I was just 22 and in command of 125 men, as well as a Nike Hercules missile battery with 36 nuclear missiles. And we were prepared to fly immediately to a missile base in the Florida Everglades — near Cuba — if war erupted.
An American plane had spotted Russian ships bringing nuclear missiles into Cuba, only 90 miles from Florida. President Kennedy demanded they remove their missiles, or else face an attack on Cuba. My young soldiers — and I — really believed the world might be coming to an end.
My father was two years out of high school when he charged onto the beach at Normandy. My parents had taught me strength and self-confidence. I think my whole life of competitive sports and ROTC and the work ethic my parents instilled in me meant I was about as well prepared as anybody could have been.
But I was very young to be in charge of so many men … let alone a nuclear missile battery. We were terrified but somehow remained calm. Boy, we grew up fast.
There were so many miscommunications going out: We were being invaded by the Russians, they were attacking here, attacking there. Nobody really knew what was going on.
We knew that if even one person on either side miscalculated, that would be the spark.
There were so many nuclear weapons at that time. Once you started, everybody was going to throw everything they had to survive. Kill them before they kill you — that was the mission.
We were trying to save our country. We were trying to save the world. And there was a purpose in what we were doing.
I worked hard to keep my guys focused, even though I was frightened myself. I knew the command to launch would come down from the battery commander to me. And it would be my job to give the green light.
We knew we wouldn’t be able to call our families for final farewells.
I did a lot of praying.
Every one of us knew we could be obliterated. But, somehow, we stayed focused.
I worked with outstanding commanders, the finest men I ever met. We had a job to do. And there was no way out.