On the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Professor Brian Ashcroft of the University of Strathclyde recalls a horribly tense fortnight during his teenage years, spent on a US military base, with the world on the brink of nuclear war
In 1962, I was a fifteen-year old bass player in a rock band - The Denvers - from Stockton-on-Tees playing to US servicemen at bases in north-east France. At the end of August we moved to Toul and then moved on to the US General Depot at Nancy at the beginning of October for a month. We were to return home to the north-east of England at the beginning of December.
Every night, except Monday, the Denvers took the stage at the Enlisted Men’s club on the US Army bases at Toul and then Nancy in North East France close to the German border. I was the band’s bass player. We knew quite a number of popular songs and instrumentals but performing 24 hours of music per week, at the same venue for a month, required an extensive repertoire.
We decided, for obvious reasons, to put a lot of emphasis on the songs of US stars such as Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, and not forgetting the female singers such as Peggy Lee, Brenda Lee, Ella Fitzgerald and Skeeta Davis, whose songs Jenny, our own female singer, handled with such aplomb. Finally, some Hank Williams and Johnny Horton numbers were thrown into the mix. Our hope was that Country and Western, essentially American roots music, would go down as well in Toul as in Stockton-on-Tees, and perhaps better!
Yet it wasn’t as bad as we feared. Johnny Maunder, our rhythm guitarist, could sing Elvis songs with a lot of panache and the young specialists, dump truck drivers and motor pool guys, from Des Moines, Jackson, Phoenix, Chicago and elsewhere in the US seemed to like us. As the beers were downed, the audience livened up, requests for songs would come up and we would manage to do many of them. For those songs that we didn’t know, we promised to learn them within the week, which in turn enthused our practise in the next few days. But I guess we showed willing and the young GIs seemed to appreciate it.
On October 5th we’d heard for the first time the Beatles first single ‘Love me do’ on Radio Luxembourg. And we liked it. But we didn’t bother to try and learn to play it. While the sound was more bluesy and earthy than Cliff and the Shadows, we thought the young GIs wouldn’t be that keen when they had their own Chuck Berry numbers!
As the days wore on, the word Cuba began to enter into conversations, either directly, or overheard. It appeared at first to be nothing more than GI ranting at the communist pre-disposition of Castro and his loyal lieutenant Che Guevara. In January 1959 the Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro and supported by the Soviet Union swept the corrupt and unjust Batista regime from power after a long struggle. Relations with the US deteriorated, culminating in the Bay of Pigs fiasco: a failed attempt in April 1961 to invade and overthrow the Cuban government by CIA-trained forces of Cuban exiles.
However, the US military were our hosts and we didn’t want to rock the boat by challenging some of the pre-suppositions of the GIs. In any event, if the truth be told, we were more interested in news about the latest developments on the music scene via Radio Luxembourg and the odd copy of New Musical Express mailed over to us by our mums and dads, than international politics. But that quickly began to change.
In late September some of the GIs at Toul pointed out the fighting that had erupted between China and India over a border dispute as an indication that “the Commies were on the march.” By October 10th, the news that the border dispute had developed into a full-scale war between China and India, the two largest countries in the world, gave further pause for thought. Then a few days’ later matters took a significant turn for the worse.
On October 14th a US reconnaissance U-2 flight over Cuba took photos of Soviet inter-mediate nuclear missiles being installed. The Cuban Missile Crisis had begun.
On October 21st further U-2 flights revealed additional missile bases in Northern Cuba and that the numbers of Soviet bombers and Mig fighters were increasing. Of course the world knew none of that until the evening of Monday October 22nd, when President Kennedy addressed the US nation in a televised speech, announcing the presence of offensive missile sites in Cuba. But even before Kennedy’s address we knew that something was going on.
The whole rhythm of the base changed. There seemed a purpose to everyone’s actions. Gone was the laid-back style of most GIs. Everyone seemed to sense that this was something serious and their training was beginning to kick in. There was a sharper edge in the EM club. GIs were drinking less and talking more. Patriotic songs were more in demand. Even the criticisms of President Kennedy disappeared. Kennedy wasn’t that popular amongst the military personnel we met, principally because of the Bay of Pigs fiasco and his weak showing at the Vienna 1961 summit meeting with Khrushchev. Some hated him simply because he was a rich, Catholic, Democrat. And, even more bizarrely, some suggested he had played a part in the ‘suicide’ of Marilyn Monroe back in August.
Our response to the crisis was first to stop listening to Radio Luxembourg and switch to listening to the American Forces Network (AFN) on the couple of portable transistor radios we had with us. Secondly, we talked to the GIs more and tried to get further information.
In this connection we became friendly with a US military plain-clothes policeman, a CID officer. Such officers frequently worked undercover on straight criminal work, such as seeking out and arresting black marketers, but they also had a security role to uncover and prevent spying in and around the bases. Bob was altogether more serious than your average GI. He was older and very thoughtful. He said that most of the GIs didn’t appreciate how serious the situation was. This worried and scared us because we had been sceptical and less serious about the situation than most of the GIs we met. But our scepticism evaporated when on October 22nd the troops moved to a higher state of alert. This was DEFCON 3.
Monday was our day off and so when we arrived at the base on Tuesday the 23rd it was another world from Sunday. Getting into the base was much more difficult. Security was considerably tighter. All personnel were in their battle fatigues, more weapons were on display, and vehicular activity had clearly increased. Once inside the base, we could see tanks being loaded onto transporters, and artillery pieces were being brought out of storage, checked and hitched to trucks as the flow of trucks and other military vehicles entering and leaving the base increased dramatically.
At this point I made a rare ‘phone call to my mother and asked how she and my dad were. Was she worried? Surprisingly, she said that she was concerned but not terrified. She took the view that the Americans were sabre rattling over a few Russians on Cuba when there were US missiles in Italy and in Turkey right next to Russia. She thought it would pass. I said I wasn’t so sure and it was certainly being treated very seriously here. I said I would ring her back later in the week.
We now know that President Kennedy and his advisers had chosen the option of a blockade of shipments of offensive weapons to Cuba. This was considered to be a sufficiently robust response that stopped short of direct military action. And, while it was a violation of international law it differed from the Soviets’ blockade of Berlin in 1948, which had sought to prevent all materiel, civilian as well as military, from entering the city.
So, on the Tuesday October 23rd U.S. ships took up position 500 miles offshore to blockade Cuba. On the Wednesday all talk at the base was of the Russian ships approaching the US blockade. Was this the flashpoint that would cause a nuclear war?
We went through the motions that night as we played our set. Hearts had lifted when we heard that the Soviet ships approaching the blockade had slowed down and some had turned around. When we stepped down from the stage, Bob who had come in late to the club said that he had heard that one ship has refused to stop. “Let me run you home and we can listen to AFN in the car.” Myself, Jenny, our female singer, Roy the leader and lead guitarist of the band, said we would go with him. Max, the drummer, Linda his partner and Johnny said they would stay and see if they could get another drink and then a lift back to the hotel later.
We got into the car; Bob started the engine and switched on the radio. The tone of the commentary on AFN was not calm. A lot of the talk was about when the war would start and how it would start. It was speculated that the US would make a direct attack on Cuba. Others said that if the US did that the Soviets would attack and overrun Berlin. Others again worried about a US nuclear first strike on Russia, or an attempted Russian first strike on both the US and the NATO forces in Europe.
This didn’t sound good, to say the least. The commentators were talking like you might discuss the tactics of a forthcoming football match, or the possible moves in a chess game. I wanted to scream at the radio, “this is not a game; the future of humanity is at stake!”
After half an hour we hadn’t moved. We were all absorbed by the radio. Bob switched the heater up in the car, pulled out a couple of cans of beer from the glove compartment and said “We may as well make ourselves comfortable. This could be a long night!”
After a while, tiredness crept over me and I began to doze off in the back of the car. I wondered whether I would see my mum and dad again. Were they safer in Stockton than I was on this US military base in Nancy close to the German border?
I forced myself back into consciousness:
“Bob, if it all starts what do you think will happen to the base here? Will we be attacked by nuclear missiles?”
“I don’t think the Russians have enough strategic missiles to attack an army base like this. They will be targeted on the main population centres in the US mainly but also Europe as well. The limited tactical nuclear weapons are likely to be used on the battlefield in Germany in response to our first use of them on the battlefield. No, what we can expect here are attacks by Russian bombers. That’s why we have been putting a lot of effort into ensuring the anti-aircraft missiles and gun batteries on the perimeter of the base are fully operational and have the ordinance to deal with a sustained attack.”
Roy and I both said that we hadn’t noticed.
“No, you were not meant to.” Bob smiled.
I then asked the question that had been troubling me for some time, “Nancy is a major general depot and seems to store all levels of military equipment, are nuclear weapons stored here as well?”
Bob turned his head towards me and gave me a fixed stare. “Am I going to have arrest you as a Russian spy? And, do you know? If the balloon goes up we’ll probably shoot you!”
I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. “Bob, I’m not a bloody spy, trying to assume all the authority of my fifteen years. I’m just interested. My dad was in the RAF.” As if that was a clinching defence.
“Brian, if the Soviets thought we had nuclear weapons here then we might be hit by a nuclear strike. So if the Ruskies are your friends don’t go telling them that or you might get a thermonuclear device on your head.”
Bob brushed away my attempted protestations: “Think about it logically, strategic nuclear weapons are delivered either by missiles, or bombers. Missiles are kept in silos and most of these are in the US given our inter-continental ability. Some intermediate range missiles are in Europe. So, that leaves us with nuclear bombs. Let us just say that since a war might blow up quickly, you need your bombs close to the delivery system. Hence, they will be kept on an air force base. And you wouldn’t want such prize assets to be close to Russian attack, so between you and me if they are here it will be a US airbase in the mid west, or south of France.”
“You mean like Chateauroux airbase near where our agent stays?” I interjected.
At this point, Jenny who had seemed to be sleeping stirred and said
“Yes, Bob that’s all very well about those big bombs but what about those nuclear bombs that they use close up?”
“Tactical battlefield nuclear weapons” Roy suggested.
“Yes, thanks Roy. Do they store any of those here Bob?”
Bob looked out through the car windscreen across the EM Club car park to the club and surrounding buildings, lights were being turned off in the club. “I don’t think we should go there Jenny. No ma’am. I’d better get you all home.” And at that he pushed the transmission stick into Drive, put his foot on the gas and drove slowly out of the base.
During the next two days, Thursday 25th and Friday 26th of October, the crisis continued. Bob said that if the balloon went up he would try and get us out. But realistically, nowhere was safe and given the scale of the US air force stationed in the UK and the UK’s leading role in NATO, it was no safe haven even if we could reach it.
On the 25th AFN reported on US ambassador to the UN, Adlai Stevenson’s, presentation to an emergency session of the Security Council. His presentation of reconnaissance photographs clearly showed Russian missiles in situ in Cuba. The Russian ambassador would neither confirm nor deny the existence of the missiles. The two super powers seemed to be hurtling towards war.
We learn later that in response to intelligence about the move to operational readiness of the Cuban missiles President Kennedy issued Security Action Memorandum 199. The order authorised the loading of nuclear weapons onto aircraft under the command of SACEUR, which had the duty of carrying out first air strikes on the Soviet Union. That’s Strategic Air Command Europe and would include US air force bases in the UK, France and Italy. This made sense of a comment I overheard but had not understood on the Nancy base the next day: “I hear the big ones are rolling.”
But it was not all bad news. We hear, again via AFN, during the day, that the Soviets have responded to the blockade and quarantine by turning back 14 ships presumably because they were carrying offensive weapons.
Our emotions are on a roller coaster and we find it hard to sing what seem now to be trivial songs while the world teeters on the edge of oblivion. Yet, our Friday night performance is lifted by changing the emphasis and words of certain songs to bring in aspects of the crisis. So in the Johnny Kidd number Shaking all over we slightly change the words from Jenny singing “When you move in right up close to me, that’s when I get the shakes all over me. You give me shivers down my backbone. Shaking all over.” to “When we move in right up close to you, that’s when you Ruskies get the shakes all over you. You get shivers down your backbone. You’ll be shaking all over.” And so on. Naive and simplistic stuff, but it was a big success with the GIs and I guess we did out bit for morale. Our contribution to the ‘war’ effort.
On Saturday lunchtime, the 27th, we hear in our hotel room from AFN that they are getting reports that a US U2 reconnaissance or spy plane has been shot down over Cuba. Was this the first act of war?
We get a taxi to the base. On arrival, we can’t get in.
“But you’ve seen us playing on the stage at the EM Club.” Roy pleads with the MP guard on the gate.
“This ain’t no place for civilians.” The guard replies.
“Look, ring the EM Club. We are here to work. We have a contract to fulfil. Let us in to do that” Roy adds.
The call is made. Words are exchanged. The guard looks at us while on the ‘phone, nods at us and then raises the barrier.
The EM Club is deserted. No staff making preparations for the opening in the evening. No bottles being stacked. No food being brought in. Nothing.
Finally, we find the manager’s office and there is a light on, so we knock and go in. The manager looks up from his desk. “Sorry guys, no show tonight, or tomorrow … We’ve gone to the highest alert. We are at DEFCON 2”
“What the fuck’s that?” said Max in one of his rare sallies into politics and military affairs. “It means war, son; a nuclear war. Y’all better go over to the snack bar, get yourself something to eat and then go back to your hotel and wait for us to contact you. That is, if we are still here!”
Wikipedia writes that on October 26th, at 10:00 pm EDT, the US raised the readiness level of Strategic Air Command forces to DEFCON 2.
“For the only confirmed time in US history, the B-52 bombers were dispersed to various locations and made ready to take off, fully equipped, on 15 minutes notice. One-eighth of SAC’s 1,436 bombers were on airborne alert, some 145 intercontinental ballistic missiles stood on ready alert, while Air Defense Command (ADC) redeployed 161 nuclear-armed interceptors to 16 dispersal fields within nine hours with one-third maintaining 15-minute alert status.”
We had been cast adrift. There was no Bob. Everyone was going about their serious business and, quite reasonably, had little time for us. But the gloom was lifted slightly by Johnny, “I bet Sam (the band’s manager) and his fat arse are already deep down in a bunker in Mayfair.” We sniggered half-heartedly. “Perhaps Karl Friedrich (the band’s French agent) in Chateauroux can help us. Maybe we can go there?” said Jenny. “Not if that is where the big bombs are.” Roy mused, less than reassuringly. “Let’s go into town and get pissed,” said Max. And for once we all agreed.
The weekend seemed to go on for ages. Sunday the 28th saw us fighting off hangovers and return to listening to AFN in our hotel rooms even though the batteries in our radios were beginning to run down through constant use. We learn that there is still a standoff of US and Soviet ships, including submarines, at the quarantine line off Cuba. Rumours of US-Soviet proposals and counterproposals are aired. Then late in the day we hear that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev has announced over Radio Moscow that he has agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba. In return the US has agreed not to invade Cuba. It comes out later that in a secret deal between Kennedy and Khrushchev, Kennedy had agreed to the withdrawal of U.S. missiles from Turkey. But the fact that this deal is not made public makes it look like the Soviets have backed down.
Tuesday morning, the 29th, there is call for us downstairs in the hotel. It is the EM Club manager,
“We won, let’s party! See you on the stage of the EM Club at 7.30pm sharp tonight.”
On the afternoon of Friday, 1st November, our battered radios report that aerial reconnaissance shows that the Soviets have begun to dismantle their missiles in Cuba. The crisis seems to be over. The month passes quickly by without incident. Everything is anti-climax.
News that the Cuban missile crisis is finally over comes on November 20th with the ending of the US blockade after confirmation of the removal of Soviet missiles.
And within days we are en route to Boulogne and the ferry to England. We are all desperately keen to get home. On arrival at the French coast, the white cliffs of Dover appear faintly visible. A wave of patriotism and love for my country that I had never experienced before, or since, suddenly wells up inside me. The cliffs seem to symbolise a haven, a place of safety, a bosom in which to bury my head and escape the threats of violence and war.
But how close had we been to nuclear extinction? Wasn’t it likely to happen again, with nuclear war the inevitable result? What would the future hold?
• This is an edited extract from Brian Ashcroft’s forthcoming book “Stars fell on Stockton: memoirs of a mediocre bass player”