50 years later, residents reflect on Cuban Missile Crisis


Fallout shelter signs, such as this one outside The Shrine of Our Lady on Belle Vista Avenue, were a common sight during the Cold War era.(Christopher Kochera/TheNewsOutlet.org)

Published on October 21, 2012 in The Vindicator(Link)


It was a rainy fall day Oct. 22, 1962, in Youngstown. Dark smoke and the smell of sulfur hung over “Steel City USA,” the third largest steel-producing city in the United States. Chrysler Imperials and Ford Galaxies ruled the streets, and Dan Ryan’s voice echoed over WBBW-AM.

As workers returned home that evening, an urgent message was broadcast. President John F. Kennedy would address the nation about a matter of utmost importance.

“Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation (in Cuba),” Kennedy proclaimed on small black-and-white television screens across the country and across the radio waves. “The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.”

This top secret document, now declassified, was given by the Central Intelligence Agency to President John F. Kennedy Jr. The graphic shows the range of the Soviet missiles that were being installed in Cuba. Note the word, “PSALM,” at the bottom. This was the code word used on documents indicating the information was about the missiles in Cuba.Photo courtesy of the National Security Archive

There was evidence of an increasing Soviet military buildup in Cuba. A U.S. Air Force U-2 reconnaissance plane captured photographs on Oct. 14 of Soviet missile bases under construction. The Kennedy administration quarantined the island, a move the Soviet Union denounced as an act of war.

“It was a very dangerous game of chicken,” said Bill Lawson, executive director of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society. “We (the United States) had, from a security standpoint, a real threat having missiles 100 miles away from our shores, so that built up to this crescendo.”

World War III was inevitable. The possibility of nuclear holocaust struck fear in the hearts of Americans.

Youngstown residents thought they were doomed.

The miles of steel mills that lined the Mahoning River were a sooty, industrial-sized bull’s eye for Soviet nuclear missiles.

“I remember my mother and father sitting around the kitchen table and worried, so I was worried,” said Marsha Hamilton of Leetonia. The oldest of four children, she figured the president, along with her mom and dad, would take care of everything.

“I was worried about it, everybody was worried about it, but what could we do?” said her father, Tom Burnett of Austintown. “As individuals, we couldn’t do anything. We had to wait for the government to act.

“We were all worried because you read about it in the paper, and these people on the radio telling you what could happen, that didn’t make it any easier.”

Across America, cities with heavy industrial sectors or military bases buzzed with rumors about their places on the “strike list,” a kind of urban legend that a list of likely targets included their communities.

“We were convinced we were targets and that if Russia could get in they were coming after us,” said John Keenan of Youngstown. “I remember thinking, this could happen, people were stockpiling food.”

“Russia was always going to come and bomb us because we were a steel town,” said Kathleen Dragoman. “We prayed very hard.”

Those fears were justified, said Lawson.

“It’s because of the local steel industry. That was still viewed, in terms of strategic targets and assets, as a very important part of United States military and economic might.”

People prepared for the impending nuclear destruction. Students practiced “duck and cover” routines, hiding under stamped-steel desks that struggled to support the weight of a full-grown adult, let alone the effects of a 50-megaton nuclear bomb.

“When I was in school, we always got under our desks and had air raid (drills),” said Dragoman.

Hamilton huddled shoulder-to-shoulder with her fellow classmates in the cold, concrete hallways of Kirkmere Elementary School, arms folded above her head for protection.

“I’m not sure that would’ve helped,” she said.

Keenan agreed.

“It sort of made sense then,” he said. “When we look back on it now, we should have just walked outside, looked up at the sky and said, ‘I’m done anyhow.’ They were giving us survival things that wouldn’t have mattered.”

Samuel Patton, former chief radiological officer of Northeast Ohio, stands in front of a fallout shelter at The Shrine of Our Lady on Belle Vista Avenue. The shelter, which is now a banquet hall, would have housed 305 people for two weeks after a nuclear explosion.(Chris Kochera/TheNewsOutlet.org)

As teachers and principals herded students to safety, Samuel Patton  coordinated fallout shelters found inside the basements of many large masonry buildings. He was the chief radiological officer for Northeast Ohio for the U.S. Department of Defense. The shelters, designed to protect from radioactive dust and contamination following a nuclear explosion, had enough food, water and supplies to sustain a group of people for two weeks, the amount of time it took fallout to dissipate.

The Shrine of Our Lady on Belle Vista Avenue is a concrete reminder of the Cold War Crisis. Only a rusty yellow “Fallout Shelter” sign with an ominous radiation symbol offers a glimpse into its past. The concrete and cinder-block basement shelter once stored Geiger counters, and enough water and freeze-dried food for 305 people. Now, it is a banquet hall.

“Water was the most important, we set up a rationing system,” Patton said. “Once the door was closed and locked, no one else was allowed in because of the contamination. The shelter managers had to be tough.”

The shelters remained vacant. The Kennedy administration’s diplomacy with the Soviet Union resulted in public and secret agreements that would keep the economic superpowers from engaging in nuclear war. Publicly, the Soviet Union dismantled and removed missiles and bases in Cuba, while the United States secretively agreed to not invade Cuba and to remove nuclear missiles from Turkey and Italy. The crisis ended Oct. 28.

“We were all glad when it was over,” Burnett said.

Fifty years later, the threat of Soviet missile strikes in the United States, especially in Youngstown, is only a memory.

“That summer and fall 1962, I would say was the peak of the Cold War,” said Lawson. “I don’t think tensions were ever higher.”

“It was scary, we had no control over it. All we could do is hide under our desks,” said Keenan.

Listen to Youngstown residents recall anxious days of Cuban Missile Crisis by Christine Davidson

TheNewsOutlet.org is a collaborative effort between the Youngstown State University journalism program, Kent State University, The University of Akron and professional media outlets including, WYSU-FM Radio and The Vindicator (Youngstown), The Beacon Journal and Rubber City Radio (Akron).