Carter Archambeault of Port Charlotte, Fla. joined the Navy just in time for the Cuban Missile Crisis that mesmerized the world for two weeks during October 1962. It was a period in world events where the U.S. and the Soviet Union came close to starting a nuclear war.
An American U-2 spy plane spotted Russian missiles on the ground in Cuba is what started the almost clamitious clash. The year before President John Kennedy launched his ill-fated “Bay of Pigs Invasion” of the island nation to topple the Fidel Castro regime. It was sponsored by the Central Intelligence and it went badly for this country.
As a consequence Castro, the Communist dictator, requested the assistance of Nikita Khrushchev, the premier of Russia, to help protect Cuba from a U.S. invasion. The Soviets snuck nuclear missiles into Cuba and that’s when an American spy planes spotted them just before they were ready for launching.
“I just graduated from radio school in Norfolk, Va. in ’62 and had gone abroad the USS Hissem, a converted World War II destroyer escort. She was being used as a Navy communication ship. The Hissem was 285-feet long with two, three-inch guns and a crew of 155.
“When the ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’ broke out we were just leaving Guantanamo Bay, Cuba after taking part in war exercises,” the 75-year-old former Navy man explained. “We were the first ship to be on station when President Kennedy initiated the blockade of the island nation.”
It initially appeared neither the Americans nor the Soviets were going to back down. The incident seemed to be headed for nuclear war.
Then President Kennedy initiated a blockade as more Soviet ships were sailing toward Cuba with additional missiles. At the 11th hour Premier Khrushchev sent the president a secret letter advising him he would remove the Soviet missiles from Cuba if Kennedy would take the American nuclear missile off Russian’s border with Turkey. JFK said yes, provided the Soviets didn’t tell the world what the president agreed to do.
The crisis was over almost as quickly as it began. Archambeault and his ship returned to its home base of New Port, R.I.
His next nautical adventure was not nearly as dramatic as his first outing aboard the Hissem. She sailed for the North Atlantic and the “Dew Line.” The string of American RADAR facilities across the top of the world that protects the U.S. from an airborne attack by the Soviets.
The weather was terrible and the sea was worse as the ship’s crew suffered through days of battering while on picket duty up there. All Archambeault said about this sea duty was, “We did some bouncing around in the North Atlantic.”
When the atomic attack submarine USS Thresher went down with all hands 200 plus miles off the coast of Boston on April 10, 1963 the Hissem had a role to play. Their little ship was used by the Navy’s brass as their command ship during the search for the lost sub. They had two admirals and four captains aboard the Hissem.
“We were out there for a week chasing Russian trawlers away from the area where our submarine was lost,” he said. “While we were out there another atomic sub, the USS Jefferson, surfaced near us. My god, it was bigger than our ship.”
It wasn’t long after the Thresher incident the crew of the Hissem sailed for the Antarctic. They provided supplies for the crew of a weather station at a place at the South Pole called Campbell’s Island. It was 250 miles from the Antarctic.
Archambeault said the sea at the South Pole was considerably smoother than fighting the short, choppy waves in the North Atlantic.
What made the trip down there more interesting was he wildlife they encountered.
“We saw schools of killer whales that surfaced near our ship. When we turned our SONAR on they schooled around our boat—15 or 20 of them at a time,” he said. “Campbell’s Island is a nesting place for the Royal Albatross. They have wing spans of six to eight feet. You could walk up to them while they were nesting and they’d just sit there and look at you.
“We also saw lots of penguins and many sea elephants on Campbell island that were mating. You could smell them from 10-miles away.”
They spent six-months in New Zealand while down in that part of the world.
“We loved it there. It was a beautiful place,” Archambeault recalled. “And the people were absolutely friendly. They didn’t like the British.”
His three years aboard the Hissem concluded with a 20-nation around-the-world cruise that took the crew months to complete.
When he was discharged Archambeault attended St. Petersburg Junior College and studied Restaurant Management.
It didn’t take him long to become manager of a New England Oyster House restaurant on Florida’s East Coast. It was a job he held for five years. Then he went to work as the manager of a Caesar’s Steak House. When he retired from the chain 17-years later he was regional director of the company.
“Then I went to Puerto Rio and opened a couple of restaurants down there,” he said. “I went down there broke and made tons of money. I came back to Florida 15 years ago and moved to the Port Charlotte area with my wife, Awilva.”
He is partially retired, but still works as a cook locally. Archambeault’s daughter, Michelle, lives in St. Petersburg.
Name: Carter Archambeault
D.O.B: Feb. 19, 1942
Hometown: South Bend, Ind.
Currently: Port Charlotte, Fla.
Entered Service: Oct. 24, 1960
Discharged: July 24, 1964
Unit: USS Hissem
Commendations: Antarctic Service Medal, Good Conduct Medal
Battles/Campaigns: “Cold War”
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, March 6, 2017 and is republished with permission.
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