A US Navy P-2H Neptune flies over a Soviet cargo ship during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Photo: Wikipedia

Acclaimed author Robert Whiting is so tightly plugged into Japan that the first edition of his memoir Tokyo Junkie: 60 Years of Bright Lights and Back Alleys … and Baseball came out in Japanese. Then the editors of the English edition, for whatever reason, decided against including his material on espionage. That decision is our readers’ gain. Asia Times earlier published one of those segments and now we’re serializing the other. Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here and Part 3 follows below:

By far the most stressful time at Fuchu Air Base’s Elint Center was a two-week period in October 1962, during what became known as the Cuban missile crisis. I turned 20 during that time but, along with everyone else in the center, I seriously wondered if I would live to see another birthday. We fully expected a Soviet nuclear warhead to take out our facility.

On October 14 of that year, our U-2 spy plane flights over Cuba discovered that the Soviet Union had installed medium-range atomic missiles there, just 90 miles from Florida. The weapons were SS-4s, 22 meters long and carrying megaton warheads. Their presence placed large swaths of the United States within range of attack. A missile launched from Cuba could reach the White House in just 15 minutes.

On October 19, the US military was put on “high alert” and ordered to be ready to invade Cuba at a moment’s notice. At Fuchu, we were all confined to base and placed on 12-hour shifts, seven days a week. We remained on standby during off-duty hours.

On October 22, US President John F Kennedy told the nation about the discovery of the missiles. Branding Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev an “immoral gangster,” he demanded the removal of the missiles and set up a naval blockade around Cuba. He also had his generals draw up plans to bomb the Cuban missile sites in case that should prove necessary.

The Cuban Missile Crisis is often portrayed as a hawks-vs doves episode during which US President John F Kennedy held off the gung-ho Joint Chiefs of Staff, narrowly avoiding nuclear war. Credit: JFK Library and Museum.

In response, Khrushchev wrote a letter to Kennedy in which he called the blockade “an act of aggression propelling humankind into the abyss of a world nuclear-missile war.”

An agonizing standoff ensued, the anxiety level moving off the charts, as we monitored Russian and Chinese movements, increasingly convinced that some sort of attack was imminent. The crisis dominated the news as people in Japan and America and the rest of the world watched and waited.

The people on the base, both American and Japanese, were eerily subdued as they went about their business, transistor radios (made in Japan) held to their ears to catch the latest news. The television set in the day room alternated between the US military’s Far East Network and Japan’s state broadcaster NHK, where grim-faced announcers gave round-the-clock updates on the crisis. Demonstrators outside the base waved banners appealing for peace. But everyone seemed much quieter than usual.

The author at Fuchu Air Base. Photo courtesy of Robert Whiting

A number of Soviet ships tried to run the blockade. US Navy ships fired warning shots at them. On October 27, after a U-2 was shot down by a Soviet missile crew in Cuba, the Pentagon raised the Strategic Air Command’s Defense Condition (DEFCON) to level two, which was the second to last step to nuclear war.

It meant that armed forces had to be ready to deploy and engage within six hours, and that our nuclear-armed B-52 bombers would be on continuous airborne alert around the world. It was the highest confirmed DEFCON level ever in the history of the United States. (DEFCON 1 meant that nuclear war was imminent.) Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. would later call this showdown “the most dangerous moment in human history.”

At the beginning of the standoff, the Elint Center commander, a Navy admiral, had assembled us and we’d all held our breath while he explained the situation.

“This is not a drill,” he said solemnly, “I cannot overstate the danger we are facing. There is a very real chance that nuclear war could break out and that we might all be blown to kingdom come.” He added “If you have any letters to write I suggest you write them now. You might not get another chance.”

What neither the Soviets nor anybody else knew at the time was that the Americans had also installed ballistic missiles of their own, similar to the ones the Russians had delivered to Cuba, on Okinawa, just south of Kyushu. There were eight missiles in all, brought in six months earlier and hidden in underground missile sites.

Each missile, bearing the label TMAHORN Mace, was 13 meters long and weighed eight tons. Packed inside each one was a 1.1 megaton nuclear warhead that had 75 times the ferocity of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It could obliterate everything within a five-kilometer radius, create a crater 20 stories deep and irradiate the landscape for decades to come.

The range was relatively short but Vladivostok was within reach and so was China. Many at the base thought it likely that the Okinawan Maces might very well have annihilated Shanghai and Beijing, prompting a retaliatory attack on the 900,000 residents of Okinawa, and perhaps the millions more living in Osaka and Tokyo. The Elint Center would of course be a priority target.

So we wrote letters home, suspending our doubts about Herodotus’s encomium to the postal carriers (which did not include nuclear winter among the snow, sleet, gloom of night and other atmospheric conditions thT left them undeterred); and unable to leave the base, we commiserated with each other at the Airmen’s Club, scared out of our wits, and got blind drunk each night trying to deal with the reality of it all.

On a happier night during the 1961-63 period, a group gathered in the Airman’s Club at Fuchu Base. The airman who preserved the snapshot, Bill Lambert, reports that a beer cost 10 cents US; a pack of cigarettes, 12 cents. Source: michaeljohngrist.com

It was in that state that I turned twenty years old on October 24 – an appropriate way, I thought, to celebrate the fact that under Japanese law, which the US military followed as required by the Status of Forces Agreement, it was now legal for me to get that way. It was hard to find anything else worth celebrating at the time.

“Whiting,” said my friend Douglas Victoria, from Iowa, “Happy Birthday. Let’s all hope you make it to age 21.”

Most of us thought we were too young to die, until someone reminded us that the average age a soldier died in World War II was not that much older.

We sat there scared out of our wits, slowly going blotto.

There was some consolation for scared young Americans. This band, the Gay Little Hearts, performed regularly in the Fuchu Airman’s Club in those days. Photo: Bill Lambert / michaeljohngrist.com

As chance would have it, unbeknownst to us, however, secret back-channel negotiations were taking place between Kennedy and Khrushchev. Sanity prevailed. On October 28 the two leaders reached an agreement on a deal whereby the Soviets would publicly dismantle their Cuban missiles and return them to the Soviet Union, subject to verification by the United Nations, in exchange for a US public declaration and agreement never to invade Cuba, and a secret dismantling of all US-built Jupiter IRBM’s deployed in Turkey and Italy.

An additional outcome of the Kennedy-Khrushchev talks was the creation of a Washington DC-Moscow hotline. With the announcement of the deal, we all started breathing again. A couple of men started going to church.

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