David Cheney served in the Canal Zoned during the ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’ of 1962
The scariest part of David Cheney’s three years in the Army was during the “Cuban Missile Crisis” in 1962. He was attached to a communication’s outfit stationed in Panama and was within hours of being shipped to Cuba to take part in an invasion by U.S. forces.
During 13 days in October, from the 16th through the 28th, 1962 the United States, Soviet Union and the Cubans were on the brink of nuclear war. It started when an American U-2 spy plane photographed Russian medium range (SS-4 Missiles) being installed in Cuba.
A year earlier President John F. Kennedy cooked up the ill-fated “Bay of Pigs” invasion of Cuba by dissidents backed by the Central Intelligence Agency. The invaders were to overthrow Fidel Castro, the Cuban strongman, who had just run Rafael Batista, the Cuban dictator, out of the country. Halfway through the invasion Kennedy pulled the plug and the landing became a disaster for a bunch of patriotic Cuba invaders who were captured by Castro’s Communist troops.
As a result of the “Bay of Pigs” debacle, Castro convinced Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to provide economic support for the island nation. In addition to economic goods for Cuba, Khrushchev also snuck several shiploads of Russian missiles into Cuba. They were eventually aimed at the U.S. mainland when discovered by the American spy plane.
Initially the Soviets denied the U.S. charge that it had nuclear missiles pointed at the U.S. Tension between Kennedy and Khrushchev almost reached the breaking point when Adlai Stevenson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, produced aerial photographs of the offending missiles in Cuba.
The world was waiting for catastrophe to strike. Then Khrushchev blinked. He sent a secret letter to Kennedy telling him he would remove the Soviet missiles in Cuba if the U.S. would remove its nuclear missiles in Poland pointed at Russia.
While all these international discussions between the two world leaders were going on Pfc. David Cheney of North Port, Fla., a member of the 3rd Signal Corps Platoon in the Panama Canal Zone, was waiting orders to march into Cuba.
“About 600 of us were stationed at Fort Kobe in Panama when the problems in Cuba broke out,” the 76-year-old former soldier recalled. “We were put on high alert. We thought we were about to be shipped to Cuba as part of the assault troops. We were issued live ammo and everything else and were ready to go.
“If I had gone to Cuba it would have been my job to establish communications facilities for Army troops who were expected to land with me,” Cheney said.
“We sat there for six days waiting to go. We were right there at the Canal Zone watching at least 30 American war ships sail through headed for Cuba.
“It was pretty scary because we didn’t know anything. Despite the lack of official communication word got around to us about what was happening with the Cuban crisis. Then we finally got word the conflict was over.”
Some months before the Cuban problem erupted, “A hurricane wiped out British Honduras. Eight or nine of us from our company were sent to Honduras to help provide communications for the rescue and recovery operation,” he recalled.
“I flew down with the group and set up generators to supply communications. We were up and running the first night we arrived. For the next 14 days we supplied the radio communications for the recovery group.”
When Cheney returned to Panama he was transferred to a new unit—the 134th Ordinance Battalion. It was a Hawk Missile outfit that maintained and fired the air-to-ground missile. He had been asking for a transfer out of his old unit because of lack of promotion. He was still a private first class after a couple of years in the service.
He never fired the missile while a member of his new battalion.
“It was probably a good thing,” Cheney observed more than 60 years later. “I understand some of the test firings didn’t go too well.”
He wrapped up his three years with the missile outfit and was shipped back to the States for discharge. Right after Christmas 1963 he was discharged from the Army at Fort Jackson, S.C.
A short while later Cheney went to work for McDonalds. He flipped hamburgers to begin with, but after 18 years with the firm he was director of operations for a McDonalds franchise in the Enfield, Conn. area.
He bought his own mom and pop restaurant in Westfield, Mass. he ran for a few years, sold it then signed on with a doughnut franchise and opened 24 stores for the chain before becoming a food service consultant in 1990. He spent the last 13 years owning another restaurant in Enfield, Conn.
He and his partner, Sheryl, moved to their North Port home two years ago. Cheney has five children from an earlier marriage: Ann, Art, Sheryl, Patrick and Dianne.
Name: David Cheney
D.O.B: 12 Apr. 1940
Hometown: New London, Conn.
Currently: North Port, Fla.
Entered Service: 1960
Unit: 3rd Signal Platoon
Commendations: Good Conduct Medal, Expert Marksman
Battles/Campaigns: Cold War
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Dec. 19, 2016 and is republished with permission.
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I really like this blog and its stories. Keep up the good work. I do have a minor correction on this story. I believe the US agreed to move its missiles out of Turkey rather than Poland as stated. I think Poland was behind the Iron Curtain at the time, so the US having missiles there would have been a pretty significant strategic advantage. Just sayin’.
I too was involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis but as a Marine with boots on the ground in Cuba. I sent my story to Don Moore along with photos from that era a couple of years ago.
Bill Ober USMC 1961-1967
Bill, where do you live?
Anyone remember the C-119 Flying Box Cars that landed at France Field (Coco Solo Naval Air Station Panama Canal Zone) around 1961-62 that were carrying what appeared to be a battalion of paratroopers? It appeared to be a rest stop, as the troops exited the planes and milled around a few hours before taking off again. It was apparently associated with the the Bay of Pigs Invasion/Cuban Missile Crisis. My brother and I stumbled upon the scene at the decommissioned airfield and have wondered ever since what it saw all about.
I was a 19 year old Spec.4 at Fort Kobbe in the Panama Canal Zone during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was a clerk-typist at the Headquarters Company.
The Airborne units in the CZ normally pulled the base guard duties, and we didn’t normally have to stand guard. I think the powers that be normally wanted us bright eyed and bushy tailed at our typewriters in the mornings. But during the Cuban Missile Crisis, October 1962, we did guard duty for about three weeks.
I remember the guard duty trucks driving by the Air Force Base and seeing the Airborne troops in the hangers ready to board the jump plans. I am sure they rotated the “ready” troops around, but they were in this posture for at least two weeks.