Javascript is not enabled.

Javascript must be enabled to use this site. Please enable Javascript in your browser and try again.

Skip to content
Content starts here
Leaving Website

You are now leaving and going to a website that is not operated by AARP. A different privacy policy and terms of service will apply.

THEN & NOW: 60 Years On, Veteran Remembers the Crisis That Almost Ended the World

JFK was president, the Cold War was raging and Soviet missiles in Cuba threatened the United States during 13-day standoff

spinner image john f kennedy touring a military installation with members of the military
CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

When the Cuban Missile Crisis broke out on Oct. 14, 1962, I was a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, stationed on Johnston Island in the Pacific.

spinner image people hold up a welcome home sign as someone from the military stands before an american flag. the words aarp veteran report appear above the flag

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

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.

spinner image Image Alt Attribute

AARP Membership— $12 for your first year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal

Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.

Join Now

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.

We were the only Nike Hercules missile unit in the U.S. We had fired a lot of missiles in training. Without goggles. Without ear plugs. Once, just to show the Russians what we could do, we fired a 10-kiloton nuclear warhead into the ocean. The sound was terrifying. I can still hear it today.

I remember when, on Oct. 28, the Russians started shipping their nukes back to Russia. And when the sun rose the next morning, it seemed like there was finally some sanity in the world. First thing I did was call my parents and wife.

Health & Wellness

Target Optical

50% off additional pairs of eyeglasses and $10 off eyewear and contacts

See more Health & Wellness offers >

And when my unit finally did move to the Everglades base a few months later, we no longer feared the end of the world.

What lessons did I learn? To appreciate our way of life and the wonderful things we have here in the United States that no one in the world has. Appreciation of my country is part of me. It’s what I am.

I also learned how insignificant we all are. Tiny specks in this world of so many gigantic things. But collectively, you trust the people you’re working with, and they trust you.

Sixty years later, the Cuban Missile Crisis is still with me. I think about it, at some point, every day.

I’ve been lucky to have had a great life since then — a wonderful business career, a wonderful family.

But it saddens me that they don’t teach about the Cuban Missile Crisis in schools today. My middle son would say he spent almost a month in history talking about Watergate and not one minute on the Cuban Missile Crisis. That’s how skewed things were.

Generations are growing up without ever realizing how close to the edge we came.

— As told to Steve Winston

After his service as a U.S. Army officer, Jim Whitaker, now 81, spent 25 years as a banking executive and then 30 years as a safety consultant. He first retired when he was 40 and spent a decade traveling with his family, visiting 55 countries.

Do you have a potential story that might make a THEN & NOW article in AARP Veteran Report? If so, please contact our editors here.

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

Discover AARP Members Only Access

Join AARP to Continue

Already a Member?

spinner image membership-card-w-shadow-192x134

LIMITED TIME OFFER. Join AARP for just $9 per year when you sign up for a 5-year term. Join now and get a FREE GIFT!