Cuban Missile Crisis in the Pacific
by Nick T. Spark
During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the Regulus submarines (based in Pearl Harbor) went on high alert. This included Tunny and Barbero, which were on station, and the Grayback, which had been deployed to relieve them. The Growler, which was in Pearl Harbor at the outbreak of the crisis, remained there. Simply put, its limited speed precluded a rapid deployment to an attack position in the North Pacific. Halibut was also waylaid. It had been en route to Mare Island for a reactor inspection, and could not possibly reach the front lines in time to be of any use.
Between the three boats on station, a total of eight Regulus missiles were made available within striking distance of enemy positions during this critical moment. In many ways, the Cuban Missile Crisis represented the high water mark for the Regulus submarine crews. They had endured extraordinary punishments to keep their boats in fighting condition, and now their services were desperately needed by their nation. There could be no more important moment, and the crews of all three boats on station came through brilliantly.
It was a tricky business. To keep in range of targets in the Northern Pacific, the boats had to stay within 3-500 miles of the USSR — well within waters patrolled by the Soviets. Although details of their attack profile remain classified, it is likely that the Regulus boats would have hit vital installations along the Kamchatka Peninsula, effectively decapitating the Soviet Pacific Fleet at the outset of hostilities. Some have speculated that owing to their proximity to the USSR, had war broken out at that time, the first American nuclear warhead to strike a target would have been a Regulus W27.
It is extremely important to note that, even during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States would *never* have fired a nuclear weapon in a first strike. American policy was at that time, and remains today, that nuclear weapons should only be used in response to an enemy atomic attack. Thus while the danger of a nuclear war that October was as fearsome as ever in human history, the United States would only have resorted to that option as an absolute last resort. As one veteran explained, the idea of launching the nuclear-armed Regulus at the Soviet Union did not in some respects require much thought, simply because the order to do so indicated that the Soviets had already launched their own weapons. Considering that Pearl Harbor — where the Regulus submarine crews’ wives and children lived — was a primary target, this would have been an act of personal vengeance.
Bill Gunn, who served on Grayback, recalls the Cuban Missile Crisis this way:
In October 1962, we were on station and we got a message which increased our alert status to the highest alert status there is. And we were getting amplifying messages explaining why and what was happening. They put us on maximum alert. We checked out all four missiles. Put power on all the birds. We went to battle stations torpedo, checked out our fire control and torpedo firing circuits. We went to battle stations missile, and checked out all the missiles. Then we remained on alert for about the next two weeks, ready to shoot. We were always in communication — an SSG on patrol always had to maintain 100% communication so that we could receive a message from the National Military Command and Control Authority if the President said “Employ Weapons”. And for the next 14 days we were never off-line for a second, waiting for the message to shoot. We had a very somber crew. There was a lot of speculation, and introspection. And you know we had the feeling that this is what we are supposed to do, and this is it, and we are here, and if it happens we are the people who are going to execute it.
When the Regulus boats stood down from alert, the relief was palpable. And when Grayback returned to Pearl Harbor, a special honor was reserved for it. Again, Bill Gunn remembers:
Normally, when you came back off patrol you were met by a senior officer who boards the boat and then rides it in. This particular time there was a line of submarines waiting to get into Pearl Harbor and they designated Grayback as the lead submarine. We were going to be the first submarine in, and we were boarded by COMSUBPAC himself. And he said, “Atta boy you guys! This is why you are in commission. You did it! Thanks and well done.” And he went up on the bridge with the Commanding Officer, Joe Ekelund, and rode the boat in.
By the way, the Chief of Staff looked up and saw we were flying a tattered, not tattered but a repaired and restored 48-star flag. And he looked at the flag and said, “Why are you flying those colors?” And I told him that they were the battle colors of the original USS Grayback, SS-208, which had been sunk by the Japanese. Before her last patrol, the captain had given them to the chief quartermaster, who had brought them home. When Grayback SSG-574 went into commission, his family sent the colors to Grayback. It was the ship’s intention, if we ever were going to battle surface to launch missiles, we were going to fly the original Grayback’s battle colors when we launched. Admiral McGarr thought that was pretty neat.
Two years after the Crisis, the Halibut made the last Regulus deterrent patrol. The boats were gone, but not forgotten. In honor of their bold duty, a memorial plaque and Regulus missile were placed at Pearl Harbor, where they remain today.
Another account of the Cuban Missile Crisis comes to us from Jerry E. Beckley, who also served aboard the Grayback in 1962. He later served aboard both Halibut and Barbero. This article, which provides a first-hand impression of the SSG era, originally appeared in American Submariner in 2001 and is reprinted with permission of the author.
A Few Days in October
By Jerry E. Beckley, Chief Surface Ordnance Technician, CWO-4, USN (Ret)
I had originally departed Subase Pearl Harbor in 1959 after a two year tour at Guided Missile Unit #90 (the predecessor of GMU-10) as a Gunners Mate Second Class (Submarine Service). I was headed for Nuclear Weapons School. While doing my tour in Nevada, I was frequently asked the question, “What is a sailor, and more especially a submarine sailor doing in the desert anyway?” I’d usually reply, “We are building a submarine in Lake Mead and will float it down the Colorado River”. Some bought the response, others didn’t. It wasn’t much of a cover story, but it was all I could come up with to distract from the distinctive insignia of rate I wore – a bomb dropping through a helium atom. The “crow” attracted so much attention that the rate was changed in 1961 to Gunner’s Mate Technician (GMT1), and the insignia changed to crossed guns.
Anyway, when I returned to Pearl, I soon became a member of the very restricted and unique group of warhead technicians who rode the “Reg boats” (Regulus Submarines). These were the people who, in time of war, would arm the warheads in keeping with the “Two Man Rule.” This protocol simply stated that “Two men of equal knowledge, each capable of detecting an unauthorized act by the other”, must be within proximity of the nuclear weapons at all times. And to arm the weapon, both would have to turn the switch. (To launch a Regulus, the Captain would also have to turn a key located on a separate console – this was an added failsafe).
I was assigned duty aboard the USS Grayback (SSG-574) in August 1962. Even though I was a former crew member of a conventional, hangar-equipped submarine (USS Perch ASSP-313) and familiar with the GUPPY conversion boats, still I wasn’t prepared for what I saw tied up at the Sierra Piers. This was the ugliest submarine I had ever laid eyes on. For those who never saw USS Grayback or her sister ship USS Growler (SSG-377), imagine two grain silos secured side by side with the domes facing aft on the forward deck, about twenty feet forward of the sail of a Swordfish Class submarine. The large forward superstructure was designed to cover two missile hangers, each capable of storing two Regulus I missiles, or one Regulus II. The Regulus I was a transonic cruise missile powered by J-33A turbojet engine. It was capable of delivering a thermonuclear warhead to a target 500 miles distant at a speed of 550 knots.
The ugliness of the Grayback notwithstanding this boat, and the other four Regulus subs, were the only submarine Nuclear Deterrent Strike Force in the Pacific Fleet. Polaris was not yet a reality in the Pacific. The Soviet submarine fleet sailed from a warm water port to cover targets in Hawaii, Japan, Philippines, and the Continental United States without anyone – other than us that is – threatening their front door. In fact, in 1962 submarines had not yet received the MK 45 ASTOR Torpedo, and SUBROC was still on the drawing board. So there was very little except a lot of ocean between the guys wearing white hats and those wearing black hats!
The diesel Reg boats carried 120% crew. We dubbed ourselves the “Black and Blue Crew” (as opposed to the Polaris boats’ rotating “Blue and Gold Crews”) because we didn’t rotate and had a never-ending stream of responsibilities, maintenance and otherwise. When we deployed, we always tried to leave a few selected people at home. The selected people were crew members with emergencies or schools, or any manner of problems that could have been impacted by their absence.
There were also those who would never be part of the stay-at-home crew, and I was one of them. The Captain explained that to me as soon as I was introduced to him. During a short conversation with LCDR John J. Ekelund, he mentioned the 120% and the stay-in crew. Then he also told me that anytime Grayback got underway with Blue Birds (tactical missiles) aboard, that he, the Warhead Officer, the cook, and the Hospital Corpsmen and myself would be on board under any and all circumstances. The Warhead Officer and I were joined at the hip as far as the “Two Man Rule” was concerned.
There was no doubt in my military mind that this was going to be “long and arduous sea duty”, because from what I could tell we would no sooner get into port, have a short refit, shoot Red Birds (Fleet Training Missiles), before we’d deploy again. I found out that the average in-port period for a Reg boat was around three months, and during our deployments we’d have to travel to some pretty severe parts of the world. The voyages could last months especially if another boat broke down, a situation which might necessitate a “back to back out of Adak” – a trip to the refueling base at Adak, Alaska and then right back to the teeth of the deployment zone.
A few weeks after reporting aboard, I was notified that I would be interviewed for the Personnel Reliability Program (PRP), which was really a screening process for those of us who had responsibilities for the missiles and warheads. I was called into the Wardroom with the CO,XO, Missile Division Officer, and COB. These folks comprised the PRP screening process. Considering I was the only person authorized to make up the Two-Man-Rule with the Warhead Officer, I was asked questions pertaining to how I felt about the mass destruction and death a nuclear detonation would bring to the population of our target area. My response was simply that when I was in the Army during the Korean War as an Infantryman, death was individualized and personal. But in wartime it makes little difference if you kill one or a million. One must keep it in perspective. They seemed to be satisfied. So, I was now part of the Grayback PRP.
On 7 October 1962, after a refit and missile training, we slipped our moorings at pier S-9 and headed out for my first, and Grayback‘s sixth deterrent missile patrol. We had only been on station a short period when again I was called into the Wardroom with the same folks who were present for the PRP screening. This time the Captain and XO were a little more stern faced than before, and for what I was soon to learn, good reason. The Steward was asked to step out of the Forward Battery and both hatches were put on the latch – closed but not secured.
Captain Ekelund stated that we had received a message that the Defense Posture had increased to Defense Condition 2 (DEFCON 5 was normal), and he was going to open the sealed Emergency War Orders. The content of those orders, which for the sake of the security oath I swore as far back as the 1950s and ’60s, as well as the one I still serve under, will not be revealed by me. I will say that some of them were directed to the Warhead Officer and myself. We were to prepare the nuclear warheads for arming, and if necessary, missile launch. My task was to remove over 60 Phillips-head screws securing an access panel on the underside of each of the four Regulus missiles, exposing the front of the W-27 Warhead where the High Voltage Thermal Battery (HVTB) Pack was bolted in the inverted (stored) position. This was part of the failsafe safety mechanism. I then removed the four bolts securing the HVTB, turned the battery around to the “potential use position”, reinstalled it and torqued the bolts. After doing this, we were ready for the next order. Fortunately when it came, it wasn’t a launch order. Instead the next day, thankfully, we were told to relax the DEFCON and restore the warheads to their War Reserve (Safe) condition.
Few people alive today have a full appreciation for how close this country (and the Soviet Union for that matter) came to what was later to be coined Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). In addition, few people, except for those of us who rode those old Regulus submarines – some of which were literally held together with baling wire and prayers – have a full appreciation for the sacrifices made by these Silent Service officers and men, whose usual patrol period was 90+ days, and occasionally, a “Back-To-Back-Out-Of-Adak”.
About the author CWO Beckley qualified in fleet snorkel submarines in 1954 as one of the last Gunner’s Mates to be accepted into the Submarine Service. He served in USS Perch (ASSP-313) and at Guided Missile Unit #90. In 1959 he converted to Nuclear Weaponsman and served onboard USS Grayback (SSG-574), USS Barbero (SSG-317), and USS Halibut (SSG(N)-587). Upon appointment to Warrant Officer, he served as Special Weapons Officer aboard USS Hunley (AS-31), and as Weapons and Diving Officer at Norfolk Naval Shipyard. After retirement from the U.S. Navy, Mr. Beckley was employed at the Polaris Missile Facility, Atlantic as a Management Analyst and served in the Cruise Missiles Program in Washington, D.C. as the Assistant Program Manager, Logistics, Submarine Launched TOMAHAWK Cruise Missiles until his retirement from Federal Civil Service in 1988. As a Government Contractor, he was employed as a Senior Acquisition Logistics Engineer with OASN(RDA) at the Washington Navy Yard until his final retirement to a small town in southern Virginia where they have never seen an anchor.