Navy Veteran George Gater holds a photo album from his ship, the USS Barton. Gater was involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
George Gater and his soon-to-be-wife, Louise Wiest, at a Navy ball in 1962.
LARGO – October of this year will mark the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was the closest the United States ever came to thermonuclear war with the Soviet Union.
“We were eyeball to eyeball and the other guy blinked,” Secretary of State Dean Rusk said shortly after the crisis ended.
But nobody has to tell George Gater how scary the crisis was. He was there.
The crisis began when a routine U-2 overflight of Cuba discovered what appeared to be missile containers. Subsequent photo reconnaissance flights confirmed that the Soviets were indeed constructing medium and intermediate-range missile bases in Cuba and the largest of the missiles, with a 2,200-mile range, could hit most of the continental U.S. with a nuclear warhead.
President John F. Kennedy’s military advisers wanted to launch an immediate invasion of Cuba. But Kennedy instead decided to put a ring of U.S. warships around Cuba to stop any Soviet ships headed for the island, inspect its cargo and turn back any ship found to be carrying missiles or other contraband. Any ship putting up a fight or attempting to run the blockade would be sunk.
Rusk feared that the word “blockade” would conjure up memories of the Soviets’ brutal 1948 blockade of Berlin, so the military action was instead called “quarantine.”
Gater, who had joined the Navy a year earlier, right out of high school in Pennsylvania, was assigned to a boiler room on the World War II-era destroyer, USS Barton. His ship was in its homeport of Norfolk, Virginia, when it got orders to head for Cuba.
“I was scheduled to go on liberty but they canceled all liberty, brought everybody back on board and away we went, no questions asked,” Gater said. “We were one of the first ships down there. I was 18 at the time and they didn’t tell us what was going on. It was scary. The scuttlebutt said there were subs in the area but we didn’t know whose they were.”
Those fears were not unfounded. It was later learned that when the crisis began, the Soviets sent four of their newest submarines to Cuban waters. Each carried nuclear-tipped torpedoes capable of turning the largest American warship into scrap metal.
“We circled Cuba for 40 days with no news, no mail, nothing,” Gater said. “Life on the ship was pretty tough during that time. We were getting two or three hours of sleep a night, one hour at a time.”
One day, a Russian ship was spotted and stopped. The Barton’s sailors were assembled to pick a boarding party that would inspect the ship.
“It was supposed to be all volunteer,” Gater said. “But they picked the tallest guys and said ‘you, you and you are going.’”
Gater, who stands 6’3”, was one of those selected. The boarding party piled into a small skiff and headed for the Russian ship, not knowing if they were heading into an ambush.
“It was probably only 150 yards from our ship to theirs, but it seemed like forever because we didn’t know what we were going up against,” Gater said.
The ship turned out to be a cargo ship carrying food and other permissible items, so it was allowed to proceed to Cuba.
“The Russians let us look everywhere we wanted,” Gater said. “I’m sure they resented it, but that’s just part of the game, I guess.”
The crisis ended when the Soviets agreed to remove their missiles from Cuba in return for the U.S. removing its missiles from Turkey. But the Barton was ordered to proceed to a small island near Puerto Rico and shell it, which it did. The crew assumed that Russian or Cuban soldiers had invaded the island. Only later did they learn that it was a training exercise unconnected to the missile crisis.
“We thought it was the real thing,” Gater said. “We didn’t know the missile crisis was over until we reached Charleston.”
The Cuban Missile Crisis wasn’t the only Kennedy-era crisis in which Gater and the USS Barton were involved.
On Nov. 22, 1963, Gater and a few other sailors were below deck in Norfolk, listening to the radio, while the captain conducted a full-dress inspection on deck. Suddenly, there was a news flash that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.
Gater rushed on deck in his grease-stained work uniform to inform the captain. As the captain started to chew him out for wearing his dirty work uniform to a full-dress inspection, Gater blurted out the news.
The captain, a seasoned World War II veteran, went below with Gater to verify the news. Then, fearing that the Kennedy assassination might be a precursor to a Soviet attack on America, he ordered his crew to be ready to sail in five minutes.
“We just cut the lines (that connected the Barton to other ships), and away we went at full speed with sirens blaring,” Gater recalled. “If any pleasure craft had gotten in our way, we probably would have run them over. We didn’t know what was happening, and the captain wanted to get to the mouth of the (Elizabeth) River to protect the other ships. It looked like we were the only ship out there.”
Today, Gater is a retired machinist with three grown sons. He and his wife, Louise, live in a house overlooking Allen’s Creek in Largo. He credits the Cuban Missile Crisis with quickly turning him from a boy into a man.
“At 18 years old you don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “You don’t know what war is and you’re really scared. It makes you grow up real fast.”
This article was published June 21 in Tampa Bay Newspapers' special edition, Generations available in its entirety at e-edition.tbnweekly.com. Free sign up required.