The Evacuation and the USNS Upshur

Oct. 22nd through the 25th, 1962, three days that will live in infamy.  Here’s a part of the story I bet you didn’t know.

My Dad wrote the Evacuation letter, we knew it was coming but even so it was still a shock.  To be forced out of your homes and have your whole life change in just a matter of hours is something you will never be prepared for.

At 0800 hours my Mom, brothers and I with one suitcase loaded up on the Blue Bird bus.  Instead of going to school as was our morning routine, we were being taken to the docks, near where the PBYs berthed.

The day had finally come.  The Base Police had been issuing warnings for months that this day might come.  “Water Condition Bravo.”  NEGDEF was finally in effect.

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When we off loaded from the bus we joined a line that was forming at the docks.  We were told to board the USNS Upsher, a troop transport ship.  The bow of the ship opened up like a door to make it easier to load.  Boys 10 years of age an older were sent to berth in the aft hold.  The bunks were stacked to the ceiling, about 18 inches above each other.

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The women with small children and daughters of all ages were packed in the staterooms in the forward section.  Rooms that were meant for 2 to 4 people were packed with 10 or more.  The women folk leaned up against the bulkhead using their suitcases as room dividers.  They slept on mattresses rolled out on the deck.  In the daytime these mattresses were rolled up and used as couches to sit on.

Mom had my two younger brothers with her but after I paid her a short visit, I could see that she had her hands full.  I managed to get permission for my brother Gary who was 8, to go with me.  Our Dad was Mr. Frailey on base back in  GTMO but that didn’t cut us any slack on board the Upsher.

At first confusion ruled the day and we took advantage of it to roam the ship.  Then military order took effect and we were soon put in our place.  The red light over the head (bathroom) was on 24 hours a day, just in case you wanted to crawl out of your bunk you could find it in the dark.  The scuttlebutt or drinking fountain was near there just in case you got thirtsy.

The stairway leading down to our compartment is where the Petty Officer put his chair after we got caught a couple times trying to sneak out on deck after dark.  Gary and I hid in a lifeboat during the life boat/abandon ship drills, just so we could roam the deck after dark.  We might have got away with it if Gary hadn’t of been playing with the flare pistol.  Let’s just say it was an illuminating experience.

The first hundred miles after leaving port in GTMO, the ship headed due east, toward Puerto Rico, then it changed course northward heading homeward to the US of A.  The weather was nice the first day, I was wearing white shorts and a white T shirt.  In GTMO almost everyone wore light colored clothes, because of the heat. I remember it was so hot that I blistered my arm when I leaned up against a hand rail.   As we turned north though, I could feel the cold wind in the air.

The second day out after our life  boat drills, I noticed that the American flag was being flown upside down.  Even military brats know this is the sign for distress.  I scanned the horizon and there on our port bow were two gray frigates chasing us, shadowing our every move, one behind the other.

The two ships were flyin red flags. It was too great a distance to be able to make out the hammer and cycle until later in the afternoon when they got closer.  The Upsher was a troop transport ship.  No armaments.  Maybe a few hand guns among the ship’s crew but no defense against two frigates.  Not being familiar with the Russian Navy, I call them frigates.  They were too big to be destroyers.  Their radar was constantly rotating back and forth.  Their guns were covered by camolouged nets but you could tell what and where they were.

This caused concern among the passengers but there wasn’t anything we could do about it, not really.  The Navy personnel aboard ship kept an eye on them but maintained our course.  As time progressed the two Russian ships edged closer and closer.  The scuttlebutt aboard ship was that our Navy was busy with a blockade around Cuba, maybe they were too busy to worry about us.

We were in International Waters, might makes right.  The ship nearest to us kept sending us signals.  Me and the boys with us that could read morse code thought that they wanted us to heave to.   They removed the netting from their 5 inch guns. Our Captain refused, the closer they got to us, the more he would veer off course to the right to maintain a safe distance.  He didn’t want us to be boarded and he had the feeling the Russians wanted to take us hostage.

Gary and I kept getting into trouble doing stupid things that spoiled brats do.  For punishment we were told to help the cook in the galley.  One of our chores was to dump the garbage overboard, off the fan tail.  This gave us the opportunity to see the night sky and the ghostly silhouettes of what seemed to us to be two bullies that acted like they were spoiling for a fight.  Intimidation, that’s what is was, intimidation.  Ever hour they crept closer and closer until on the morning of the third day, they were only 500 yards off our bow.

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After the morning lifeboat drills, the boys from my baseball team usually stood on the bow, tossing a baseball back and forth, non chalantly playing catch.  On this morning there was a lot of jeering and hurling insults at the the Russian ships.  God only knows if they could hear us.  We lined up with our backs to the Russian ships and when one of the bigger boys hollered “GTMO Salute,”  we all dropped our drawers, bending over we gave them a full moon shot salute.  Then on the command “Ready Two,” we straightened up and fastened our pants.

I  brought my school notebook with me, I wanted to make some drawings.  After a few cartoons of making pictures showing Kruschev kissing an American bald eagle on the butt, I started making them into paper airplanes.  I tossed a couple over the side in the direction of our Russian nemesis.  This caused a stir amongst my buddies and soon we were all making drawings and airplanes.  We were too far away for the planes to make it, we were hanging over the side watching silently as they fell one by one into the sea, then a loud cheer arose as one that seemed destined for the drink, took a new life and rose with the air currents to new heights, gaining altitude before it dipped sharply and succumbed to the depths, bringing at a loud groan from the onlookers.

This groan however was soon replaced by a chorus of loud hurrays and everyone pointing to the rear of the ship.  I looked and saw coming towards us, out of the fog  a white American Coast Guard destroyer with the plugs removed from the mouth of it’s guns.

The Coast Guard ship edged it’s way between us and the two gray ships.  They dipped their ensign as a salute, then seemed to slowly disappear in the fog.  The day was saved.  Hurray for the US Coast Guard, they had our back.

After what seemed forever, we finally docked at Newport News.  The weather was a brisk 49 degrees.  I hadn’t experienced this kind of weather since ’59 and I was wearing shorts, a tee shirt and a pair of flip flops.

I was the first dependent to walk down the gangway, Mom and my brothers were right behind me.  A photogrpher from AP got a shot of us.  The next day it was across the front page of most every newspaper in America.

There to greet us was the American Red Cross and a crowd of about a thousand people.  The Navy Band played Stars and Stripes.  A nice lady gave me a red sweatshirt parka and a cup of hot chocolate.  Oh it was good to be home again.

I’ll never forget how good it felt to be an American that day, listening to the band playing Stars and Stripes as I walked down the gangway.  I will be forever grateful to the Red Cross for the warm clothes and nobody, I mean nobody better ever say any thing bad in front of me about the US Coast Guard.

 

 

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