Soldiers reunite 50 years after close, literal call with Cold War
The letter, dated "9 October, 1961" and on file in the River Falls Armory history book, gives the gist in its subject line: Order to Active Duty for up to 12 months.
Locals Charles "Chuck" Meyer and James "Jim" Killian are among the 112 men of the HQ Battery, 1/121 Artillery, 32nd Division, who came from River Falls and its surrounding area to answer the duty call and ship to Fort Lewis, Wash. 50 years ago.
This month the men commemorate their near-miss from the Cold War days with a reunion of their unit at the local American Legion.
The reunion happens not in the year the 1/121 left but the year it was dismissed and returned to River Falls.
Its reunion coincides with the year that tensions with Cuba and the Soviet Union eased enough that leaders stopped anticipating war.
The soldiers stepped onto a bus at the Armory on Division Street then boarded a train in Hudson near the St. Croix River. In St. Paul, they joined more troops on another train and two days later, arrived in Washington.
Meyer and Killian both say the men understood little else except that their job was to go and train and be ready.
"We didn't know what we were going to do or where we were going to go," said Meyer.
He said the troops arrived at Fort Lewis in the dark, which was disorienting, and discovered that the base and barracks were pretty much "as they were" during WWII.
The local 1/121 was part of a much bigger group there to complement the headquarters outfit.
Meyer said a few men of the local unit had served in WWII, but most were wide-eyed local boys from 18 years old to their early 20s who had never been away from home.
"Most of us were in the Guard," said Meyer. "Well, it was either that or you'd get drafted."
All the men helped 'make ready' the big ships so they could be ready to leave at a moment's notice. Many worried they weren't well trained enough for war.
Meyer remembers that each month, men got a three-day liberty pass and $80 in pay.
He smiles at the memory that for several months, all those young Wisconsin men had no milk to drink. He said they got a senator involved and got the milk.
Meyer stayed in Washington after the men were dismissed so he could fulfill his nine-year obligation to the Army. He then returned to River Falls and worked as a postal carrier.
Killian, a sergeant and fully enlisted at the time, served the Army a total of 27 years, including 18 months near Sinop, Turkey and his time in the Guard. He flew to Fort Lewis a month before the activated men arrived.
Killian sensed it comforted the men to know that he had "been somewhere" overseas before: "We knew we were going to Fort Lewis for training but we did not know the severity of the problem in Berlin."
"The biggest thing was packing," remembers Killian of the personal gear and weaponry, much of which had to be guarded on the trains.
He said the 1/121 supplied communications between the units and surveyed the ranges for firing Howitzers. The sergeant also recalls one man who trained with a Jeep-mounted Howitzer, the barrel of which stuck out beyond the hood.
Partly responsible for mess operations, Killian also remembers using lots of coal at the WWII-era base -- to heat water, cook food and power the furnaces.
One of his more somber memories is when a lawyer came to help all the men prepare wills.
Meyer and Killian point to an article in the "American Legion Magazine" that tells the historic story of how a mix of volatile dynamics led to America calling up troops to prepare for war, what many feared would be World War III.
The article, called, "On the Brink," appears online at www.legion.org, click the media tab to get to the story.
Its lead: "On the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the men who served as America's shield reflect on how close the world came to nuclear war."
An extremely condensed and general summary of the history follows, based on the article as well as several online government sources.
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev devised the idea to plant nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba after deciding it was time for America to feel threatened.
"Legion Magazine" says his plan actually worked too well. Major war came as close as the Senate passing a resolution for military action and airstrikes in Cuba.
President John F. Kennedy ordered 60 warships to barricade Cuba and 1,500 aircraft to be mission ready, including the high-flying U-2 spy planes.
Most sources agree that a number of dynamics converged to create what many called the Cold War:
1) The Berlin Crisis came about after talks between the Soviets and Americans broke down about this capital of a defeated Nazi German state.
2) The Cuban Revolution when Fidel Castro led a rebel uprising to overthrow the U.S.-supported leader Fulgencio Batista.
3) The Bay of Pigs resulted from an ultimate desire to see Castro overthrown when a U.S.-trained team of Cuban exiles tried but failed to invade Cuba.
4) Moscow's perception of America posing a threat.
5) America's wariness of the Soviet and Cuban leaders' relationship.
6) The 13-day Cuban Missile Crisis ensued after the U.S. discovered Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba within "first strike" distance of the United States.
Not long after Kennedy gave a speech hinting at the gravity of the situation, an at-sea U.S. warship awaited orders on whether to intercept a Soviet cargo ship it was approaching. The order -- recognized as a turning point in the Cold War -- soon came to "not, repeat not, to intercept."
The event also marked the time when tensions began to de-escalate, which led to a quiet deal that removed the missiles and avoided war.
Members of the HQ Battery, 1/121 Artillery, 32nd Division of 1961 announce the 50-year reunion of their activation to Fort Lewis, Wash. beginning 14:00 hours Saturday, Oct. 20, at the American Legion Post 121, 701 N. Main St. Those who rsvp'd for the catered supper at $15 per person will begin eating at 16:00 hours; a group photo will be taken just before the meal. Anyone with pictures or memorabilia to share is encouraged to bring it.