Cuban Missile Crisis: North Naples man recalls facing down Soviet ships 50 years ago

The USS Hoist was a rescue and salvage ship on which retired Navy Lt. Ray Dearborn, of North Naples and North Carolina, served during the Cuban Missile Crisis that played out 50 years ago this month. Dearborn was a navigator on the day the ship and two destroyers faced down three Soviet freighters suspected of carrying missile parts to Cuba. After a day-long confrontation, the Soviet ships turned back.

The USS Hoist was a rescue and salvage ship on which retired Navy Lt. Ray Dearborn, of North Naples and North Carolina, served during the Cuban Missile Crisis that played out 50 years ago this month. Dearborn was a navigator on the day the ship and two destroyers faced down three Soviet freighters suspected of carrying missile parts to Cuba. After a day-long confrontation, the Soviet ships turned back.

North Naples part-time resident Ray Dearborn stands on the deck of the USS Hoist about 1962, when he was 25. Dearborn, now 75, a retired Navy lieutenant, served aboard the salvage and rescue ship when it became part of the Cuban Missile Crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war 50 years ago this month. The ship and two destroyers turned back three Soviet freighters suspected of carrying weapons parts to Cuba.

North Naples part-time resident Ray Dearborn stands on the deck of the USS Hoist about 1962, when he was 25. Dearborn, now 75, a retired Navy lieutenant, served aboard the salvage and rescue ship when it became part of the Cuban Missile Crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war 50 years ago this month. The ship and two destroyers turned back three Soviet freighters suspected of carrying weapons parts to Cuba.

— The line of sailors was long when Ray Dearborn called his wife, Helen, from the only pay phone on a Norfolk, Va., pier to tell her he wouldn't be coming home that night in October 1962: The USS Hoist had gotten surprise orders to leave port the next morning.

Within days, Dearborn and the rest of the rescue and salvage ship crew members found themselves facing down three Soviet freighters in the waters off Cuba as the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war 50 years ago this month.

At sea, as the crisis deepened, Dearborn felt isolated. The only communication back to shore was by teletype, and information was sparse, he said.

"We knew a problem was brewing, and a response was brewing," said Dearborn, now 75 and a seasonal resident of North Naples who lives the rest of the year in North Carolina. "I was 25 years old and didn't realize the magnitude of it, I suppose."

The crew of the USS Hoist was unaware of any role in the crisis when the ship left Norfolk earlier than expected to replace its sister ship, Escape, at its home port in Puerto Rico.

Then, on its fourth day at sea, the ship got encrypted orders to change course and meet up with two destroyers that were in the area. More troubling, the ship was warned to keep an eye out for Soviet submarines. That evening, more orders came, this time to interdict any Soviet ships and turn them around — using any means necessary, Dearborn said.

The USS Hoist was the first to spot the three Soviet freighters the next morning at dawn. The ships were riding low in the water, weighed down with long, narrow and large containers that Dearborn took to be missiles.

With Dearborn as the ship's navigator, the USS Hoist spent the morning and part of the afternoon shadowing the freighters as they continued toward Cuba. The ship used flashing lights, signal flags, sirens and whistle blasts to get the Soviets' attention. The Hoist even tried to cause a near-collision, crossing in front of the ship's path and getting as close as possible alongside, Dearborn said.

He remembers the commander of one of the U.S. destroyers telling the Hoist: "If you swap paint, you'll be forgiven."

"It was a very unique experience," Dearborn said.

Finally, about 2 p.m., with the freighters still undeterred, the commander ordered the destroyers to shoot two cannon shots across the bows of the two lead freighters. The freighters stayed their course. Dearborn held his breath.

"Now what?" he remembers asking himself and thinking the next step would trigger war. For another 20 minutes, the Soviet ships continued on their way until they finally turned around and headed out of sight, Dearborn said.

"It was like God was with us," Dearborn said.

He recalls wondering, though, whether that was the end or just the beginning. The next day, more ships from the United States and other friendly nations began showing up as the blockade ramped up. The USS Hoist was relieved of blockade duty and went on to San Juan.

Only when the ship's crew returned to Norfolk in February 1963 did they realize how terrified Americans had been during the crisis and how close the world had come to nuclear war, Dearborn said.

Dearborn's son, Patrick, 45, said his father never talked a lot about his role in one of the 20th century's most important events. He said his father didn't see it as being a hero but as just following orders.

"It was the sense of duty that made me so proud," said Patrick, a Naples Realtor who went on to serve in the Army's 82nd Airborne Division from 1986 to 1989.

Before Ray Dearborn's tour of duty on the USS Hoist ended in June 1963, word around the ship was that the crew would get some kind of commendation for the blockade. Nothing materialized.

Five years later, he came home from work one day, checked the mailbox at the house he and Helen rented in Annapolis, Md., and sat down on the front steps.

In the pile of mail, Dearborn found a small manila envelope. Inside was an unceremonious memo — and a medal hanging from a colorful ribbon.

Two years out of active duty when he got the medal, Dearborn has never worn it. He said he might pin it on for a day to observe the 50th anniversary of the day the USS Hoist turned back the Soviets.

"I think it's important to be worn once," Dearborn said. "I might not be around for the 60th."

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Comments » 3

marco97 writes:

Klaus, I hope you will not be disappointed when the great Mitt Romney defeats Barack Obama in 3 weeks. You seem more obsessed with Obama then Chris Matthews.

woozygirl writes:

in response to marco97:

Klaus, I hope you will not be disappointed when the great Mitt Romney defeats Barack Obama in 3 weeks. You seem more obsessed with Obama then Chris Matthews.

Hell of a reply. Short sweet and right on.

RayPray writes:

History shows that WW III was nearly caused by The Cuban Missile Crisis recklessly provoked by a JFK, high on Pain Killers for his bad back and Acheson's Disease and meth shots from frequent White House visitor 'Dr. Feelgood', and suffering from a dented ego after Bay of Pigs.

Ironically, the only reason we are still around today is that Communist thug Khrushchev proved to be inherently much more reasonable than dangerously irrational liberal hero Jacko.

Thank God the Kennedys are now all gone or in rehab!

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