Did this US Navy Ensign Prevent World War III?
By James Thompson
Contributor, In Homeland Security
Exploring the newly-published, “Sea Stories,” by Gary Slaughter in his own words.
Deadlock: The Cuban Missile Crisis
At the critical flashpoint of the Cuban Missile Crisis when President John F. Kennedy and Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev were deadlocked in a geopolitical military stare down with ominous consequences—all out global nuclear destruction—young U.S. Navy Ensign Gary Slaughter manned the bridge of the USS Cony. With tensions mounting, he confronted a senior adversary, the grizzled Russian Captain Vitali Savitsky whose Soviet Foxtrot-class B-59 submarine was forced to the surface by dummy depth charges dropped by the U.S. Navy, but which Savitsky thought were live.
The date was October 27, 1963, designated by Kennedy’s White House as “Black Saturday,” when two mistrusting superpowers teetered closest to the edge of World War III. And while the world held a collective breath as to which nation’s leader would blink first, Captain Savitsky didn’t flinch. Neither did Ensign Slaughter.
Convinced war may already be underway, Savitsky had already armed a 15 kiloton nuclear torpedo, and was determined to launch, while Slaughter, the USN communications officer, was under orders to interrogate the hard-boiled Russian atop the submarine less than 200 feet away. How does one interrogate a senior-ranking enemy officer on an opposing vessel who speaks Russian while on the high seas? Slaughter could only use the ship’s signal light to transmit Cyrillic, International Signals Book, and Morse Code.
Sea Stories: 100 Percent True
What Slaughter and his shipmates wouldn’t know until 40 years later is that they were already in the cross-hairs. With further provocation, whether real or perceived, Savitsky might annihilate them both with a nuclear strike, less than 90 miles south of sovereign American soil, which would precipitate a chain reaction of atomic strike-counterstrike. The fate of human history was at hand, and it was up to Slaughter to communicate via “flashlight” across opposing military cultures, starkly different languages, political worldviews and conflicting missions. He had to ensure absolutely nothing was lost in translation. While this scenario resembles a critical plot ripped from the 1990 Tom Clancy blockbuster film, The Hunt for Red October, Slaughter’s story is 100 percent true, and told in his self-penned book, “Sea Stories: A Memoir of A Naval Office (1956-1967),” published by Fletcher House.
In this riveting, authentic retrospective of Slaughter’s military career, starting with his coming of age as a University of Michigan NROTC midshipman standout—Slaughter shares a refreshingly honest and straightforward account of pivotal life moments and the people that shaped his character. With a genuine tone, free from embellishment, but with an officer’s keen eye for detail and wry sense of humor, Slaughter carries the reader through his journey from mastering firearms with his uncle, to comical bar adventures across the border, to being a confined tourist in Guantanamo Bay (“Gitmo”), and to finding the love of his life, Susan Parker. All brought together through his Navy career.
Slaughter’s unique and candid retelling of historical events, including the first time he and fellow personnel learned of JKF’s assassination, are intertwined with whimsical accounts of O’ Club pranks, and even an awkward session with a church minister lecturing, in painfully funny generalities, about the birds and the bees before Slaughter’s wedding day. Combined together, readers are offered a distinctive, forthright tone that spans a wide array of human moments that create Slaughter’s unique storytelling. If it’s political opinion or historical reinvention you’re looking for, you won’t find it here. Rather, you’ll relish how efficiently Slaughter distills overwhelming historical events like the Cuban Missile Crisis into humanly tangible scenarios.
Case in point—just after President Kennedy delivered his famous October 22, 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis speech to the nation:
“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 on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”
—President John. F Kennedy
The following day, Slaughter wrote a personal letter to his fiancée, Susan, chronicled in his memoirs, that states (abridged):
“We are extended at sea indefinitely… there’s no doubt that this situation is for real… The information about my whereabouts is of course ‘For Official Use Only. Handle with Care.’”
—“Sea Stories,” by Gary Slaughter
Slaughter effectively transforms the global fears and uncertainty of the day, and personalizes them in his poignant and levelheaded letter to Susan, with no assurance they’d ever see each other again. And little did Slaughter know; only a few days later, he’d be squaring off, face-to-face, with Savitsky.
“Keep that Russian Bastard Happy!”
Those were Captain Morgan’s standing orders upon the USS Cony. Over the next few hours, Ensign Slaughter mustered all his fortitude and training to ensure the Soviet B-59 and its captain complied with U.S. Navy directives while deescalating a volatile situation during a long night when all signs pointed to war. How did he do it? The details are effortlessly described by Slaughter in “Sea Stories,” in a rare style that would excite any military history buff and engage a casual reader alike.
In the end, like in all good human profiles, two enemies parted ways with respect, but still steadfast in their mission. The Cuban Missile Crisis wasn’t entirely over, and neither was the long Cold War to come.
“I was sad to see the submarine leave,” writes Slaughter, “After all, B-59 was our catch.”