Click here for a timeline of events in October 1962.
The long night.
It paled in comparison with the bloody Battle of Bunker Hill during the Korean War a decade earlier.
It was nothing like the siege of Khe Sanh during the Vietnam War six years in the future.
But for about eight hours one October night in 1962, a young Marine from Nebraska on a jungle hillside in Cuba wondered what would come with the dawn.
Cpl. Harley Carr was one of thousands of U.S. troops hurriedly deployed to Guantánamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba during a standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union that brought the two superpowers closer to nuclear war than at any other time.
It was the Cuban missile crisis and it started unfolding when Strategic Air Command reconnaissance photographs identified Soviet nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba 50 years ago today.
For 13 days, the world teetered on the brink of the Cold War exploding into World War III.
The front lines were in Cuba, just 90 miles from the United States but a world away from the grasslands and canyons of the Niobrara River country that Carr left to join the Marine Corps after graduating from Springview's Keya Paha County High School in 1959.
Today Carr is 71 and a retired Nebraska Public Power District engineer and manager. Fifty years ago he was a radio relay technician with the 1st Light Anti-Aircraft Missile Battalion at Twentynine Palms, Calif. Overseas deployments were slowed by the 1961 Berlin crisis — another U.S.-Soviet standoff — and Carr faced the unsettling prospect of being a Marine who never saw overseas duty.
“It would have been shameful to come home from four years in the Marines and never get off the beach in Southern California,'' he said.
That would not be his fate.
Carr was preparing his uniforms and equipment Oct. 21 for an inspection when commanders canceled liberty and leave. Rumors circulated about troops moving out.
Carr had orders to report to the 3rd Light Anti-Aircraft Missile Battalion. The next day, President John F. Kennedy announced the Soviet actions to the world in a televised address.
Carr soon was on his way to Cherry Point Air Station in North Carolina, with an aerial convoy of missile-tracking and communication equipment.
In Cherry Point, one of the battalion's firing batteries requested a backup radio relay team.
“We still didn't know where that team would be going, but virtually every radio relay Marine was lobbying to be aboard,'' Carr said.
Carr's team got the call. The men boarded a Marine turboprop aircraft late the night of Oct. 25. The cargo included eight Hawk surface-to-air missiles.
The mobilization was part of a quick Marine and Navy reinforcement of the Guantánamo Bay base. About 8,000 Marines from the East Coast were positioned inside the perimeter of the 45-square-mile base on Cuba's southeastern coast. An estimated 25,000 Marines from the West Coast were offshore in Navy vessels, waiting to establish a beachhead, if needed.
And about 36 Hawk missiles were positioned in the hills above the base for air defense.
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The Soviets had as many as 42 ballistic missiles in Cuba that could reach New Orleans, Miami and Washington, D.C. They also had cruise missiles along the coast, a dozen tactical nuclear missiles for use in battle, unassembled bombers and 40,000 troops.
A U.S. sea blockade prevented missiles with the range to hit Chicago and Boston from reaching Cuba.
“The intensity of those first days at Guantánamo is impossible to describe,'' Carr said.
Navy engineers hurriedly carved sites for about a dozen launchers loaded with three missiles each. Control equipment was set up. Communication cables were strung — and repeatedly repaired when cut by saboteurs — through two miles of dense jungle to a Navy radar on the base's highest hill.
“We suspected infiltrators,'' Carr said. “We never saw them.''
The missile launchers were strung out along a ridgeline about 300 feet above the mouth of Guantánamo Bay. Generators were set up in old concrete gun placements left from the Spanish-American War era. Iguana lizards about 5 feet long roamed the terrain.
When the Marines weren't installing or testing the missile equipment, they filled sandbags or monitored radio traffic.
“No one complained because we knew time was short, much had to be done and there weren't nearly enough of us to get it all done,'' Carr said.
In Carr's memory, the around-the-clock beefing up of Guantánamo's defenses with little sleep and an occasional C-ration meal — sometimes containing a piece of pound cake packaged in Nebraska City — stretched for about five days. In reality, it was two.
“It was intense,'' he said. “The rest of the world was watching, but we didn't have time to think about those things. We were in the dark more than the rest of the country. That was OK. That wasn't our job. You do what has to be done.''
About 11 p.m. on Oct. 27, Carr was guarding the missile assembly area when Marines were called together. Carr said they were told that time was running out on the president's demand for the Soviets to dismantle the missile bases and remove the weapons from Cuba.
If war broke out and the assembly area came under attack, there would be no place for the Marines to hide. They were told to take their entrenching tools into the surrounding hills and start digging.
“We dug through hardpan and rocks in total silence, each with our own thoughts, throughout the night,'' Carr said. “Knowing that it could be raining down on you the next morning, there wasn't any quaking in your boots. We knew it was a serious moment in history.''
The Marines were busy and tired.
“We did a lot of digging,'' Carr said. “There was no holding back in terms of effort. You just wanted to be as deep as you could get it by morning.''
Morning dawned quietly. War was averted.
“There were no high-fives,'' he said. “It was enough just to know that the outcome beat the alternative.''
Kennedy informed the nation Oct. 28 that the Soviets had agreed to remove their ballistic missiles from Cuba. The Marines' mission at Guantánamo didn't change much, however. It would take at least a month for the Soviets to remove their missiles. The Marines maintained military readiness, including full operational control of the Hawk missiles, during that time.
But it was relaxed enough that Carr had time to take in the beauty of the base.
Gleaming silver Marine Corsairs flew over the hill daily. One plane usually peeled out of formation and did a roll. A Coast Guard chief opened his bayside house and treated Marines to showers and hot meals.
Carr also met and befriended a few Cuban exiles living on the base.
“I was 21 years old. I had never been close to communism. I found out what it can do to people and their families,'' he said.
The young Cubans hadn't seen their families for several years. Carr said the Cubans were hoping to see a war break out on the island.
“Otherwise, there was no clear path to reuniting with their families,'' he said.
Carr remained in Cuba as part of a rear guard until Dec. 18.
“What we did was no big deal — no one got shot, to my knowledge — but it was important,'' he said.
He landed at Twentynine Palms the next day and moved back into a barracks emptied for the holidays. His pink-and-white 1957 Mercury Monterey was in storage three hours away in Los Angeles.
“I was alone in the desert with no one to share my experience,'' he said. “At the time, it was sort of comical, but in the years that followed, it helped me understand how the returning Vietnam veterans must have felt.''
Carr said the experience gave him new perspectives on fate and destiny — and one gut-wrenching question.
A half-century later, the question of what happened to the exiled Cubans the Marines befriended at Guantánamo haunts Carr.
“I went home after 55 days. I don't know if they ever did.''
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