Black Saturday and a Remembrance Day prayer for peace

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, November 10, 2010

On October 27, 1962, the world was only one misstep away from the unthinkable: an all-out nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States and its allies, including Canada.

One more American spy plane shot down by an overzealous Soviet commander; one more American depth charge on a Soviet submarine whose captain was itching to launch a nuclear torpedo; one misinterpreted gesture by either Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev or U.S. President John F. Kennedy – that was the highly charged atmosphere surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis on what has come to be known as Black Saturday.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Bragg Creek coffee companion Sandy McLeod stepped out of his Royal Canadian Air Force bunker in France and heard something that would haunt him the rest of his life.

“I recall very clearly when the phone rang at exactly five minutes to 10 that evening and the duty corporal announced, ‘By tomorrow morning it might all be over,’” Sandy told me recently.

“The countdown was underway regarding a deadline of midnight when all of Western Europe, especially France and Germany, would be immediately under nuclear attack brought about by the Cuban Nuclear Missile Crisis,” he said. “According to our squadron and wing command instructions, we were in a state of committed war preparedness and to stand by for possible nuclear attack.”

For several years during the escalating Cold War, his squadron had been preparing for just such an eventuality, often going head-to-head with Soviet planes. The proximity of the base, only 12 minutes’ flying time from Eastern Bloc countries, left everyone in a state of constant stress.

“One of the three, a Russian, a Cuban and or an American, could push the button, compulsively or deliberately, setting off a nuclear war,” Sandy said. “If it was to happen, being based in France on the front line as we were, Soviet mid-range missiles could instantly incinerate us.”

The previous few days had seen tensions rise dramatically at the base.

“Alerts were called out every few hours, sorties of aircraft coming and going, the crew of each squadron living in the alert hangars at the end of the runway,” Sandy recalled. “Sometimes we were awakened from deep sleep with alert bells ringing, scrambling to get the fighters in the air within a mandatory three to five minutes. Our aircrews never knew if this was the moment.

“Was it now?”

That Black Saturday “the situation for all concerned was all too real.”

Sandy, now off duty, had just left the safety of the base’s underground bomb-proof bunker reserved for on-duty crews, when the announcement of impending nuclear war was made.

“The bunker system was only large enough for one full squadron at a time,” he explained. “We all knew in advance of this condition before leaving Canada for overseas duty. We had to agree to be assigned to Europe under those possible, horrific circumstances, never dreaming that it could or would actually take place.”

As the clock ticked down to the midnight deadline, Sandy, his buddies, and the civilian families on the surface that evening knew full well they might never see home again.

“It was a surreal living condition for all of us, and yet the human bravery was totally evident. There are no words to describe the interpersonal commitment and mutual support offered by all.”

Exhausted, he returned to his barracks to sleep, uncertain whether he’d wake up the next morning.

But thanks to a last-minute agreement between the leaders of the two superpowers, Sandy actually did wake up the next morning, saw the sun shining through the window, and heard the birds chirping amidst the silence that had engulfed the base.

“Very few people were moving around,” he recalled. “Not one jet engine was running. The greatest threat to mankind in human history was finally over. The 28th was a Sunday morning, God’s morning of rest and peace.”

As I reflected on Sandy’s story and the factors that gave rise to the horror of Black Saturday, I got to thinking about global conditions right now that could trigger another such moment. No, it might not be nuclear missiles deployed in Cuba, but it could well be as simple as a mean-spirited word uttered across tense religious boundaries.

As a result of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Washington and Moscow set up a telephone hotline to keep communication open between the two adversaries to ward off future missteps toward the unthinkable.

In the matter of inter-religious tensions, how about heart-to-heart hotlines of mutual understanding and civility?

At least, that’s my prayer on this Remembrance Day.

© 2010 Warren Harbeck

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