VAN STOCKUM: Brigadier General of Marines: Part 1, New rank, new crisis

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Growing in rank and responsibility a newly minted Marines brigadier general brings a perspective on life during the Cold War era. Today: The events surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.

By Ron Van Stockum

In June 1961, while serving as director of the 4th Marine Reserve and Recruitment District based in Philadelphia, I was selected for promotion to the rank of brigadier general. In the Marine Corps promotion is based upon the recommendations of selection boards composed of about seven officers senior in rank to those officers in the selection zone.


My date of commission in the regular Marine Corps was July 1, 1937. Promotion to the rank of first lieutenant was automatic after 3 years service, so I changed my gold bar to silver on July 1, 1940. Gunner Henry P. (Jim) Crowe, a forceful, experienced and popular warrant officer (a rank junior to second lieutenant), was wont to predict, in jest but with certainty, that if young second lieutenants listened to him, they would be promoted in three years.

Normally further promotion would take many years. However, the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, followed by the fall of France to Hitler’s blitzkrieg in June 1940, resulted in dramatic expansion of the Armed forces. By February 1942 I was a captain, commanding the Marine Detachment of the USS Wasp, an aircraft carrier, engaged in the Battle of the Atlantic.

Further promotion followed rapidly. In the Iwo Jima campaign in February 1945, I was a lieutenant colonel commanding a Marine Infantry battalion, aboard ship in floating reserve within a few thousand yards of shore.

With the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, the Marine Corps expanded again. In 1952, while serving aboard ship on the staff of a Navy rear admiral, I was notified by dispatch that I had been promoted to colonel.

The admiral, probably amazed at my promotion, which gave me seniority over several commanders on his staff with longer Naval service, initially took no notice of my promotion. I quietly pinned on my eagles, without ceremony. A few days passed before the chief of staff invited me to dine with the admiral in his private mess with Navy captains, officers of equivalent rank.


Serving under a friend

After my promotionon July 1, 1962, to the rank of brigadier general, I served as Director of the Marine Corps Reserve at Marine Corps Headquarters in Arlington, Va., within sight of the Pentagon. It was a pleasure to serve directly under a friend, Gen. David M. Shoup, hard-bitten commandant of the Marine Corps, winner of the Medal of Honor on bloody Tarawa in World War II. He, along with my wife Susanne, had pinned on my stars.

Shoup's battle report from the Tarawa beachhead on Nov. 21, 1943 (D-Day + 1) had stated simply: "Casualties many. Percentage dead not known. Combat efficiency – we are winning."

Shoup, who seemed to pride himself in the use of picturesque language, presented this example of his own doggerel at his initial news conference as commandant: “One can get quite far in life, with an angel for a mother and an angel for a wife.”

However, one of his first actions after assuming the responsibilities of commandant, with rank of a 4-star general, was to put his literary talents to better use. The swagger stick, a short metal-tipped cane, had been brought into use by the former commandant, Gen. Randolph McCall Pate, as a required item to be carried by officers. He had obviously been impressed by this British custom, but traditions are difficult to import.

Upon assuming this office, Shoup, in a letter to his general officers, immediately prescribed a welcome change: “I consider the swagger stick to be an unnecessary item of encumbrance.”

Swagger sticks immediately disappeared, and Shoup’s prestige rose.

He had the knack of expressing his displeasure by ordering a staff officer out of his office, followed by flying staff papers. I remember commiserating with a general officer who had received such treatment. He survived the experience, later becoming a commandant of the corps.

I managed to avoid Shoup’s wrath. On a number of occasions in midafternoon the squawk box would carry a message to join Gen. Shoup on the tee at the Army-Navy Country Club. Orders were orders, and I happily complied.

My deputy, Col. Owen Hines of Louisville, an accomplished golfer, usually joined us. It had been suggested that, having observed my backswing, golfing companions would reach for their wallets. Shoup usually doubled the bet with me on the last hole, a par three, and compensating for his controlled slice, would place his ball in the middle of the green.


The Cuban Missile Crisis

However, Gen. Shoup had more serious challenges. Before that year was out, a crisis of the greatest magnitude developed. On Oct. 16, 1962, President John F. Kennedy and his principal foreign policy and national defense officials were briefed regarding photos taken by high-flying U2 reconnaissance aircraft. These revealed that missile bases were being developed in Cuba, obviously being constructed and manned by the USSR.

Two courses of action were offered: air strike and invasion or a Naval quarantine. To avoid arousing the public, the president maintained his regular schedule, but the following day military units began moving to bases in the Southeastern United States.

At this time, I attended a top-secret conference of general officers called by Gen. Shoup, who showed us enlarged aerial photos that clearly revealed these installations. It had also been determined by our intelligence that they were being armed with nuclear warheads.

Gen. Shoup immediately increased the staffing of the Command Center at his headquarters and added a general officer to the watch list. This center was similar to a command post in combat, available to accumulate information and take appropriate action.

I took my turn on the watch along with my fellow generals. Although this Soviet threat had not yet been revealed to the public, those of us involved had great concern for our families living in the area. The threat of a nuclear missile falling on Washington was real, almost imminent.

On Oct. 18, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko visited President Kennedy to assert that Soviet aid to Cuba was purely defensive. Without revealing what he knew about the existence of the missiles, the president warned of “gravest consequences” if Soviet offensive weapons were introduced into Cuba.

On October 22, the president on TV and radio, publicly announced the presence of missiles in Cuba. He further declared that “it shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union upon the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”


Castro recommends nuclear strike

On Oct. 26, unknown at that time to Kennedy, Cuban Premier Fidel Castro, in a private letter, urged Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev to initiate a nuclear first strike against the United States in the event of an American invasion of Cuba. A translated copy of this letter may be found on line in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum, “The World On the Brink: John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis.” I have referred to this source in presenting the chronology of the President’s actions during the Crisis.

I quote parts of this letter:

“If . . . the imperialists invade Cuba with the goal of occupying it, the danger that that aggressive policy poses for humanity is so great that following that event, the Soviet Union must never allow the circumstances in which the imperialists could launch the first nuclear strike against it.”

“ . . . I believe that the imperialists' aggressiveness makes them extremely dangerous, and that if they manage to carry out an invasion of Cuba – a brutal act in violation of universal and moral law – then that would be the moment to eliminate this danger forever, in an act of the most legitimate self-defense. However harsh and terrible the solution, there would be no other.”

On this same day, President Kennedy ordered a naval quarantine of Cuba.

On Oct. 27, the 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, aboard the USS Iwo Jima, LPH 2 (Amphibious Assault Ship, Helicopter), accompanied by supporting naval vessels, sailed from the West Coast for the Caribbean, via the Panama Canal. This brigade, consisting of about 1,500 Marines, along with helicopters to land them, was commanded by Marine Brig. Gen. William Fairbourn. He had been my immediate predecessor as director of the reserve.

In the meantime there were urgent exchanges of messages, and almost frantic diplomatic meetings between representatives of the United States and the USSR.


Negotiation trumps annihilation

Early on a Sunday, Oct. 28, I encountered little traffic as I drove from my home in nearby Falls Church, Va. Having time to reflect, I arrived in a serious and sober mood at Marine Corps Headquarters in the Naval Annex in Arlington. But, to my surprise, upon entering the gate, I found a completely relaxed atmosphere, the diametric opposite of what I had encountered before.

The night before, in a secret meeting between Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet Union had agreed to withdraw it missiles from Cuba in exchange for an American pledge not to invade Cuba.

In an additional secret understanding, the United States agreed to eventually remove its Jupiter missiles from Turkey.


Ron Van Stockum can be reached at ronvanstockum@mac.com. His latest book, Coming to Kentucky: Heaven is a Kentucky of a Place, just off the press, as well as his others, Kentucky and the Bourbons: the Story of Allen Dale Farm, Squire Boone and Nicholas Meriwether: Kentucky Pioneers,and Remembrances of World Wars,  may be purchased at Terhune’s Style Shop in Village Plaza Shopping Center in Shelbyville or from Amazon.com.