SYCAMORE – Frank Bilardello was an eyewitness to history.
While serving on the destroyer USS William M. Wood, the Sycamore man was part of the Naval blockade outside Cuba during the Cuban missile crisis. The crew's mission was to prevent Russian ships from entering Cuba with nuclear missiles in October of 1962, during the Cold War.
Bilardello served in the U.S. Navy from 1961-65. After spending a year in Iceland – which was an experience in itself – he was transferred to Norfolk and assigned to the William M. Wood.
Bilardello was on duty when U.S. and Soviet ships came within minutes of firing on each other. As if that wasn't enough, his ship was nearly capsized by a hurricane on its way back to Norfolk.
According to Bilardello's wife, Peggy, the sailors have a reunion every October to share their experiences. "They are a fantastic group of men," she said.
"We talk about how lucky we are to be able to sit here and talk about what we went through," Frank Bilardello said.
Bilardello, now retired, sat down last week in his Sycamore home with MidWeek reporter Doug Oleson to discuss that fateful near-encounter 50 years ago.
MidWeek: How did you get involved in this?
Frank Bilardello: I was transferred to Norfolk in October (1962). The ship was already at sea, so I couldn't report. I was instructed to wait in the transient barracks until the ship came in.
In the middle of the night, all the lights were turned on and the officer in charge came in with a baseball bat and started banging a 55-gallon drum. And he just rattled: "We are on alert." That happened on every base in the country. They didn't go into any detail.
MW: So you had no idea what was going on?
FB: None at all. Less than 24 hours later, I got instructions to report to the vessel, which was now in port. ...When I got on-board ship, that's when I found out what was going on.
MW: What was your duty on the ship?
FB: I was assigned to what was called the "ship's office." We did all the paperwork and everything. But when we have a general quarters, you were assigned to go a specific place and were issued small arms.
The ship got ready. The interesting side note on that is our particular captain, his wife was due to deliver. He probably wanted to be relieved of his duties as much as anybody on that ship. But he went down.
MW: How far were you from Cuba?
FB: We were right there, basically protecting the bay. Our main duty was to plain guard the carriers. They're like an albatross. They can't move or anything. We basically patrolled the bay, back and forth. We never went into port. We were out to sea the whole time.
MW: Do you know how many ships there were?
FB: I'll bet there were over 100.
What was interesting is that we didn't have the communications that they have now, so all communications from ship to ship, and also to the enemy vessels, was by light. I keep thinking, back then, how long did it take (Soviet Premiere Nikita) Khrushchev to make a decision to communicate to Kennedy, and vice versa? And what could happen in the meantime, because everything was on edge.
MW: How many days were you there before the Russian ships showed up?
FB: About a week.
MW: How many ships did the Russians have?
FB: I would say about a dozen.
MW: What happened then?
FB: They showed up and we started communicating. "What are your intentions?" "Don't go any further."
The closer they steamed to us, we went dead in the water to block the bay. The scary thing was the alerts go out on ship and we go to general quarters. We could hear the click, click, click of the 14-inch gun turrets as they turned. They were getting ready.
We found out later that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had made a decision, and Kennedy had agreed to it. What we were going to do was warn them. The skipper of each ship was given permission that if you are challenged and it appears they are not going to stop, (shoot) one over the bow. And if they continue to come, shoot for real.
They figured we had to do something. We just weren't playing games.
MW: Was there a point that the Russians couldn't cross?
FB: I don't know. I would assume so, maybe like a football field.
MW: How close did they get?
FB: You could see people on deck, and you could see the missiles. They came that close.
MW: At that moment, did you guys all realize what was going on? Or were you so focused on following your orders you didn't think about it?
FB: You get concerned. "Is this it?" The thing that really gets you concerned is when you hear those gun turrets turning. "Uh-oh, is this for real now? Is this going to happen?"
MW: Did the ships just stop and back up, or did they gradually turn around?
FB: They were flashing, flashing, flashing. And they just gradually turned around and sailed back out to sea.
MW: How far did they go?
FB: Back to a point where we couldn't see them anymore.
MW: Did the Soviet ships stay there, just out of sight?
FB: I think so, but I don't know for sure.
MW: When the Soviets turned, did everyone on your ship know you had avoided something big?
FB: Pretty much. General quarters was called off and then most of the crew went to the mess tent and the officer on deck or the skipper came down and said, "This is basically what happened."
The other thing that happened that a lot of people didn't know about is the Soviets had a number of submarines in the area. The interesting thing was that, on our ship we had a sonar crew and they were really, really sharp. They knew when there was a submarine in the area.
MW: So what was the initial reaction on board? Was there a sense the ships could still come back?
FB: Yes. It wasn't just total "OK, now it's done."
MW: Were you there when the blockade was lifted?
FB: No. We got instructions to be relieved to go back to Norfolk because the captain's wife was pregnant. Every time a ship had permission to leave, another ship replaced it.
MW: How long was your ship part of the blockade?
FB: I would say between 10 days and two weeks.
MW: Anything else that stands out?
FB: One thing I find interesting is that this country seems to always have the good fortune to have the correct president sitting in the Oval Office during such trying times. ...Thanks to having John Kennedy there, and deciding not to "shoot first and ask questions later," we did in fact avoid World War III.
MW: When you look back, what do you think of you being there?
FB: Holy cow! I was involved in that?. ...It was an interesting experience, but I don't think I would want to do it again.