The high-water mark of Phil Fessenden’s 30-year career in the Navy and the Air Force during the “Cold War” was when the Port Charlotte, Fla. resident was a member of Light Photographic Squadron 62 that took the low-level pictures of the Russian missiles in Cuba during the “Cuban Missile Crisis” in October 1962.
In those days he was an aviation electrician responsible for keeping the squadron’s modified “Crusader” fighters used by the Navy as aerial mapping planes in the air. After the Air Force U-2 spy plane spotted the missiles from on high the “Crusaders” flew over to take a closer look at what the Russians were up to.
“Our cameras were so good our ‘Crusaders’ could take aerial photographs from 60,000 feet and read the ‘Camel’ cigarette brand on the pack of cigarettes a man was holding in his hand” Fessenden said. “Our squadron was all over the place during the missile crisis.”
What happened, the Russians secretly installed ballistic nuclear missiles in Cuba some 90 miles from the coast of Florida which didn’t set well with President John Kennedy. The president told Premier Nikita Khrushchev of Russia to remove the missiles or else he would be inviting World III.
For 13 days that October no one knew whether another world war was going to erupt. The U.S. Navy blockaded Cuba with a massive fleet of war ships after telling Khrushchev his nuclear missiles in Cuba must go.
A short time later the Russian premier sent the president a letter containing an offer that would ultimately resolve the problem the U.S. had with the Russian missiles. He proposed removing the offensive missiles from Cuban soil if the U.S. would withdraw its nuclear missiles from Turkey aimed at Russia.
Kennedy told Khrushchev he would accept his offer if he did not tell the public the U.S. was pulling its offensive missiles out of Turkey. The Russian premier’s proposition worked and both sides withdrew their missiles.
This wasn’t Fessenden’s first involvement with a Cuban crisis. His initial experience came almost a half dozen years earlier, shortly after he got out of aviation electronics school in Jacksonville. He was attached to Attack Squadron 45 aboard the carrier USS Saratoga.
“I sailed with her to Guantanamo, Cuba. This was before Castro took over the island,” he said. “While the ship was in port we got to go on liberty to Guantanamo City. We went ashore in our dress whites on a landing craft. A lot of our guys were drinking pretty heavily when they got ashore.
“Coming back to the carrier it wasn’t just us aboard the landing craft. There were also some ’tin can’ sailors and some submariners with us,” he recalled. “Almost everyone had been drinking too much. Before we could reach our ship the ‘tin can’ sailors and the submariners got in a brawl and before it was over all of us got knocked down at least once. We didn’t look too pretty when we reached the Saratoga.”
Life abroad the carrier would be different for Fessenden. He came aboard the ship with a couple of heavy fishing rods. “It was perfectly legal,” he said.
“While we were at Guantanamo I used my rods and fished off the Saratoga’s fantail. I did petty good and caught snapper. One of the snapper weighed 55 pounds. I gave it to the ship’s cook and he cooked it up for me and himself and some of his friends.”
When the Saratoga left Guantanamo it sailed for the Mediterranean and the countries of southern Europe and the off islands. Fessenden went along on the voyage.
“We spent a lot of time on an island off the coast of Spain. My buddies and I were in this bar and they had too much to drink. Someone called the Shore Patrol on them and things got out of hand,” he said. “There was a big black guy with us who had worked in the steel mills around Pittsburgh before he joined the Navy. He arms were as big around as my thighs.
“The Shore Patrol arrested his best buddy for disorderly conduct in the bar and put him in their Jeep. The black guy asked them to let us take him back to the ship, but they wouldn’t do it.
“With one arm the black guy reached under the Jeep and turned it on its side with all three of them it it,” Fessenden said. “At that point he told the Shore Patrol he was taking his buddy with him. They didn’t object.”
By 1965 there started to be some serious rumblings in Vietnam. It was about this point in his career he decided to switch services and go into the Air Force. It wasn’t long afterwards he was retrained as an aviation electrician Tech-Sergeant supporting the F-104 “Starfighter.”
“One night I got a call and they told me I was going to Vietnam. They gave us our orders, gave us a bunch of shots and put us on a C-130 (transport plane) for Vietnam. I got off at Okinawa where my F-104 Squadron was located,” he said.
“We also had a forward base in Thailand. I arrived there during the rainy season. You just can’t imagine the snakes you ran into at that base when it was raining. There were Cobras and another one they called ‘The Hail Mary Snake.’ If it bit you, you had just about enough time to say a ‘Hail Mary’ before you died,” he explained.
“On my way back to Okinawa flying equipment around to various air bases we stopped by Saigon. While there we had lunch in a local restaurant. After our plane was airborne the pilot came on the intercom and told us the restaurant where we had just had our lunch had been blown up by the Vietcong.”
He arrived back in the U.S. in 1965 and as luck would have it he was sent to McDill Air Force Base in Tampa, his hometown.
“I went to work for 836 Air Division at McDill. I became a boat master in the Air Force,” Fessenden said. “I ran a fishing boat and took people charter boat fishing while they were on the base.”
His last overseas assignment was four years in the Panama Canal Zone. Again he was the skipper of a sea rescue boat in the Air Force. He retired in 1985 after three decades in the service as a chief master sergeant, an E-9, the highest enlisted rate.
Fessenden and his wife, Judy, moved back to Florida in 2000. They have two adult children: Deborah and Drew.
Name: Phillip Prescott Fessenden
D.O.B: 22 April 1938
Hometown: Tampa, Fla.
Currently: Port Charlotte, Fla.
Entered Service: 1955
Rank: Navy: AE2 Aviation Electricians Mate; Air Force: CMSGT (E-9)
Unit: Navy: Light Photographic Squadron 62 (VFP-62); Air Force: 82 TAC, Tyndall Air Force Base
Commendations: Meritorious Service Medal W/1 OLC, Air Force Commendation Medal W/1 OLC, Distinguishd Presidential Unit Citation, Air Force Outstanding Unit Award w/6 Dvices, Navy Unit Commendation, Air Force Good Conduct Medal w/5 Devices, Navy Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal W/1 Device (For U.S.Military Operations in Lebanon and Cuba), Vietnam Service Medal, Air Force Longevity Servie Award Ribbon W/6 Devices, Small Arms Expert Marksmanship Ribbon W/1 Device.
Battles/Campaigns: Vietnam, Cold War
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Oct. 3, 2016 and is republished with permission.
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