Cuban Crisis: Toilet Paper & Nuclear Holocaust

Fifty years ago this morning, Friday, October 26, 1962, we sailors of the USS Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. DD-850 were awakened early, served breakfast, and at about 6:00 a.m., sent to our battle stations. We had done this many times in the past but the announcement, “General quarters, general quarters, all hands man your battle stations,” was always followed with, “This is a drill, this is a drill.” On this morning those last words were not said, this was the real thing, we were going to GQ with orders to use deadly force if necessary.

USS Kennedy coming along side the Marucla.

The situation involved a Lebanese freighter, under contract to the Soviet Union, carrying unknown goods to the island nation of Cuba. President Kennedy and his advisers had decided to stop and board a ship to prove their resolve and this ship, the SS Marucla, was chosen because it was not a Soviet ship. It was hoped that if force was applied the Soviet response would be less than if one of its own ships were involved.

There were many destroyers closer to the Marucla than the Kennedy. It is thought, however, that the Kennedy was chosen because of its relationship to the president’s family history. Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., a Navy pilot, had died a hero’s death during a secret mission over France in World War II.

Arriving on scene the Kennedy contacted the captain of the Marucla and informed him of intentions to board and search the following morning. How the ship would respond to a boarding demand was unknown and made for some restless sleep that night. Peace prevailed, however, and the Marcula came to a halt and received a boarding party of sailors and officers from the Kennedy and the destroyer USS John R. Pierce. Our battle authorization to use deadly force if necessary, fortunately, wasn’t needed.

Radioman 3rd Class, Paul J. Arnold, was among the boarding party with a handheld radio and I was on the flying bridge of the Kennedy maintaining communications with Arnold. I don’t recall any of the conversation but I remember the open decks of the freighter carrying mostly trucks and/or farm machinery. A two-hour search of the ship and its holds revealed a cargo of trucks, paper, sulfur and auto parts, none of which were on the list of contraband goods, so the Marcula was allowed to proceed to Havana, Cuba.

Some years later I saw a film, One Minute Till Midnight, in which the Kennedy’s communications officer, Ens. Paul Sanger, claimed the paper on board the ship included toilet paper. Sanger was a member of the boarding party so if his claim is correct one can’t ignore the ironic thought that nuclear holocaust could have resulted over the boarding of a cargo of TP.

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