In his weekly column, Thomas Dimopoulos takes us down the back streets of Saratoga to bring us the city's best stories
Lee Nicholls shielded his eyes from the autumn sun and watched his black-spotted Whippet scamper across the lawn. Fifty years ago, to the day, Nicholls was at Guantanamo Bay, a few yards from the ragged fence line separating the U.S. Naval Base from Cuba, and tuned his transistor radio in to the sound of John Kennedy’s voice. “Good Evening, My Fellow Citizens,” began the somber president during an 18-minute speech that informed the nation Russian missile sites with nuclear strike capability were discovered in Cuba. Soviet ships carrying unknown cargo were also on their way.
“There was tension all that summer,” recalled Nicholls, who left Saratoga Springs two years after graduating high school and joined the Navy in 1959. He can still see the city through the eyes of a little boy, the Grand Union Hotel and Convention Hall, The United States Hotel and the big, stained glass windows of a dozen stores with their soda fountains rushing by as he rode in the basket of his aunt’s bicycle during the gas-rationing days of the early 1940s.
A 1962 painting by Nicholls while onboard a ship. It depicts the fantail of a destroyer-type vessel, with amphibious ships seen in the distance.
After surviving the rigorous training of Basic Underwater Demolition School, he joined the Underwater Demolition Team – a Navy Special Warfare unit that was a predecessor of the Navy SEALs. “In the late spring of ’62 we got word that we were going on a mission down to Guantanamo Bay. By the middle of that summer, we knew the Russians were doing something down there.” That fall, Nicholls listened to Kennedy call upon Russian Chairman Nikita Khrushchev to eliminate the missiles that threatened world peace and to call back his ships and move the world back from the abyss of destruction.
A few months earlier, Nicholls and his Underwater Demolition Team conducted a covert mission in the Dominican Republic, mapping out underwater obstacles. “We went in surreptitiously and made notations of the things that would tear the bottom right out of a steel ship, so when the time came to make an invasion we’d know what we had to go in and blow up,” he said. “That’s what underwater demolition was – we’d blow stuff out of the way so the ships can come in.” The survey charts were used a few years later by U.S. Marines during their invasion of the Dominican Republic.
Nicholls spent the summer of 1962 off the shore of Cuba, “blasting it and getting it ready. Getting there, you went through an area that had military housing for people that worked on the base with swimming pools, a school house and kids playing,” he recalled. “When Kennedy made his speech, there was this big MSTS – Military Sea Transportation Service – in the harbor there. They’ve got the gangways up and here come all the civilians, being evacuated from Guantanamo. Now, this is not good. We’re in the jeeps going past the village and it was like the Twilight Zone: pieces of paper floating through the air, there’s a door, just swinging quietly, the swimming pools are empty and nobody is around, not even a dog,” he said.
“Next thing we look and in come some big C-130’s and they’ve got “First Marine Division” along the side. They’re from the west coast. They don’t come all the way to Cuba. Now here come the Marines, running across the road with this big M-60 tank, and down the beach we go. The s--- is going to hit the fan.”
Nicholls, who is 73 now, can remember when he went back to Saratoga Springs in 1967 and saw his hometown with its main street buildings mostly vacant, or demolished, or ravaged by fire. The pretty landscape of trees was destroyed by Dutch elm disease. It made him wonder whether the war had been fought on the streets of his hometown. He would spend a good portion of the next 45 years using his hands and his artistic talents to help rebuild, reconstruct and beautify the city’s buildings and parks.
“We were back onboard the ship and there were a few amphibious ships out there, but the next morning when I got up it was horizon-to-horizon vessels: air craft carriers, cruisers, destroyers - everything is out there – it was like you see in the movies,” he said, as a squawking flock of geese buzzed across the sky, flying south in a V-formation.
“We were right there and we were ready. The aircraft carriers were there, the jets were flying around in formation. That’s how close this was,” he bristled. “It’s a very scary thing because it wasn’t a question of were we going to have casualties and we’ll prevail. This was: everybody is going to die. And they would have. We found out later, what they had for a plan is they wanted to go in and blow up one of nuclear sites and claim that it was done by the counter-revolutionary groups,” Nicholls said about the week-long event when humanity teetered on the brink of potential annihilation.
On Oct. 28, Khrushchev finally announced he agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba. “What made the hair on my neck stand up on end was that the Russians had nuclear artillery already there. In the event we had invaded they would have fired off that artillery and we would have been crispy critters. We’d have been incinerated right on the beaches,” he said. “Those goofy Russians would have nuked our asses right on the beaches. And that would have been it. All of civilization would have come unraveled,” he said. Then he turned and watched his playful dog, who scampered with glee across the backyard lawn.
Thomas Dimopoulos is a local author who has a knack for storytelling, and a gift for finding some of the best-kept secrets in Saratoga Springs.
You can follow Thomas on Twitter at @thomdimopoulos
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