October 21, 1962, Day 6 of the Cuban Missile Crisis— At age 19, I was one of two men responsible for authenticating nuclear launch messages from 45 feet down under the earth’s surface in Okinawa. (The other man was Captain James Eagle.) The United States was on the brink of war, and here I was, too young to vote or consume alcohol, entrusted with a decision that could unleash nuclear destruction over the face of the earth.
I moved to the desk where my counterpart had placed a .45-caliber weapon, magazine and launch messages, each laminated in plastic with NSA (National Security Agency) printed in the center. None of the seals had been broken. My orders were: “Shoot anyone who attempts to take them from you, rank irrelevant.” Captain Eagle had an identical weapon, the second half of the launch message and the same orders. In the middle of our shift, we received a coded message that changed our defense posture to DEFCON (defense condition) 3, only two grades away from a nuclear launch.
Vladivostok, the Soviet Union’s Pacific naval port, was within our range. Thirty-two one-megaton missiles housed in sites on Okinawa could be launched in minutes. Though the majority of our targets were in China, the missiles could easily be reprogrammed to hit Soviet targets by changing data on the missiles’ black boxes.
During briefings on the following days, I viewed reconnaissance photographs of the weapons buildup on Cuba and Soviet ships headed toward the small nation, freighters with missile sections clearly visible on top of their decks. Their fighter-bombers stood ready on airfields. Mobile missile launchers were scattered around the island. The consensus was that the buildup had to be stopped. Opinions in Washington differed on how.
While Generals Maxwell Taylor and Curtis LeMay opposed waiting and tried to undermine President John F. Kennedy’s efforts by agitating the Soviets with the detonation of a hydrogen bomb in the South Pacific and launching a test missile from Vandenberg Air Force Base, I waited nervously for the coded message to place us in launch mode.
In the middle of this looming disaster, I saw racism rear its ugly head. Our power equipment specialist was one of only two African Americans in our group. Though we were friends on base, when we left, I went to Gate 2 Street, while he had to go to the village of Koza, where all black service personnel had been relegated.
Tension mounted inside the concrete tomb, and petty fights broke out. Captain Eagle stood up and walked out into the crew ready room. “Damn it, knock it off,” he said. “We’re supposed to be a combat ready crew, which means we work together if called upon to launch these birds. Anyone have a problem with that?” He waited, then said, “I didn’t think so.”
All I knew was that I was sitting on an island with one of the largest stockpiles of nuclear weapons in the world. With armed aircraft, missiles and strike forces of Marines and Special Forces personnel, I knew Okinawa was a prime target. If orders were given to launch, there was no plan and no escape route.
I kept my eyes glued to the teletype. The direct line to group headquarters rang constantly, passing on coded messages from Pacific Air Forces. The messages in a pouch on my belt became heavier as their importance grew. At any moment, I could be asked to open one, authenticate it and place our missiles into launch mode.
Our forces moved to DEFCON 2, one step away from launching. Reconnaissance photos showed Soviet missiles ready to fire, with submarines accompanying their fleet. President Kennedy raised the nuclear sword; the plan was to drop it on Monday morning. Flights over Cuba increased when one of our U-2 spy planes was shot down. Fortunately, on Sunday morning, Khrushchev caved, ordering all ships to stop.
Later in the shift, I asked the captain for permission to look at the missile in Bay 1. When I arrived, three crew members were in the process of recycling the bird. My eyes fixed on the section that contained the nuke, 50 times as powerful as Little Boy and Fat Man, dropped during World War II. Our site had eight. My whole body shook. The gravity of how close we’d come to nuclear disaster hit me, though few among us truly understood the gravity of the situation. Only a handful of us were over 20 years old.
About 13 months later a coded message came through, telling us that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas and had been rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital. An eerie feeling pervaded the small concrete and steel enclosure on Okinawa. Unlike the visceral fear we had felt during the Cuban Missile Crisis, this time our fear was heartfelt. Our leader had been shot. The teletype started again. “President Kennedy died at 1300 hours Central Standard Time,” was the official report. Emotions ran deep, and tears fell unchecked.
The communication line rang. A coded message came through. We were at DEFCON 3—again.
Originally published in the November 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.