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November 10, 2009

Sailor lived an adventure on US Navy ships in 1960s

ADDISON — Jim McElveen shook his head as he recalled the harrowing experience preceding the Cuban Missile Crisis. “A first lieutenant could have started World War III by using a dummy shell,” he said.

McElveen was a young sailor on a small ship that just happened to be the closest U.S. vessel around when a big Russian freighter, thought to be loaded with missiles, plowed through the choppy waters toward its destination, Guatanamo Bay.

The year was 1962, and McElveen was the helmsman on the USS Papago, a ship that towed aircraft carriers, other large vessels and distilling ships all over the Caribbean.

“We had just come from Puerto Rico in the dead of night, and I had gone to bed,” McElveen recalled. “It was about 3:30 a.m. when someone came in, woke me, and handed me a loaded pistol.”

“The Cubans are coming over the fence at Gitmo,” the sailor yelled to McElveen.

Out there, somewhere in the dark, headed straight for the bay was the Russian freighter.

“It had faked the destroyer that was guarding the area, which was manned with marines and planes,” he explained. “It was positioned to help fortify the inland base.”

The freighter did make it into the bay, and the only thing between it and its objective was the Papago.

“The Papago carried 65 men and officers. It was a small ship, much like a tugboat, and there she sat, facing this big freighter,” McElveen said.

Russian and American sailors on each ship stared practically eye-to-eye across barely 100 yards of ocean.

“It was a very tense situation,” he said. “After all, they wanted in that harbor, and we were blocking their way, not to mention that we had guns and they didn’t.”

“Having those guns pointed at the Russians made the crew of the Papago feel brave.”

“All around us there was dead silence,” McElveen recalled. “It was a stand-off, and the lieutenant gave orders for a dummy shell to be loaded into the cannon.”

Across the quiet expanse of ocean, an echo resounded as the round slammed into the breach. The Russian sailors heard it and ducked down.

“Ever so slowly, the freighter backed up and left the bay,” he said. “They were carrying 100-foot-long tanks, thought to be missiles on the way to Castro’s Cuba.”

Back home in the states, his wife, Frances, heard the breaking news on television.

“I was scared to death, until he could finally call me,” she said. “There was a news blackout for a while, and we heard nothing, but what happened out there that night led up to the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

After that, President Kennedy established the blockade that stopped ships from entering the harbor.

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