On the Brink of World War III
Looking at it now, 40 years later, it's hard to believe that it happened. But I, like the proverbial “fly on the wall,” was there, in the Situation Room in the basement of the White House when it happened. As an aide to President Clarke L. Guilford, I had to be there and witnessed the awful truth firsthand. Everyone was sworn to secrecy for fear of alarming the world. But I, for one, have had too many sleepless nights through no fault of my own except being a witness to history. It is time the story was told.
6:36 PM Honolulu time
The USS Montgomery CG 97, a guided missile support cruiser for the US Naval Fleet in the Pacific was nearing its port in Hawaii after being refitted in San Diego. Luis Gomez, Petty Officer Third Class, on deck, heard a loud hissing sound, and, looking over his shoulder over the rail saw a remarkable sight: A column of water hundreds of feet high that had suddenly burst from the ocean without warning. While the column of water descended in a misty spray, the sea from whence it came roiled for some time after, leaving the distinct impression that something large had ascended from the deep.
Gomez grabbed a deck phone and called to the bridge. “Alert, alert! I have just seen on the starboard side what appears to be a missile being launched! Did anyone there see it?" The bridge had seen it too and immediately began speculating what it was. They quickly came to the conclusion that it was a missile launched from a submarine by the size and direction of the water column. A chill ran down the spine of the cruiser's Lieutenant Commander, George Applegate, as he thought of the possibility of a nuclear strike against the United States. What more apropos place to launch it than the Hawaiian Islands, where World War II started?
6:38 PM Honolulu time
Chuck Warner, Ensign, the sonar operator aboard USS Wisconsin SSBN 725, a ballistic missile submarine out of Bangor Washington, picked up what appeared to be a large explosion near the Hawaiian Islands some 300 miles distant from their location. Warner immediately called Peter Madison, the sub's commander, and asked if he should report the incident to Pacific operations.
Commander Madison, leery of false alarms, said, “No, keep me posted if you hear anything more and I'll check to see if anyone else has heard similar explosions.”
6:41 PM Honolulu time
Warner frantically called Madison again. “Sir, I just heard two more explosions. They are huge and could easily be missiles being launched from a nuclear sub. One of ours? I hope not. We had better notify Pacific operations right away.”
“Okay.” Madison replied. “You had better have a good recording if we are going to raise an alarm like that.” Keep listening while I get this message out.”
Peter Madison hurriedly typed out a written message to verify what he was going to say over the radio and wired it just as he called Pacific command over encrypted radio.
6:45 PM Honolulu time
“Hello Pacific operations, this is Commander Peter Madison from SSBN 725. My sonar operator has informed me that he picked up three explosions since 18:41 Honolulu time. We highly suspect that these are missile launches from undersea based on the sonar signature. Have you received verification from any other source? Are they friendly or foe? Do I need to get ready for battle? Hurry, this is top secret and we don't have time to make any mistakes. Standing by…”
“Commander Madison. Yes, we have a report from CG 97 that they saw a water spout–like phenomenon near their cruiser just as it was getting dark. They heard a loud hissing sound and the surface disrupted for some time as though it was something that came up from the deep. It's hard to imagine that an enemy submarine would launch so close to one of our cruisers, but whoever it is must think that they can be brazen to launch three missiles like that. This is very serious. We are passing this information on to the Joint Chiefs as I speak. Stand by…”
11:47 PM NORAD Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado
Colonel Reginald Lincoln, Commander of NORAD Operations, sent out an urgent coded DEFCON 2 alerting the Commander-in-Chief, the Chairman and the Joint Chiefs of Staff that nuclear war was imminent. Requesting all information available from all military sources because only 20 minutes remained before missiles launched 10 minutes earlier would strike. There was a hush in his voice and intensely strange look on his face as he tried to gather information from many sources as fast as he could. His heart was pounding so hard it felt like he was going into a mission over Berlin like he did in his youth. A heart attack was imminent, but he fought it off.
1:49 AM the White House Situation Room
President Guilford arrived in the room in his robe and slippers, a look of disbelief on his face, as his aides and military attaché arrived in various states of dress and undress, unsure of why they are there but willing to help in any way they could. “Where's the Secretary of State?” Guilford bellowed.
“She's in England, don't you remember.” An aide meekly replied from his side.
“I don't care where she is, we need to get her on the line so that she can try to arrange something to stop this. Those of you that don't need to be here, and you know who you are, please leave now. The rest of you, please get every one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, including the Chairman, the Secretary of State, the Speaker of the House and anyone else you can think of on an encoded conference call to deal with this situation. Is NORAD Command on the line?”
“Yes Colonel Reginald Lincoln is, our operators are connecting everyone as fast as possible. Your microphone is live.”
At that point, I wish I could have crawled into a hole, but I couldn't. My job was to help make it all happen and I was busy, working behind the scenes as quietly as I could to speed things along and try not to make any mistakes.
President Guilford opened the discussion. “Colonel Lincoln, what is it that you've got that makes you go to DEFCON 2 at this time of the night?”
After a slight adjustment of the speaker, Colonel Lincoln came in loud and clear. “Minutes ago, two Naval vessels detected what appeared to be three missiles being fired from undersea, Sir. We have no AWACS in the area to verify by radar and the launch was too far from Honolulu Center for it to be picked up. Likewise, worldwide, none of our radar sites has detected any missile activity. Should it be necessary, our B-52s are in the air and all of our missile silos and submarines are alerted and will proceed at your command Sir.”
“I'm not commanding anything until I get more proof. Is there any other way… longwave, magnetic, or visual, that can determine if we really do have missiles on the way to destroy us? Can I use the red phone?”
“We contacted our guy on Flat Island. He is telling us that he will need 5 min. to develop the time lapse film he just took of that sector, Sir.”
“Who is this guy and can I talk to him. If this thing is as urgent as I think it is, I've got to cut out the middleman.”
“He is First Lieutenant Spencer W. Beauregard, a specialist in spotting and tracking satellites for us, Sir. We are patching him through to you right now.”
“First Lieutenant Beauregard, this is President Guilford calling. I understand you are attempting to verify whether missiles had been launched into space in an attempt to attack the United States. I don't need technical details, just what do you know.”
“Thank you, Mr. President, I'm doing my best, but you'll have to wait 2 minutes until my films develop. Please stand by until then.…”
The tension in the situation room was so thick you could cut it with a knife. No one spoke, but I could almost read the minds of those there by the look on their faces. With only a few minutes left, President Guilford would have to make a decision whether to throw the world into a nuclear holocaust or hold back and wait for the inevitable destruction that three missiles, and maybe more, with multiple warheads could inflict. Everyone was watching the clock and the secondhand seemed to slow down while time speeded up. Everything hinged on what our man on Flat Island found out.
1:56 AM the White House Situation Room
The microphone crackled alive as though it were 10,000 miles away and First Lieutenant Beauregard's voice could be heard. “Mr. President, Sir, I have reviewed the time lapse film and see no movement in space or near space either over the Hawaiian islands or over the United States. I detect no missiles in the air or in space. I believe you have a false alarm.”
President Guilford, his face drained of color, but looking much relieved, responded. “You had us, helpless, sitting on the edge of disaster, unable to act for a moment there. But you came through. When in a pinch our military always comes through. You can stand down now and be proud that you are part of the best defense in the entire world. Lincoln, are you still there?”
“Yes Sir, and I heard every word. The whole staff here at NORAD is feeling one great sigh of relief, Thank God.”
“Colonel Lincoln, I'm going to put someone in charge of an investigation to see why this near tragic event happened in the first place. And, as soon as I get hold of Admiral Patterson, I am going to find out why two of his ships both thought that missiles had been launched in anger against the United States of America. To all of you here in the Room, at NORAD, and in military units poised for action around the world, it is time for us to stand down and go back to bed. I want all of you to consider what you have seen and heard tonight to be top-secret. I do not want the other side to feel that we have any weakness at all and therefore we must keep this information close until sometime, in the future, when threat to our sovereign right to live no longer exists. Good night and God bless America.”
With that, everyone left the room but me. I was still standing there watching the clock wind down to when the missiles would strike in about 3 minutes I waited about 15 minutes beyond that, but no explosions were reported and I finally wandered off to bed wondering what it would have been like had we launched World War III.
Admiral Patterson's investigation revealed that the source of the explosions and waterspout-like event were the result of volcanic activity in the rift that created the Hawaiian Islands. The recordings from the event became part of training for naval sonar operators.
My sleepless nights continue, especially since I recently talked to Spencer W. Beauregard. He is now a retired Major living in the mountains in Montana, far from any population centers or missile sites. He told me over a beer that this was only one of five instances that he knows about of false alarms that almost caused World War III. How many times, I wonder, have we gone to the brink?
Copyright 2011© Ronald W. Hull