to counter the bold, clandestine Soviet threat.[iv] During the initial portion of the trip, the crew conducted General Quarters and Abandon Ship drills.[v]

Altair reached Jacksonville on Halloween morning, negotiated St. John’s Channel and by 11:02 A.M. was moored to pier D-3 at Mayport Naval Station with other Atlantic Fleet Units. Activity increased with the November 7th arrival of a detachment of Helicopter Utility Squadron Four from NAS Lakehurst, New Jersey, with its aircraft. By 10:01 A.M. November 10th, Altair was underway from Mayport Naval Station to the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The transit was used, among other things, to practice helicopter operating procedures for Vertical Replenishment, known as VERTREP, a key aspect of logistic support.[vi] This portion of the cruise terminated at the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on November 13th, where the ship stopped briefly. Altair was to be a “one stop shop” for commodities other than black oil and ammunition, carried by other logistic support ships.

The Quarantine force was embarked in ships on the northern flank of Cuba, and Altair and other replenishment ships were positioned on the southern flank of the island where Bob Rati recalls that the first ship seen was USS Enterprise (CVN 65) and, “now we knew why she had left Norfolk in such a hurry.” Leaving Guantanamo, Altair reached Kingston, Jamaica, on the 14th, and after a short stop left for underway fleet operational support that began early on the 15th and continued at a high pace until October 18th. In this brief period, Altair replenished USS Enterprise, USS Independence (CVA 62), and USS Iwo Jima (LPH 2), 13 destroyer types, and 9 amphibious vessels. It steamed to Vieques on the east coast of Puerto Rico and replenished ships of Amphibious Squadron One, whose Commander was embarked in USS El Dorado (AGC 1). The upshot of the cruise was that the combatant units were sustained in a timely manner. The variety and home ports of the ships replenished demonstrate the power of the U.S. Navy response to the Soviet provocation.
Helicopter Utility Squadron Four (HU 4) hooks up a load to replenish Task Force ships, October 1962. (Courtesy of Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Stephen W. Woody, USN)
One situation, amusing in retrospect, that underscored Altair’s commitment to providing responsive customer service emerged. According to Bob Rati, there was "wardroom chatter that the amphibious transport ships had exhausted supplies of drink cups for soda vending machines." Moreover, "there were none in Altair stocks." There was some discussion of a course of action. The highest administrative message category, PRIORITY, was selected to seek support from CONUS (Continental United States), and a logistics flight was arranged to resolve the problem. The discussion reminded him of how dangerous the situation was. Rati remembers, “We were determined to deliver the supplies that were needed, including those drink cups.” It called for confirmation of the cups’ arrival, and he was selected to “do the confirming.”[vii] He went to a nearby amphibious transport, sat in a place where a drink machine was visible and watched it in action, dispensing sodas into the newly-arrived cups.
Altair's ship patch
With underway replenishment and VERTREP duties concluded, Altair left for San Juan, Puerto Rico, where it arrived on November 21st, one day after quarantine operations were suspended. The ship remained in port until November 23rd when at 8:49 A.M., it was underway to return to Norfolk. The transit was routine. Pilots met the ship on the morning of the 29th and brought it to the pier from which it had departed 30 days before.[viii] Altair remained in port for about the next 30 days. The period was routine, in preparation for the long-delayed overhaul.

In the log for the Midwatch of January 1, 1963, the Officer of the Deck, Master at Arms First Class B.R. Apple, lamented the plight of the onboard watch standers on New Year’s Eve/Day. After giving the required data in poetry, he noted that, “We’re sailing soon with liberty none, But when in Boston we’ll have our fun.”[ix]

One crewman, a Boiler Technician 3rd Class, perhaps anticipating the impending hijinks, got an early start and was brought back to the ship by the Shore Patrol “in a state of marked intoxication, without an ID or Liberty Card, loudly “cursing those who apprehended him.”[x] On January 2, 1963, at 7:07 A.M., Altair got underway for Boston, though the ship’s departure was slowed by ”removal and transfer of hand grenades to a Covered Lighter (YF) that came alongside.” Two days later by 8:09 A.M., Altair was moored to pier 1 of the Bethlehem Steel Company, ready to begin the long-delayed overhaul deferred by response the Cuban Missile Crisis, a situation of national importance and urgency.


Notes:
[i] Thirteen Days, A memoir of the Cuban missile crisis, Robert F. Kennedy, W.W. Norton and Company, New York/London, 1968, 1-8. This group was named “The Executive Committee.”
[ii] Deck Log, USS Altair (AKS 32), Midwatch, 0151 and following, Record Group 24: Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel 1798-2007, National Archives and Records Administration.
[iii] Letter of former Lieutenant (jg) Bob Rati, USN to the author dated March 13, 2021. The letter also refers to the general level of activity at the naval base.
[iv] Ibid. Deck Log, USS Altair (AKS 32), Forenoon watch, 1057, October 29, 1962
[v] Ibid. Deck Log, USS Altair (AKS 32), Afternoon watch, 1300-1332, October 29, 1962
[vi] Ibid. Deck Log, USS Altair (AKS 32), Forenoon and Afternoon watches, 0836-1220, November 11, 1962
[vii] See again, endnote vi above.
[viii]
Ibid. Deck Log, USS Altair (AKS 32), Forenoon watch, 0732-0744, November 29, 1962. At 0804 Lieutenant (jg) Long and other members of Detachment 90 of Helicopter Squadron Four departed the ship enroute to its home station.
[ix] The Officer of the Deck by tradition writes the first entry of the New Year in poetry. The portion of the Altair log is given exactly as it appears.
[x] Ibid. Deck Log, USS Altair (AKS 32), Midwatch, 0237, January 1, 1963

No comments: