At 17 Earl LeBon of Riverside Oaks Mobile Home Park in Punta Gorda forged his mother’s name on his induction papers and joined the Navy at 17 in 1961.
After boot camp at Great Lakes he ended up as a machinists-mate aboard the destroyer USS Borie, DD-704, stationed in Norfolk, Va.
“When I first saw the ship she was completely torn down all the way to her hull. She was in the Navy yard in Portsmouth, Va. I stayed aboard the ship for a couple of months and helped rebuild her,” he recalled almost 60 years later.
“Then we went to sea on a shakedown cruise and ended up in Gitmo. After that we took a Med cruise,” LeBon said. “A group of 20 of us were called down to the fantail. We were standing at attention when a young ensign showed up.
He told us, “You guys are the only guys on this ship without a high school diploma. Before you leave this ship you will have a high school education. I would suggest you start studying now because in two months you will take the GED.”
“I decided this was my chance to improve myself. I bought a book entitled: ‘High School Subjects Self-Taught.’ It was a big, thick book with all the subjects taught in high school.
“When we went to sea I started studying at night. I was on a pump watch in the lower levels of the ship hanging onto a ladder with one hand and my school book with the other when another ensign spotted me doing my homework.”
“‘What are you doing?’ he asked.
“I told him I was studying for the GED test I had to take in two months. He told me this was no place to study and he offered me the keys to his office as a place to study. It was about as big as this table. I took his keys and headed for his office. From then on at night I studied in the ensign’s office.
“While the Borie was at sea I used his chair and wedged myself in such a way that the ship’s motion didn’t bother me while I hit the books,” LeBon said.
“Algebra was killing me, I didn’t get it. I told the guys in my engine-room about my algebra problems. They said, ‘Maybe we can help you out.’ There were a couple of guys in the aft engine-room with me who were pretty good in math.
“They challenged the guys in the forward engine-room to compete with them in an algebra contest. And then the guys in the forward engine-room would challenge our guys with a problem in algebra. In two days I learned how to do algebra.
“I also had a good friend in the Navy with me named Ken Cybuski from Patterson, N.J. who was very good in English. He had a grammar book and helped me a whole lot with English grammar.
“When we took the GED I passed it the first time. Out of the 20 guys on our destroyer who took the test half of them didn’t pass.”
The most exciting part of LeBon’s four years in the Navy was during the ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’ in October 1962.
“We were in port and I was working on a piece of equipment needed to run our ship when a young ensign came up to me and asked how long it would take to complete what I was working on. I told him an hour. He replied, ‘Get it done in 30-minutes. We’re going to sea immediately. He didn’t say where.
“While the Borie was underway we heard President John F. Kennedy tell the world on TV that the U.S. had put a Naval blockade around Cuba for allowing the Russians to sneak nuclear missiles into that island nation aimed at the U.S.
“We became part of that blockade. Our destroyer had special Variable Depth Sonar that allowed us to find enemy submarines at any depth,” he explained. “The Russians were sending nuclear subs out in front of their freighters that were taking missiles to Cuba.
“We spotted a Russian nuclear submarine submerged near Cuba and dropped a dummy depth charge on the enemy sub that bounced off its side,” LeBon said. “At that point the Russian sub skipper knew we had them even though he tried to evade us for a couple of days underwater, but we stayed with him the whole time.
“He had two possibilities: He could fire his nuclear missiles or surface. He decided to take the latter. That was a good thing for all of us.
“When the Russian sub surfaced horns and bells on the ships blockading Cuba sounded in unison. It was quite a commotion,” he recalled.
“We followed the Russian submarine half-way across the Atlantic. It was on the surface all the way back to the USSR.
“Then we did a U-turn and headed for Panama. When we got to Panama there were 20,000 U.S. Marines in battle dress waiting for us. We accompanied them and their LSTs as they sailed toward Cuba. This was the strike force that would invade the island nation if the blockade didn’t work.”
Minutes before the Marine invasion force reached the blockade, with the destroyer Borie accompanying them, the blockade was called off. The Russians capitulated and pulled their missiles out of Cuba.
“The Navy and the Marines were given liberty in Kingston, Jamaica,” LeBon said. “We all started partying and fighting when we got ashore. We were all kinda mad because the fight in Cuba didn’t happen. So we took it out on the Marines and they took it out on us.”
When he got out of the Navy after four years he wasn’t certain what he wanted to do in civilian life. He tried working as a machinist, but that didn’t work to his satisfaction. A neighbor, who was a cop, suggested he try out for the Baltimore Police Department. He did and got the job.
LeBon was still in training during his first year on the police force when he was involved in his first homicide case.
“We got a call about a shooting. When we got to the scene we found a guy dead with a bullet hole in him. He was a drug dealer and we couldn’t find any witnesses.”
For 15 years he worked for the Baltimore Police Department first as a cop who walked a beat and later as a patrol officer in a squad car. I worked on Baltimore’s west side, it was a high crime area and I loved it.”
He decided to switch jobs and go north. He joined the Atwater, Minn. Police Department. It was a little town with 1,100 people. In the winter it could get to -70 degrees. I worked there as a patrol officer for six years.
“Then I transferred to the St. Cloud, Minn. Sheriff’s Department. After my first year I was a sergeant. I worked in corrections for two years and then they made me a shift supervisor. I worked in that job for three more years. Then I moved into the jail and worked there for five years. My final 1 1/2 years were spent again as a sergeant in the field.
I retired in 2002. We came down here to Florida two years ago, with my wife Jeanne. We have six children: Sharyn, Christine, Julie, Lorrie, Danielle, and Adam, our youngest.
“What I wanted to say about the service is: I think it’s making a big mistake not taking young people who don’t have a high school diploma. I look at myself and think there are a whole lot of guys like me out there who need an education and could get one in the service like I did if they would allow these people to sign up.
“The Navy changed my whole life for the better. If it wasn’t for the Navy I don’t know where I would be today.
***Got this e-mail on Monday, the same day the Earl LeBon story ran in the Charlotte Sun: “Having read the story in today’s edition of the Sun detailing Earl LeBon’s service during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, there are several misrepresentations.
“1. The Soviet submarines involved were of the Foxtrot Class. They were diesel-electric and NOT nuclear.
“2. These submarines were not missile boats so there could be NO launching of nuclear missiles.
“My comments come from similarity in careers as I too, joined the U.S. Navy on my 17th birthday. I served in Submarine Service and upon discharge spent 33 years in law enforcement.”
I checked with a historian at the U.S. Naval Museum in Washington and found out the unnamed person who sent me an educational e-mail was correct. The Soviets used subs in Cuba that did not have nuclear missiles. However, the historian told me the confusion may have come from the fact that some Soviet submarines did carry nuclear torpedoes.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, August 28, 2018 and is republished with permission.
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