Senior Staff Writer
Lewisburg resident Kurtz Stiteler, 76, was at Gitmo during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 and, like other veterans recalling their military service, he speaks softly and without much bravado.
"Yeah," Stiteler said Thursday. "I was there."
He says he didn't do much while at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but the Moore Avenue resident is a witness to history, so he was asked to tell what he remembers and how he feels about what happened when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev broke his promise not to deploy offensive weapons to Cuba. The world was at the brink of another war. President John F. Kennedy's war of words and nerves with Khrushchev revealed how antiquated communications were during the dawning nuclear age. Photos from a U-2 spy plane showed the missiles were there. Smithsonian magazine reports Air Force jets flew reconnaissance flights for better pictures that Kennedy showed to prove his point about Khrushchev's broken promise. The world saw photos immediately flown from Cuba to the CIA in Washington, interpreted and then displayed at the White House.
"I thought our pilots who had to takeoff and land at Gitmo were pretty gutsy," he said. "If I was a pilot, I'd have rather landed on a ship...
"They could have brought down our planes if they wanted," Stiteler said.
Soviet missiles nearly triggered a nuclear war.
Stiteler was a sailor assigned to the U.S.S. Enterprise, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. At one point during his four-year hitch, he saw Kennedy on-board. The president was just passing by where Stiteler was, but it's a memory that stuck amid so many other life experiences that were more family oriented, and events that he's quick to share.
He wanted to be a pilot, but at 5 feet, 5 inches tall, he was too short. They wanted pilots standing at least 5' 6".
At first, the National Guard turned him down, classifying him 4-F, a designation that kept him out for health reasons. He'd had rheumatic fever and it was seen as a heart condition. The Navy took him after college, but he needed a doctor to sign a document saying he was OK.
"I paid a doctor $10 to sign my chit," Stiteler said. "Not many guys pay to go in."
As for what the Enterprise could have done had diplomacy failed, Stiteler said, "We did have weapons aboard."
Stiteler qualifies some of his reports, claiming that what happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis was, after all, 50 years ago.
Some of his duties included shore patrol when Cuban civilian staffers were driven to and from the naval station. Military personnel weren't to talk with the Cubans.
"We figured there were spies on the bus," said Stiteler, who has choice words for Fidel Castro. The communist leader insisted that the Navy abide by its contract to have at least 40 percent of the Navy's civilian help be Cubans, right through the missile crisis.