Cuban Crisis: Potatoes v. Nuclear Torpedoes

One role my ship, the USS Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., DD-850, played during the Cuban Missile Crisis was tracking Soviet submarines. After all, that was the primary purpose of destroyers in the 1960s. They were the backbone of anti-submarine warfare (ASW).

The Kennedy represented the state of the ASW art at the time. It’s radio, radar and sonar systems were the best available and it was armed with rocket-propelled homing torpedoes capable of delivering a nuclear warhead, a drone helicopter that could deliver a torpedo at even greater distances, and banks of more traditional “hedgehog” depth charges. Given that most Soviet subs of the era were diesel-powered, noisy, and slow, they were fairly easy pickings for a small squadron of destroyers.

No one really knows how many Soviet subs were in the Caribbean during the missile crisis but there were enough that getting a sonar hit wasn’t all that difficult. On October 1, 1962, four diesel-powered F-class submarines left Russia heading for Cuba, B-4, B-36, B-59 and B-130. Their mission was to secretly set up a Soviet submarine base on the island. These subs were detected while still in the North Atlantic and were tracked as they made their way towards Cuba.

Aerial photograph of Soviet submarine B-130 on the surface with American destroyer in the background.

The Navy had been instructed to find these subs as they entered the Caribbean and attempt to force them to the surface for identification purposes. After the Kennedy’s mission of boarding the Lebanese freighter, Marucla, it was dispatched to help in this effort. I can’t recall how many days we spent at this task or which subs we helped force to the surface but I think it was B-59 and/or B-130.

The tactic employed was to encircle a submarine with destroyers and simply move in whatever direction the sub went, keeping it in the center of the ring. Diesel subs run on battery power while submerged and have to eventually surface to recharge their batteries and renew their oxygen supply. To encourage surfacing the Navy also used small practice depth charges and among the sub captains there was some confusion as to whether they were being attacked or not.

This story now becomes one of those, “Well if we’d known that we wouldn’t have done it,” tales. Once on the surface the subs would open their hatches and crewmen would appear on deck. The Kennedy and other destroyers took turns coming along side the sub and taking lots of photos for later identification. While this was happening there was a certain heckling going on between the crews of the two ships and occasionally someone borrowed a few spuds from the potato locker and hurled them at the Russians who would pick them up and hurl them back. So here in the midst of this cold war threatening to turn very hot, opposing forces were duking it out in a potato war and having a hell of a good time with it.

Years later, after the fall of the Soviet Union, it became known that those Soviet subs were armed with at least one 15 kilo ton nuclear tipped torpedo. Furthermore, each sub was authorized to use these “special” weapons without obtaining permission from Moscow. If the sub’s captain deemed it necessary he was free to pull the nuclear trigger. 15 kilo ton is the equivalent of the Hiroshima bomb of WWII and would have destroyed everything in a wide proximity of the blast. If that isn’t scary enough, at least two of the four Soviet captains did consider arming and employing these torpedoes.

Had they done so there would have been instant all out retaliation and the earth would have ended with a thermo-nuclear meltdown. All while innocent young men threw potatoes at each other.

Note: PBS just featured a film about the above referenced Soviet submarines and the officer who prevented the firing of a nuclear torpedo,  Vasili Arkhipoy. Click HERE for complete details. A second good story about the Soviet sub, BG-59 can be read by clicking HERE.

Soviet submarine officer, Vasili Arkhipoy, credited with stopping the use of a nuclear torpedo and thus averting all out war.


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