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Evacuating Cuba

Minnesota military family was in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis

During the first few weeks of October 1962, life on the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, went on as usual, even as tensions mounted between the United States and Fidel Castro’s Cuba and his ally, the Soviet Union. Maxine and Jesse Almquist lived on base in a military housing duplex with their son and daughter, 8-year-old Craig and 5-year-old Kit.

Jesse, a career military man, worked on the base, which was separated from the Cuban military base by a “no man’s land.” Craig and Kit were picked up by a bus that took them to school on the base, and Maxine spent her days with the usual household tasks of a wife and mother of that era. When Maxine and Jesse had free time together, their bowling expertise earned them trophies at the bowling alley, also on the base.

The Almquists had a maid who came across from the Cuban side every day. Maxine, who helped the maid as best she could, recalled, “She asked me, ‘Missy, could you get me some vitamins for my kids?’ I did, and she sewed them into the hem of her dress. If I gave her extra money, she would sew that into the hem, also, because she could take only $2 a day into Cuba. If she had been caught with more, she would have been forbidden to go back to work on the base. When she wanted clothes for her children, I bought material, washed and crumpled it. She sewed clothes for the children, making them look like old clothes.”

Life was soon to change for the Almquist family. Soviet missile shipments to Cuba had begun in July 1962, and missile sites were being constructed in Cuba. On Monday, Oct. 22, President John F. Kennedy announced that the Cuban missile bases provided nuclear strike capability against the United States and that Russian ships were sailing toward Cuba. What occurred next happened quickly. Military dependents were notified at 11 a.m. that they were to leave Guantanamo that afternoon. Vehicles equipped with loudspeakers passed through the housing areas, announcing the evacuation. Children were bused home early from school.

“We always had a suitcase packed,” Maxine recalled, “because we had been told to do so after the Bay of Pigs in April 1961, and we were told to have at least $200 on hand. My husband had come home just before the evacuation notice and asked where his dog tags (military ID tags) were. He kissed me and the kids and said he had to go out on patrol or maneuvers of some kind. About 4 p.m., we were picked up by buses, over 1,000 women and kids on that base. Before we went on the bus, I put the kids’ bicycles in the house. Planes were flying low, patrolling, and there were armed patrols along the road.”

Maxine’s husband, Jeff, brings up the end of a parade on the base in Cuba. Contributed photo

The Almquists were taken to the U.S.S. Hyades, a Naval cargo ship, one of four evacuation vessels. The ship had arrived at Guantanamo in mid-October to offload food and other stores. At 7 a.m., the skipper had received orders to be in the base commander’s office in an hour, where he learned of the dependents’ evacuation, beginning at 11 a.m., with sailing at 4 p.m.. The ship’s crew gave up their quarters, moved into a cargo hold and gave up all but one of their heads (toilet facilities).

For the three Almquists, life had become a not-so-comfortable adventure. “There were 19 mothers and 22 children in the recreation room of the Hyades,” said Maxine. “Some were sea sick. We slept on mattresses, side by side. There were other evacuees in other parts of the ship. The first night we did not know where we were going. There was a Russian sub in the Atlantic, so we might have gone to Puerto Rico, but we went to Norfolk, Virginia.”

In total, evacuees on the Hyades included 106 women, three men, 17 teenagers, 20 boys and 30 girls between the ages of 7 and 12, 67 children between the ages of 2 and 6, and 48 infants under the age of 2. Although Kit stayed at her mother’s side, Craig joined the other boys aboard ship in being more adventurous. Maxine recalled, “They had been told to stay with their mothers, but I don’t think any of them did. Being boys, they were running around all over the ship.”

Jeff Almquist with his children. Contributed photo

News of their whereabouts had not reached Maxine’s parents, Reuben and Anna Zellmann, in Lester Prairie, Minnesota. Maxine explained, “Some dependents had been flown to the United States, so my parents wondered, ‘Where are Max and the children?’”

Three days later, the Twin Cities’ newspapers printed the information that dependents from Guantanamo Bay had landed at Norfolk.

When the evacuees arrived there at 9:45 p.m. on Thursday evening, they were greeted by bands and cheering crowds. Ambulances departed with sick children, and immigration, customs and public health officials came aboard to assist in the debarkation. The evacuees received personal care products as well as clothing that had been collected throughout the Norfolk area by Navy Relief and the Red Cross.

“We had one free phone call home, so I called my folks,” Maxine said. “We stayed one night at brand-new Marine barracks in Norfolk, and we filled out papers on how we wanted to go home–by bus, train or plane. I had money, so I chose the plane. Then the military made all of the arrangements as indicated, and paid for them, but you couldn’t change your mind, so if you wrote ‘bus,’ that’s how you went home. By Friday we were out. We flew to Minneapolis, where my folks picked us up and took us home to Lester Prairie.”

Like many military dependents, Maxine had learned to live with whatever situation she might be in. When asked if she had been afraid, she said, “You don’t ever think anything bad will happen to you. You think, ‘They’ll take care of us.’ They tell you what to do, and you do it. Some of the military dependents had expected war with Russia to break out, so they had stocked up on food in case they couldn’t leave. I didn’t think Castro was going to do anything without the Russians backing him up.”

Maxine and Craig at the hood of car a in Cuba. Contributed photo

One exception to the “no fear” perspective was an abandon ship drill on the Hyades. Maxine said, “Early Tuesday morning, we were told to report topside, where we were assigned a boat to go on if we had to leave the ship. They acted like the Russians were going to torpedo us. It was shark-infested waters, and that’s when I got kind of scared, not knowing where my children might be if we had to abandon ship. And then, the Russian ships turned around.”

After spending two months in Lester Prairie, Maxine received an official letter stating that they were to return to the base at Guantanamo, where, Maxine said, “were our husbands, our homes and our furniture. We were flown on commercial airlines from Minneapolis to Chicago, then to Norfolk. From there we flew on a military plane. When we got there, planes were in the air with streamers–‘Welcome home families.’” The three evacuees arrived home in Cuba just in time to celebrate Christmas with Jesse Almquist.

Chief Petty Officer Jesse Almquist retired two years later, after serving 22 years in the U.S. Navy.

Some background information about the evacuation first appeared in the March 1963 issue of All Hands, written by Capt. G.M. Hagerman, USN.

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