Chapel Talk: George Entin '56 shares a first-hand experience as a naval lieutenant during the Cuban Missile Crisis

George Entin '56 entered Peddie in 1948 as a fifth-grader, and went on to serve as a Lieutenant Junior Grade (LTJG) in the U.S. Navy. He recently returned to campus to share his experience during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Now I realize that not too many of you were even born at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, nor were the parents of nearly all you students. But we’re not talking ancient history here. I was a LTJG in the navy, 24 years old at the time, and now I’m a grandfather, so I’m sure your grandparents would remember this time and call it “modern history.”

The Cuban Missile Crisis was a very tense period in October 1962 and the closest the United States and Soviet Union ever came to creating a nuclear Holocaust. It was the apex of the cold war which started right after the second world war and lasted until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. To understand how the missile crisis evolved, there were several major events leading up to it. The first one was in May, 1960 when the Soviets shot down a U-2 spy plane deep in Soviet territory, captured the CIA pilot (who had bailed out), salvaged the plane’s wreckage, and recovered the U-2’s reconnaissance equipment and photos taken on the spy mission. To make matters worse, Dwight Eisenhower, in his last year as president, unaware the Soviets had the plane and the pilot, denied that there was any espionage involved and claimed the purpose of the flight was for “weather research.”

The timing of this incident wasn’t particularly good because it really put the kabash on the Paris Summit held later that month when Nikita Krushchev, the Soviet premier, stormed out of the summit meeting with world leaders during negotiations to ban nuclear weapons.
And then there was the Soviet construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 - an ominous move by the Soviets.

Another major event was the huge Soviet flap over the deployment of U.S. missiles in Italy and Turkey. Krushchev, never short on drama, had a major hissy fit when he discovered the missiles were all aimed at the Soviet Union. The man had no sense of humor! Meanwhile, back in the western hemisphere, the Cuban revolution had just ended when Fidel Castro and his buddy, Che Guevara, led the overthrow of the Batista regime and took control of the country in February 1959. Fidel Castro was a lawyer, philosopher, and a big fan of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin. The Eisenhower administration, realizing the direction Castro was headed, became increasingly concerned about his communist ideology and his “coziness” with Khrushchev and the Soviet Union. So, Eisenhower, convinced that Castro’s rise to power was a threat to western democracy and a violation of the Monroe doctrine, authorized the CIA to recruit and train 1,500 Cuban exiles to invade Cuba and overthrow the Castro regime. While all this was going on, we were in the middle of the 1960 presidential campaign between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Kennedy was elected in November 1960, but wasn’t briefed on the details of the planned invasion until after his inauguration in January 1961. Although skeptical, the new president approved the final plans for the invasion and took responsibility for its eventual outcome.

Known as the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, the poorly planned and poorly coordinated effort failed miserably in just three days – because Castro and the Cuban army knew they were coming! Apparently, not all the 1,500 Cuban exiles could keep a secret!! Well, this debacle seriously embarrassed the U.S. and emboldened Castro and the Soviets. Kennedy, obviously, was furious with the CIA. Perceiving Kennedy as weak, Khrushchev then, concerned about the missile gap with the U.S. and the vulnerability it posed for the Soviet Union, and Castro, afraid the US would try to invade Cuba again, both agreed to proceed with the installation of Soviet missile sites on the island of Cuba, just 90 miles from Key West, Florida - a bold strategic move by Khrushchev and a key defensive move by Castro.

All these geo-political events set the stage for a frightening escalation of the Cold War.
Well, the U.S. had no plan in place to defend against such a deadly threat, because no one in the U.S. intelligence community thought the Soviets would ever install nuclear weapons in Cuba. And, ironically, during the summer of 1962 when the missile build-up was going on, U-2 flights had been suspended over Cuba because we knew the Soviets had the capability to shoot down U-2’s flying at 70,000 feet - but when a Navy reconnaissance aircraft spotted a Soviet cargo ship headed to Cuba carrying crated Soviet bombers and missile equipment, u-2 flights resumed immediately in early October and reconnaissance photos subsequently confirmed that four medium-range missile sites were already operational and pointed north.

In reaction, Kennedy urgently convened meetings with the joint chiefs of staff and his closest advisers. After days of deliberation, they came up with three options: A full-force invasion, an air attack on all missile sites, or a naval blockade to stop further transport of Soviet ships to Cuba. The joint chiefs favored the full-force invasion because they’d get “two-for-one” in the destruction of the missile sites and removal of the Castro regime. Kennedy, to his credit, chose the blockade so he could buy some time for negotiations with Khrushchev.

On October 22nd at 7:00 p.m., Kennedy addressed the nation on TV and stated that there would be a full retaliatory response against the Soviet Union if the missiles were not removed. During the speech, the entire U.S. military was put on alert and the DEFCON level was raised from 4 to 3. Well, the Soviets weren’t budging because they thought Kennedy was bluffing, so the U.S. requested an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council where the Soviet ambassador ignored the U.S. ambassador’s challenge about the missile installations in Cuba. The next day the U.S. raised the security level to DEFCON 2, the highest in U.S. history and the last level before nuclear war.

On a personal note, my squadron had just returned from a 6-month deployment to the Mediterranean with the sixth fleet, so we hadn’t paid too much attention to what was going on in Cuba. But, right after Kennedy’s speech, that changed in a hurry, when we were ordered without delay, to fly to Boca Chica naval air station in Key West along with countless other navy squadrons and air force attack wings. In the days that followed, huge amounts of armaments were brought in, and I remember bombs being stacked high on both sides of the active runways. At DEFCON 2, air force B-52 bombers in other parts of the U.S. were on 15-minute alert, already airborne and armed with nuclear warheads - ready to launch an attack on the Soviet Union. In Key West, the navy and air force were flying round-the-clock fully armed – awaiting orders to strike Cuba. 

At the same time, tense negotiations continued for 6 nerve-wracking days between Kennedy and Krushchev, but when Khrushchev became aware of the overwhelming retaliatory force put in place by the U.S., he realized he had seriously underestimated Kennedy and stood down - agreeing to remove the missiles from Cuba provided the U.S. would remove its missiles from Turkey and Italy and declare never to invade Cuba. With nuclear war averted, the crisis officially ended on November 20, 1962. While the missiles were being removed in early November, Kennedy visited Key West and had his motorcade stop in front of each squadron and air wing (all of us standing at attention to greet the president) - a classy gesture by Kennedy and a memorable moment for all of us who were there. One historian claimed that, had a nuclear war broken out, there would have been over 200 million deaths in Cuba, the U.S., and the Soviet Union – a chilling thought!

In closing, I want to reference President Kennedy’s famous quote during his inaugural
address in January 1961 when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” To you students, I urge you to always be conscious of how much Peddie offers you and how fortunate you are to be here so that in years to come, you will ask yourselves what you can do for Peddie.

My sincere wishes for your future success.