The morning before the Cuban Missile Crisis broke, I was standing topside
mid-watch—midnight to 4 a.m. at the brow (gangplank)—when I noticed
lights coming on at various buildings along the waterfront at the Key West
Submarine Base. Then cars and trucks were seen whizzing about, going to each
submarine tied alongside a pier. Presently a car came alongside the USS
Chopper, and a hassled-looking officer asked for Chopper's duty officer, who
was then instructed to recall all our officers and crew, to stand by to take on
30 days of patrol supplies and be ready to depart by 8 a.m. All submarines were
apparently given the same instructions. Not long afterwards, a large truck
roared up to Chopper, and all hands on board commenced loading boxes of food,
foul weather gear, spare parts, and fuel.
At approximately 8 a.m., most of the submarines had their engines roaring, and
the smoke hung heavy over the waterfront as the first of SUBRON 12's submarines
got underway. [SUBRON stands for SUBmarine squadRON.] One submarine had been in
minor overhaul alongside the pier, with her propellers removed, and in the
haste to make ready, the propellers were re-installed backwards. As they tried
to get underway, the "all back 1/3" became "all back 2/3," "all back FULL," as
the submarine drove ahead and slowly plowed into the seawall. They rejoined the
squadron at sea later.
Patrick Householder in
the Maneuvering Room of the USS Chopper.
By 10 a.m., the entire squadron was in formation on the high seas. From my
vantage point as port lookout, the sight of each submarine doing a "trim dive,"
one after another, was quite a sight to see. The Chopper then turned northward,
and the Captain then informed the crew about the impending Cuban Missile Crisis
blockade. The Chopper steamed at top speed to Mayport, Florida Navy base, where
we took on fuel and an Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) before returning south
to take station off Cuba. While we refueled at Mayport, some crewmembers,
including myself, took the opportunity to use the phones on the pier to call
our families to urge them to leave their homes and head for the countryside, as
many were convinced nuclear war was in the offing. As soon as we were spotted
on the phone, however, one of our officers ran up and made us leave the phones
"for security reasons."
The "special team" was kept relatively isolated in the forward torpedo room,
but Chopper's mission, as I understood it, was to deliver the UDT to a place
near Havana harbor, where they would "lock out" of the forward escape trunk and
swim into and sabotage ships and facilities in the harbor, should we receive
orders to do so. Chopper then took her position in the blockade.
After a week or so, Russia withdrew her missiles, and the Chopper returned to
Key West. Later that year, President Kennedy made a visit to Key West Naval
Station and boarded the Chopper. He spoke to the Captain and officers, thanking
them for doing their duty, and departed.
—Patrick Householder served as an Electricians Mate between 1962 and 1963
aboard the USS Chopper (SS-342), a diesel-snorkel GUPPY boat. [GUPPY stands for
Greater Underwater Propulsion Power.] He now lives in Issaquah, Washington.