Cuban Missile Crisis Secret Revealed – Four Soviet Submarines Came
Within Moments Of Firing Nuclear-Armed Torpedoes At U.S. Fleet
October 31, 2012. 12:35 am • Section: Defence Watch
By William Craig Reed
Defence Watch Guest Writer
Those of us who were alive fifty years ago recall President John F.
Kennedy's shocking address to the nation with chilling clarity. In
somber tones, he told us that there were nuclear missiles in Cuba. Few
experts disagree that the Cuban Missile Crisis brought us closer to
global annihilation than any other event in history. But virtually every
book, documentary, or discussion about the Crisis focuses on the
infamous "thirteen days in October" and the threat of attack from
land-based missiles. What no one knew until recently is that we were
actually closer to WWIII during the first week of November 1962, when
four Soviet submarines came within moments of firing nuclear torpedoes
at the U.S. Fleet.
This story begins in August 1962 when Commander Leonid Rybalko met with
Soviet Fleet Admiral Sergei Gorshkov to discuss plans for Operations
Anydr and Kama. Already underway, Operation Anydr was Nikita
Khrushchev's grand plan to place short and medium-range nuclear missiles
in Cuba. Unknown to many historians is Operation Kama—an even more
frightening plan to place seven ballistic missile submarines in Mariel,
Cuba. Under this plan, each sub could hide in the ocean off the U.S.
coast and launch nuclear warheads at almost any city in North America.
Khrushchev knew this would be a far greater threat to the U.S. than
land-based missiles. To ensure his plan would succeed, he authorized
Gorshkov to send four Foxtrot submarines in advance of the missiles subs
to secure the base at Mariel. He also authorized the use of nuclear
torpedoes, if and when required.
Foxtrot-class submarines have no nuclear reactors, and so need to
recharge batteries and refresh their air every day or so via noisy
"snorkeling" diesel engines. To detect snorkeling subs, the U.S. had
years earlier created the Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS)—an array of
hydrophones in the Caribbean Ocean and nearby areas. They detected the
Foxtrots on their way across the Atlantic, but kept losing contact when
those subs stopped snorkeling and "went silent" on their batteries.
Fortunately, the navy had another top secret technology that could find
these subs when they transmitted via radio.
Gorshkov insisted that each Foxtrot transmit a status report once or
twice daily. When they did, special listening stations could triangulate
a location using a new system codenamed Boresight. My father, William J.
Reed, a navy Ensign working for the NSA, was in charge of deploying
these systems. But the technology was nascent and only three stations
were operational. Location accuracy was low, but when they did get a
"hit," U.S. anti-submarine warfare (ASW) ships and aircraft had at least
a rough idea of where to look for the Soviet subs. Secretary of Defense,
Robert McNamara, caught wind of Boresight and asked for details from
Admiral Anderson, who was in charge of U.S. Atlantic Fleet operations.
When President John F. Kennedy ordered the blockade, Anderson stationed
sixty warships in a "walnut line" arcing from Cuba to south of Florida.
During several meetings between Kennedy, McNamara, Anderson and the
advisory ExComm Group, the highest concern discussed involved locating
the Soviet Foxtrot submarines, now converging on Cuba. They did not know
that each sub carried a nuclear-tipped torpedo capable of vaporizing
everything within a ten mile radius, which might include up to a dozen
On the evening of October 22, 1962, Kennedy announced to the world the
discovery of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. Less than 1,000 miles off
the coast of that country, radio operators aboard the four Foxtrot's
intercepted the transmission. For my book, Red November, I interviewed
two captains and several crewmen who were aboard those subs. They
described horrendous conditions where temperatures inside the boats
swelled to nearly 100 degrees in tropical waters. Unable to surface due
to constant harassment from U.S. forces (directed to their locations by
Boresight listening stations), crews lost nearly 30% of their body mass
and developed terrible skin rashes. Every boat had a nuclear torpedo
loaded and ready in tube #2, but their orders from Moscow for using them
were sketchy at best. Each captain knew that if they did fire those
weapons, they would most likely not survive the explosion.
On October 23, Kennedy had the navy bring in the quarantine line from
800 to 500 miles from Cuba. He did so out of concern over Khrushchev's
aggressive posture and refusal to turn back the supply ships carrying
nuclear missile parts. Khrushchev was bolstered by the knowledge that
his four Foxtrot submarines could easily punch large holes in Kennedy's
blockade. SecDef McNamara ordered Admiral Anderson to make finding those
Soviet subs the navy's top priority. He also informed Kennedy about
Project Boresight, the new technology that might help the navy with that
task. Kennedy asked McNamara to have navy experts brief him and the
ExComm Group on the Boresight system.
My father's boss at Section A22 of the NSA, Commander Jack Kaye,
received a call from SecDef McNamara. A few hours later, Kaye and my
father were headed to the White House. There they met with Kennedy and
the ExComm Group, whereupon my dad gave a technical briefing outlining
the capabilities and shortcomings of the Boresight technology. At the
end of the meeting, Kennedy asked my dad if there was any way possible
to get a more accurate location on those four Foxtrot subs. Commander
Kaye started to say "no" when my father interrupted and said "yes."
Kennedy asked him to do so, and my dad spent the next few sleepless days
at the three operating stations working on improvements. By October 26,
the navy could finally obtain reasonably accurate locations on each
Foxtrot submarine whenever they transmitted. ASW forces converged on
those bearings and dropped active sonar buoys and warning depth charges
in an effort to force the subs to the surface.
On October 26, during an ExComm meeting, Kennedy said he didn't believe
the quarantine alone would force Khrushchev to remove the nuclear
weapons from Cuba. A CIA report indicated that the Soviets were not
halting missile site development. That evening, Kennedy sent a private
hand-written memo to Khrushchev. To this day, no one has verified the
contents, but expert contacts I interviewed speculate that the memo
contained just four lines: the coordinates to each Foxtrot submarine.
The next day, Khrushchev's demeanor changed dramatically. Where once he
had been strong and stubborn, he was suddenly soft spoken and
cooperative. What caused this overnight transformation? Authors have
proffered dozens of theories, but none explain how a lion turned into a
mouse in less than twenty-four hours. That is, all except one:
Khrushchev was emboldened by the knowledge that his four Foxtrot
submarines, carrying nuclear torpedoes, could decimate the blockade.
When Kennedy sent him that memo, accurately pinpointing the location of
each sub, Khrushchev knew he'd been trumped. He then had no choice but
to fold his hand. What he failed to do, however, was send a clear
message to those submarines that the conflict was over.
On October 28, Khrushchev announced over Radio Moscow that the Soviets
had agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba. Not announced was the
agreement with Kennedy that the U.S. would not invade Cuba, or the tacit
arrangement that America would remove all nuclear missiles from Turkey.
At this point, most accounts on the Cuban Missile Crisis end. They state
that Americans could finally breathe easy again, emerge from their bomb
shelters and go about life as usual. Nothing could be further from the
Over the next week, the four Foxtrot submarines did not turn around and
go home as did the Soviet cargo ships. Instead, they skirted the 500
mile quarantine line around Cuba and continued to threaten U.S.
warships. Aided by Boresight fixes, U.S. ASW ships and planes forced
three of the four subs to the surface. What we did not know until
recently, is that captains or commanders aboard all four Foxtrot subs,
once backed into corners by U.S. forces, nearly fired their nuclear
torpedoes at the American fleet. The stories portrayed by the captains
and crew aboard these boats during those stressful days, when they were
certain that WWIII was eminent, is truly frightening.
Fifty years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, experts still focus on the
thirteen days in October when the world shuddered at the thought of
ground-based nuclear missiles headed our way from Cuba. But the truth is
far more frightening. If just one of those Foxtrot submarines had sunk a
dozen U.S. warships by firing a nuclear torpedo, this act would
certainly have started WWIII. When I interviewed Captain Ketov,
commander of Foxtrot B-4, I heard something that chilled me to the core.
Ketov said, "If we captains had completed our mission, there might be
nuclear missile boats in Cuba today and we would have been honored as
heroes. Instead, because all four of us chose not to fire our torpedoes
and avoid starting a nuclear war, we were later persecuted by our
government as failures and traitors."
William Craig Reed is the author of Red November: Inside the Secret U.S.
– Soviet Submarine War (HarperCollins, May 2010), which reveals the
untold story about the Cuban Submarine Crisis and a dozen other top
secret underwater espionage operation.