- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 31, 2015

CORVALLIS, Ore. (AP) - Phillip Hays was a 17-year-old high school student in Hot Springs, Arkansas, during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, when the United States and the Soviet Union stared each other down across the Florida Straits in a high-stakes game of nuclear chicken.

He still remembers the sense of impending doom he felt at the time and an after-school conversation he had with a girlfriend: “We both agreed that we probably wouldn’t live to be 21.”

Hays was a 23-year-old senior at the University of Arkansas in 1968, when the Vietnam War was raging half a world away. With graduation approaching and his college deferment about to expire, he enlisted in the Navy.

Because he’d studied the effects of radiation on living creatures in college, Hays was selected for training as a nuclear weapons officer. By 1970, the young man who had grown up during the Cold War with the specter of nuclear annihilation hanging over his head was in the midst of a shooting war in Southeast Asia, where he was put in charge of around two dozen nuclear warheads aboard the U.S.S. Oklahoma City, a Navy guided missile cruiser.

“It was the flagship of the Seventh Fleet and in the thick of things over there,” Hays said.

Though the U.S.S.R. was not officially involved in the war, the Soviets provided lots of support for their North Vietnamese proxies, including the operation of mobile radar units tracking U.S. ships and aircraft. For Hays, on station in the Gulf of Tonkin aboard the Oklahoma City, the Soviet radar trucks were important targets - and he helped take one out with a missile strike.

“I have a medal for this,” Hays said. “It was the first successful surface-to-surface missile fired in combat in Navy history.”

Like every other missile fired by either side in that war, the one Hays launched that day was a conventional weapon, but there was no shortage of nukes in the theater of operations. According to Hays, every branch of the service had its own stockpile.

“Nuclear weapons - this is one of the scary things about this - were a status symbol,” he said. “Every commanding officer wanted nukes, and the more nukes they had out there, the more status they had.”

Hays estimates the Navy had at least 100 warheads bobbing around on the Gulf of Tonkin at any one time during the war. He has no idea how many nukes the Army, Air Force and Marines may have had or how big the Soviet nuclear arsenal in the area might have been. But he has no doubt there were more than enough nuclear weapons on both sides in Vietnam to have created a holocaust if anyone had gotten trigger-happy.

“It was called MAD - mutually assured destruction - and it was mad,” Hays said.

As a nuclear weapons officer, Hays had access to classified information about mishaps involving America’s arsenal, and while he says there were some alarming accidents that could easily have become catastrophes, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. never really came close to blowing each other up after those tense days back in October 1962.

“I doubt it was ever considered,” he said. “The Cuban missile crisis pretty much scared everybody.”

Both sides took a step back after that, installing a hotline between Washington and Moscow and instituting a series of fail-safes intended to prevent any accidental or hasty use of nuclear weapons. At no time during Hays’ service did he ever receive an order to prepare a warhead for launch, much less fire one. Instead, he spent much of his time making sure the warheads were properly stored, handled correctly and kept secure.

“My job was to see to it that it didn’t go bang, and I was successful,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean he didn’t consider the possibility that he might actually be called upon to push the button - and what it would mean if he did.

“When you’re in that position, you’ve got to ask yourself, ‘What am I going to do if I get the order to fire one of these things?’ I probably would have followed orders,” Hays said.

“I say ‘probably.’ Would you or wouldn’t you? You never know until it happens.”


Information from: Gazette-Times, https://www.gtconnect.com

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