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Some Aspects of the U.S. Navy's Participation
in the Cuban Missile Crisis
Jeffrey G. Barlow
Naval Historical Center

Before providing details on the Navy's participation in the missile crisis, I believe it is useful to provide some information on the backgrounds of several of the senior naval officers who were involved in these momentous events. Each had a vital role to play during the crisis.

Admiral George W. Anderson, Jr., had served as the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) since August 1961, having relieved the highly successful Admiral Arleigh Burke following his unprecedented six-year tour of duty as the Navy's senior uniformed leader. Anderson, a naval aviator, was known throughout the service as an outstanding planner, having served a number of important planning tours since the early days of World War II. He had been on General Eisenhower's Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) staff in the early days of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). During the mid-1950s, he had served as the Principal Assistant to Admiral Arthur Radford, the second Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Later, he went out to Hawa'ii as the Chief of Staff for the newly-reorganized Pacific Command. At the time of his selection as CNO, Anderson had been serving in the Mediterranean as Commander Sixth Fleet.

Admiral Robert L. Dennison, Commander in Chief, Atlantic and Atlantic Fleet and Supreme Allied Commander, Atlantic (CINCLANT/CINCLANTFLT/SACLANT) was a seasoned submariner who had assumed his current duties in February 1960. He was known as a "politically savvy" officer, in large part because of a lengthy tour he had served as President Truman's Naval Aide. Dennison also had served tours in the Office of the Chief of Naval operations as Director of the Strategic Plans Division and later as Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Plans and Policy.

Vice Admiral Alfred G. "Corky" Ward, Commander Second Fleet, was an experienced surface warfare officer. An electrical engineering postgraduate (PG), he had served for much of World War II in the Pacific as gunnery officer on the new battleship North Carolina. His postwar tours in command of destroyer and cruiser divisions and an amphibious squadron had suited him ably for his duty as Commander Amphibious Force, Atlantic Fleet (COMPHIBLANT)-the job which he was holding down in October 1962 when tapped for command of the Second Fleet.

Vice Admiral Horatio Rivero, Jr., Corky Ward's replacement as Commander Amphibious Force, Atlantic Fleet, was another highly-trained surface warfare officer. Like Ward, he was an electrical engineering PG. He fought through most of the Pacific war as gunnery officer in the light cruiser San Juan and then as gunnery officer and later executive officer in the new heavy cruiser Pittsburgh. His postwar career, which included several important nuclear weapons-related tours, culminated in his December 1960 assignment as Deputy Chief of Staff and Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans and Operations to the Commander in Chief, Atlantic Fleet. It was from this job that he moved to command the fleet's amphibious force, when Admiral Ward left to take over the Second Fleet.

The Atlantic Command, headquartered in Norfolk, Virginia, was a unified command reporting through the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the National Command Authorities. During 1962 its staff was integrated with the staff of the Atlantic Fleet, which was also commanded by Admiral Robert Dennison. On 1 October of that year, only its naval component-the Atlantic Fleet-was activated. Its Army and Air Force components remained inactive-their units being under the operational control of U.S. Strike Command (STRICOM) for training purposes.

At the time the crisis erupted, CINCLANT had three current contingency plans for operations against Cuba: operation plans (OPLANS) 312, 314, and 316. CINCLANT Contingency Operation Plan No. 312-62 was an air strike plan, providing for the rapid response of U.S. air power against Cuba from a no-warning condition if the need arose. It provided a variety of responses ranging from air strikes against a single Cuban target, such as a surface-to-air missile (SAM) site, to widespread air attacks throughout Cuba. As eventually modified during the missile crisis, the 312 plan was divided into three different categories of attack. Category I, code named FIRE HOSE, provided for the selective destruction of a SAM site (or sites) as directed by CINCLANT. CINCAFLANT-CINCLANT's Air Force component commander (General Walter C. "Cam" Sweeney, Jr., Commander Tactical Air Command (COMTAC)-was the target coordinator and would conduct operations using his own forces when directed. Category II, designated SHOE BLACK, provided for a wider selection of targets under limited operations prescribed by CINCLANT. Strike missions under SHOE BLACK were grouped by type, such as airfields, SAM sites, and missile complexes. Again CINCAFLANT was the target coordinator, but his forces for this enhanced level of effort included naval aircraft from the naval task force. The final category, code named SCABBARDS 312, was for the conduct of large-scale air strikes against Cuba.

CINCLANT Contingency Operation Plan No. 314-62 provided for joint military operations in Cuba by combined Navy, Air Force, and Army forces. The plan called for a simultaneous amphibious and airborne assault in the Havana area by a joint task force within eighteen days after receipt of the order to execute.

CINCLANT Contingency Operation Plan No. 316-62 was developed as a short-reaction version of plan 314, employing the same eventual forces envisaged for the other plan but set to commence five days after a decision to initiate was made. As finally modified on 17 October 1962, it was changed to a seven-day plan. It should be noted, however, that both OPLANS 314 and 316 were to be executed following the completion of plan 312's air strikes.

CINCLANT's actions related to the worsening strategic situation in the Caribbean in light of the continuing Soviet weapons buildup in Cuba began on 1 October 1962. Following a meeting that day between Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), Admiral Dennison notified the Commander in Chief, Atlantic Fleet and Commander in Chief, Air Forces, Atlantic that he desired responsible commanders "to take all feasible measures necessary to assure maximum readiness to execute CINCLANT OPLAN 312 by 20 October." The 312 plan was to be modified to incorporate many features of CINCAFLANT's plan designated ROCKPILE. Five days later, he directed increased readiness to execute the 314 and 316 plans, as well.

While this was occurring in Norfolk, Admiral George Anderson, the Chief of Naval Operations, was busily engaged in Washington with matters at the JCS level. Nonetheless, he continued to retain an active interest in all naval aspects of events in the Atlantic Command. For some time he had been less than overwhelmed by the ability of Vice Admiral John McNay Taylor, the Commander Second Fleet, and with events in Cuba shaping up as they were, Anderson decided to act. On 13 October, Taylor was ordered detached. Vice Admiral Alfred Ward, the Atlantic Fleet's amphibious force commander, was chosen to be his relief, but the press of events precluded giving him any warning of the impending change. As Admiral Ward later recalled:

I had an odd phone call from a staff captain on the staff of Admiral Dennison . . . This captain told me that I was to be relieved of my command the next day and I said, to whom am I talking, and he identified himself and I knew him. I said, well, what have I done wrong? And he said, "I don't know that." I said, "Who will relieve me?" and he said, "I don't know that." I said, "Well, I want to talk to Admiral Dennison." He said, "He's too busy, he can't talk to you."

An understandably concerned Corky Ward finally got through to Vice Admiral Wallace M. Beakley, Dennison's Deputy and Chief of Staff, who in several hurried phone conversations eventually let Ward know that he was not being relieved "for cause" but rather would be taking over the Second Fleet from Admiral Taylor. On 15 October, Vice Admiral Horacio Rivero, Jr., CINCLANTFLT's Deputy Chief of Staff, relieved Admiral Ward as COMPHIBFORLANT. Five days later, Ward, in turn, relieved Taylor as Commander Second Fleet (COMSECONDFLT).

On 16 October, Admiral Dennison designated General Herbert B. Powell, Commanding General Continental Army Command (CONARC) as the interim Army Component Commander, Atlantic (COMARLANT) in place of Lieutenant General Hamilton Howze, Commanding General XVIII Airborne Corps. Two days later, CINCLANT's Army and Air Force component commands were declared fully active. On 19 October, Dennison decided to create a Cuban Contingency staff under Army Lieutenant General Louis H. Truman, the commander of Joint Task Force 4. Upon relief from his existing assignment, Truman reported in the next day as CINCLANT's Chief of Staff for Cuban Contingency Operations. The special staff set up under Truman's control eventually reached a strength of 113 officers and 69 enlisted personnel.

In Washington on 20 October, Secretary McNamara directed Admiral Anderson to prepare the position and policy papers, scenario, and implementing instructions for a limited blockade of Cuba. In a similar fashion, he assigned Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis E. LeMay oversight responsibilities over the air strike option. As Admiral Anderson recalled, "McNamara called me up and said, 'The President wants you to run the blockade-the quarantine-(and) he wants LeMay to run the [aerial] reconnaissance'."

In furtherance of his newly-augmented responsibilities, Anderson set up a round-the-clock watch in his office, utilizing Admiral Claude V. Ricketts, the Vice Chief of Naval Operations, Vice Admiral Charles D. Griffin, Deputy Chief of Staff for Fleet Operations and Readiness, and (initially) Vice Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp, Jr., Deputy Chief of Operations for Plans and Policy, to act in his absence while he was busy with his JCS responsibilities in connection with the Cuban crisis. He remarked:

I then put [the] three senior, most experienced officers I had on a . . . heel-and-toe watch basis in my office, to supervise everything that went on-with two objectives: first, to make sure that the President and the Secretary of Defense were informed-kept fully informed on all particulars of . . . anything we should have; and secondly, to prevent any civilian encroachment on military operations-[to] maintain the military chain of command. Because prior to that, I'd had a small, annoying situation where the Deputy- Secretary of Defense had ordered a squadron of our carrier fighters, which we needed-our best F-4 fighters-from one of the carriers, down to Key West for air defense purposes. Which I objected to, and I objected to it in principle and I objected to it in the way it was being done-by him giving the directive rather than going through the [Joint] Chiefs of Staff and the Chief of [Naval Operations].

On the evening of 21 October, in anticipation of the blockade of Cuba, CINCLANTFLT issued OP Order 45-62 designating Commander Second Fleet as the Quarantine Force Commander and Commander Task Force (CTF) 136. Commander Antisubmarine Warfare Force, Atlantic (COMASWFORLANT)-Vice Admiral Edmund B. "Whitey" Taylor-in his capacity as CTF 81-83, was directed to conduct air surveillance as requested by the Commander Quarantine Force. The following day, COMSECONDFLT issued OP Order 1-62 establishing Task Force 136 with himself as task force commander.

Quarantine Forces

As established, CTF 136 consisted of three task groups: CTG 136.1, CTG 136.2, and CTG 136.3. CTG 136.1-commanded by Commander Cruiser-Destroyer Flotilla 6 (Rear Admiral John W. Ailes, III)-was composed of two cruisers (Newport News and Canberra), two guided missile destroyer leaders, two guided missile destroyers, two radar picket destroyers, one antisubmarine destroyer, and nine destroyers. CTG 136.2-commanded by Commander Carrier Division 18 (Rear Admiral Ernest E. Christensen)-was composed of one antisubmarine aircraft carrier (Essex) and four destroyers. CTG 136.3, the Mobile Logistic Support Group-commanded by the Commanding Officer of Elokomin, Captain W. O. Spears, Jr.,-consisted of two oilers, an ammunition ship, and two destroyers. In addition to the naval forces assigned to the task groups, a few destroyer-type ships assigned to the Commander Key West Force and Commander Caribbean Sea Frontier participated in quarantine operations on an intermittent basis, due to their relative proximity to the geographic areas of interest.

The ships of TG 136.1 initially were given stations on an arc of 5,00 miles from Cape Maisi (the easternmost point of Cuba) extending from latitude 27-30N, longitude 70-00W to latitude 20- 00N, longitude 65-00W. Each sector was separated by 47 miles. These stations were assigned the prefix code name WALNUT. The line was situated to cover the probable approaches from Europe to Cuba and the routes regularly used by Communist Bloc shipping.

As established on 24 October, the quarantine line was backed up on its northern end by Canberra (Rear Admiral John W. Ailes, III, Surface Group Commander, embarked) and two destroyers and on its southern end by Newport News (Admiral Ward's flagship) and two destroyers. TG 136.2-Rear Admiral Christensen's ASW Hunter Killer (HUK) group-was stationed west of the general center of the line. Its aircraft were able to provide air surveillance north and west of the line, including the open area between the line's northern terminus and the coast of Florida. TG 136.3-Spears' Mobile Logistic Support Group-operated as necessary to replenish the ships on station.

Additional air surveillance for the quarantine was provided by Navy patrol aircraft operating from such widely separated points as Argentia, Nova Scotia, Patuxent River, Maryland, Norfolk, Virginia, Jacksonville, Florida, Bermuda, Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico, Guantanamo Naval Base, Cuba, and the Azores. The Air Force also furnished aircraft to augment the Navy's efforts. Six Air Force RB-47s and four RB-50s participated in the air surveillance during the first week of the search efforts. Thereafter, the four RB-50s continued operating from the Azores in support of the quarantine.

During the first days of crisis operations, U.S. air surveillance revealed that the Cuban Air Force was in a poor state of readiness to launch an attack against the ships on the quarantine line. Accordingly, in order to improve the quarantine's effectiveness while reducing ship requirements, on 30-31 October the line was readjusted closer to Cuba but seaward of the Bahamas chain. The smaller number of stations involved were designated with the new prefix code named CHESTNUT.

Overall, the quarantine was divided into three phases. During the first phase, lasting from the initiation of the quarantine on 24 October through 4 November, merchant ships inbound to and outbound from Cuba were located, identified, intercepted, trailed, and, in one instance, stopped and boarded. In the period up through 28 October, five merchant ships inbound for Cuba were designated suspect ships. However, only one of these-the Lebanese-flag freighter Marucla-was eventually boarded (on 26 October).

During the second phase of the quarantine, which lasted from 5 to 11 November and covered the withdrawal of the Soviet offensive missiles from Cuba, CINCLANTFLT promulgated the prefix code name SCOTCH TAPE to designate merchant ships thought to be carrying the outgoing offensive weapon systems. During this phase, eleven SCOTCH TAPE ships were observed outbound from Cuba. Aerial and surface surveillance identified and provided verification of the cargoes of the nine Soviet ships that took the medium and intermediate range missiles back to the Soviet Union.

The third and final phase of the quarantine lasted from 11 November until 21 November, when Task Force 136 was dissolved. Although during this period some additional ships were trailed and six of these ships were designated as being of special interest, no further offensive weapons were detected on the ships which were intercepted or photographed.

Overall, the quarantine proved a major task. An average of 46 ships, 240 aircraft, and some 30,000 personnel were involved directly in the effort to locate ships inbound for and outbound from Cuba during the crisis. The search aircraft involved provided over 200 ship sightings of interest to the personnel of Quarantine Plot in Norfolk. This is in contrast to only 50 sightings provided by ships employed in the quarantine. Indeed, the majority of merchant ships intercepted were first sighted by aircraft. Task Force 136 ships were then vectored for a surface interception.

Attack Carrier Striking Force

The first component of the force which was to become Task Force 135 deployed from Norfolk on 11 October to operate in or south of the Mayport, Florida, area to reduce reaction time in the event of operations in the Caribbean. When it sailed that day, the carrier Independence, with Commander Carrier Division (COMCARDIV) 6 (Rear Admiral Robert J. Stroh) embarked, was accompanied by four destroyers. On 19 October the carrier Enterprise was directed to get underway and proceed south as well. Having just returned a few days before from a European deployment, Enterprise, with COMCARDIV 2 (Rear Admiral John T. Hayward) embarked, hurriedly put to sea. Destroyers were directed to rendezvous with the carrier at sea.

As eventually formed, TF 135 consisted of Independence with Carrier Air Group 7, Enterprise with Carrier Air Group 6, two destroyer squadrons, an oiler, an ammunition ship, and a Marine air group (consisting of 2 attack squadrons and a fighter squadron) shore-based at Roosevelt Roads. Rear Admiral Stroh was initially designated the task force commander.

On 20 October, CINCLANT issued OP Order 43-62. This provided the basis for naval actions in support of OPLAN 312-the air strike plan. Upon execution of the plan, TF 135 was to strike assigned targets in Cuba and to provide air defense and close air support for the Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay. Later that day CINCLANT directed COMCARDIVs 2 and 6 to move into position as soon as possible for execution of plan 312 and to advise him of their estimated time of arrival at aircraft launch points.

On 21 October, TF 135 arrived in the best position for possible launch of air strikes against Cuba. It was then operating in waters north of the island. The following day CTF 135 reported that he was capable of striking all assigned targets and that he was maintaining position to have his first aircraft on target within three hours after the order to execute had been given. Later that day, Task Force 135 moved to waters located to the south of Cuba in order to afford better ASW protection for itself.

On 24 October, CINCLANTFLT directed the CHOP (turnover of operational control) to CTF 135 of the forces provided in his OP Order 43-62. At this time, COMCARDIV 2, Rear Admiral Hayward, became CTF 135. Two days later, because of a possible submarine contact, TF 135 moved to waters south of Jamaica. The operating area was later moved again, in light of increasing submarine activity, to the shallow waters south and southwest of Jamaica.

Although the task force was not called upon to conduct the anticipated air strikes on Cuba, it remained ready to respond rapidly to changes in the existing situation throughout November 1962 and into December. By the time Task Force 135 was finally dissolved in mid-December, its ships and aircraft had accumulated many hours at sea in readiness for its missions.

ASW Force Operations

As early as 13 October 1962, the Atlantic Fleet had been alerted to the strong possibility of Soviet submarine activity in the Western Atlantic, when the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS) tanker Yerkon reported sighting a surfaced submarine 130 miles north of Caracas, Venezuela. Following this sighting, the Soviet electronics intelligence (ELINT) trawler Shkval, which was operating in the Western Atlantic, was located by patrol aircraft and kept under surveillance to observe any Soviet submarine attempting to replenish from her. The sudden appearance in the Western Atlantic of the Soviet oiler Terek on 18 October similarly took on importance because of the likelihood that she would be used to replenish Soviet submarines as necessary. Accordingly, she was kept under very careful surveillance during the crisis.

On 20 October, Navy patrol aircraft were dispatched to Lajes in the Azores to provide open-ocean surveillance for Communist Bloc shipping and submarines. The following day, Terek was observed northwest of the Azores dead in the water. On 22 October, patrol aircraft operating from Lajes discovered a Soviet Zulu-class submarine being refueling from the stern of Terek. At 2300 that night, Defense Condition (DEFCON) 3 was set by the National Command Authorities. In connection with this increased level of alert, Vice Admiral Taylor, COMASWFORLANT, began preparations for more active military measures, including possible activation of the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (G-I-UK) ASW barrier.

On 24 October, COMASWFORLANT established the Argentia Sub-Air Barrier to detect submarine activity as far forward as possible. Seventeen patrol aircraft and ten submarines, assisted by Canadian forces, participated in the barrier operation that followed. That same day, CINCLANTFLT advised that at least three known Soviet submarines were operating in the North Atlantic. These, and perhaps others, could reach the quarantine line within a few days and could pose a substantial threat to the quarantine force. Accordingly, ASW patrolling was stepped up.

Because of increases in requirements for open ocean surveillance and ASW in support of the quarantine line, on 27 October, Admiral Taylor requested that the Canadian Commander Maritime Atlantic (CANCOMARLANT) take the Quonset ASW area under surveillance. During the following days of the crisis, the infusion of additional air strength provided by Canadian Argus aircraft allowed adequate coverage of the Western Atlantic, despite the heavy ASW commitments in the Caribbean.

In all during the missile crisis, U.S. Navy ASW forces prosecuted 29 submarine contacts. Of these, six were determined to be positive submarines. The most exhausting ASW prosecution of the period ended on 31 October, when a submerged Soviet Foxtrot-class submarine was forced to surface following 35 hours of continuous sonar contact by ASW units. The Argentia Sub-Air Barrier was finally disestablished on 13 November.

Amphibious Force Operations

On 15 October 1962, the Amphibious Force Atlantic was preparing to take part in Amphibious Brigade Landing Exercise 1962 (PHIBRIGLEX 62)-a three Battalion Landing Team (BLT) exercise by the 4th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) scheduled to take place from 22 to 25 October at Vieques Island, Puerto Rico. The next day, Vice Admiral Rivero, COMPHIBLANT, sailed for the Caribbean in the command ship Mount McKinley, as Commander Task Force 144 for the exercise. One amphibious squadron (PHIBRON 8) with Marine BLT BLT 2/2 embarked was already in the Caribbean at this time.

By 20 October, the readiness posture of PHIBLANT had been oriented toward combat preparedness, and scheduled training exercises had been cancelled. Admiral Rivero assumed direct operational control of PHIBRON 8 and ordered it to proceed at best speed to the Guantanamo operating area.

On 22 October, COMPHIBLANT was in position in the Caribbean, even as the bulk of his forces were being loaded out. That day, PHIBRON 8 was offloading BLT 2/2 at Guantanamo and preparing to evacuate dependents; PHIBRON 6 with a BLT embarked was enroute south; PHIBRON 10 was beginning to outload BLT 3/8; the Sandoval unit, serving as PHIBRON 2 and providing lift for another BLT, was ready to sail when loading ports were clear; and PHIBGRU (Amphibious Group) 4 with Movement Unit Alfa (4th MEB) and PHIBRON 12 were in position in the Caribbean. Two days later, virtually all PHIBLANT ships were either combat loaded or en route to loading ports. That same day, the Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered the 5th MEB (to be composed of four BLT) from the Fleet Marine Force, Pacific (FMFPAC) to be loaded out and sailed as soon as possible for the Atlantic. This was accomplished under Rear Admiral Nels C. Johnson, COMPHIBGRU 3.

On 23 October, following the setting of DEFCON 3, Lieutenant General Robert B. Luckey, the Commanding General Fleet Marine Force, Atlantic (FMFLANT) was directed to embark the remainder of the 2d Marine Division as shipping became available. Having done this, he activated the II Marine Expeditionary Force (II MEF) and reported to COMPHIBLANT for embarkation as its commanding general.

A week later, on 30 October, CINCLANTFLT partially approved Admiral Rivero's request to activate Amphibious Task Force 128, which was the organization called for in CINCLANT's OPLAN 316-62. That same day, PHIBGRU 3, with the 5th MEB embarked, was en route to the Panama Canal. By 2 November, all PHIBLANT units assigned to the Cuban operation were loaded and had been formed into the Task Force 44 organization. On 5 November, PHIBGRU 3 began transiting the Panama Canal. Three days later, its transit was complete, and the nearly 11,000 Marines and Navy personnel of the 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade were ready for employment by COMPHIBLANT. The following day, 9 November, COMPHIBLANT activated Task Force 128.

Admiral Rivero authorized COMPHIBGRU 4 to conduct a full-scale landing exercise at Onslow Beach, North Carolina on 16 November 1962. That day marked the high point of amphibious force participation in the Cuban crisis. In the largest amphibious landing exercise conducted in almost twenty years, PHIBGRU 4 landed six Marine BLTs at Onslow-four by boat and two by helicopter-with almost split-second timing. This remarkably successful exercise provided a demonstration of PHIBLANT's readiness to carry out its assigned missions under OPLAN 316-62.


With the crisis winding down, on 28 November, CINCLANTFLT set DEFCON 5 in the fleet, with the exception of Guantanamo Naval Base and Task Force 135 (the carrier striking force). Within a few hours, COMPHIBGRU 3 was ordered to sail for the Pacific upon completion of loading, and COMPHIBLANT was directed to return the II MEF to home stations. On 6 December, DEFCON 5 was set for all LANTFLT forces. That same day, Task Force 128, the largest amphibious force the Atlantic Fleet had seen in a generation-86 ships (58 amphibious ships) and over 40,000 personnel-was dissolved, and all of its ships reverted to normal operational control.

The Navy's role in the Cuban Missile Crisis was a substantial one. It provided the most visible portion of the U.S. conventional forces which served to underscore the firmness of the United States' decision that the Soviet offensive missiles would be withdrawn from Cuban territory, one way or another. If the United States had been forced to attack the missile sites and invade Cuba, there is little doubt that the Navy, Marine, Army, and Air Force units employed by CINCLANT would have accomplished the job with thorough professionalism and dispatch.

A Note About Sources

The materials used for this paper included sanitized or declassified reports by CINCLANT and CINCLANTFLT of operations during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the author's 1977 taped interviews with Admiral Anderson and Admiral Dennison, and the U.S. Naval Institute's oral histories of Admirals Anderson, Dennison, Ward, and Rivero (the last of which was used with the admiral's specific permission).

22 September 2003