Mount Airy High School students marked the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis on Wednesday by hearing from a veteran who was there.
Doug Cook, who is a retired principal of Dobson Elementary School as well as a retired assistant superintendent for Surry County Schools, was among the many Marines and armed forces personnel sent out in case Russian ships ran the American blockade of Cuba in 1962. The talk was sponsored by the MAHS History Club.
“I’m filling some big shoes here,” began Cook. “You have had some high ranking people here to talk with you. I was just a peon in the Marine Corps.”
Cook told the group about how he and his friend Richard Sellers were in college at a time when military service was not optional.
“There was no such thing as a volunteer army at this time,” said Cook. “It was possible to get an exemption from being drafted if you were a student. When you were a junior you had to be in the upper half of your class and when you became a senior you had to be in the top quarter.”
He told the group when you turned 21 years old Selective Service would call you up for an examination and you would get graded. A grade of 1A, for instance, meant you were ready to be shipped out to train for active duty.
“So there I was with 150 to 200 others classified 1A; Ready to go,” continued Cook. “We (he and Sellers) began to go to different recruiters and look for something else because we were not to sure about the Army. All the others were full except for the Marines. They would let us finish school and defer our service until summer.”
When asked how his parents felt about him enlisting in the Marines, Cook told the group they were not “happy campers” when he got home to tell them at the supper table.
“I came home from college, sat down at the supper table and told them it was better to volunteer than be drafted,” said Cook. “Besides, I told them, there was nothing going on in the world right now.”
That summer Cook and Sellers reported to Parris Island for basic and then to Camp Gieger for advanced combat training.
“All of a sudden things got serious,” recalled Cook. “We did a lot of night maneuvers, we were using live ammo and there was lots of hand to hand combat training. We had heard about this little thing happening down in Cuba.”
Cook told the students the recruits were told about the U-2 spy plane being used to spy on Cuba and that missiles were being set up on the island. President John F. Kennedy’s famous speech to the nation outlining Russia’s project to set up the missiles would be stopped by a United States blockade.
“We were training pretty hard. We knew something was happening,” added Cook. “We didn’t know what was going to happen and we just hoped the Russian ships on the way would turn around.”
This time in the nation’s history was know as the infamous 13 days in October and is perhaps, the closest the world has ever come to the real war to end all wars, a nuclear war. The U-2 was shot down during this time as tensions ratcheted up another notch. Cook and other troops were sequestered with no outside contact, radio or television.
“A captain and a sergeant called us in a room and told us it looks like we are at war with Russia and we were going to Cuba,” recalled Cook. “If you think we weren’t scared you are wrong. It wasn’t a fun time at all.” He explained they were told they would be landing in the same area of the failed Bay of Pigs operation. In short order, Cook had been transferred from heavy artillery to infantry.
He described to the students how all that could be heard overhead was planes, probably going to Florida.
“We had our weapons, our flak jackets, our equipment and we were ready to go. They loaded us up and we were on our way,” said Cook. He told the group how they heard en route that the U.S. Navy had fired shots across the bows of the Russian convoy and they had stopped. A deal had been brokered.
“It all stopped,” said Cook who noted the involvement of many of the other armed forces. “We turned around and unloaded and stayed around for another 48 hours. We were told Russian ships were going to try to run the blockade and after the first shots over the bow the Navy lowered its guns and said we will sink you. If they had been sunk we would have landed.”
Cook told the students saying he was relieved was an understatement but he and his fellow Marines were “ready to go and do our job.” He also told them a bit of wisdom left him by a Marine captain.
“I had a captain who had been a Korean War prisoner of war tell me that being a POW wasn’t much worse than Parris Island,” said Cook. “He told me don’t make promises to God you can’t keep. Keep your faith and do your job. I’ve never forgotten that.”
Reach David Broyles at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-1952.