U.S. Navy veteran Bill Butcher says no experience was more nerve-wracking than being an officer aboard a destroyer escort ship during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The time on the front line wasn’t without its moments of irony while standing on deck: Everyone was on edge over the possibility of a nuclear conflict that never came.
“We were wondering if the people of the United States realized how close we came to disaster,” Butcher said. “It could happen any instant, but we’re there holding coffee mugs thinking ‘what could happen next?’”
The Missouri native spent much of his childhood in Ohio before earning his bachelor’s degree in economics and psychology from Albion College in Albion, Mich.
“Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to be in the Navy and run a ship,” Butcher, 77, recalled.
He made his wish come true, enlisting in 1961 and, on Aug. 1 of that year, reporting to Naval Station Newport in Rhode Island. Following basic training, he went to the Boston Naval Shipyard and underwent training to become a communications officer.
In February 1962, Butcher was assigned to the USS Camp, an Edsall-class destroyer escort.
The Camp headed down to Cuba in summer 1962.
“We patrolled the Windward Passage between Haiti and Cuba,” said Butcher, explaining the goal was to monitor shipping vessels from the Soviet Union.
The Camp was part of the blockade off of Cuba during the 13-day standoff from Oct. 16-28. The standoff between the U.S. and Soviet Union was over the Soviet installation of armed nuclear warheads on the communist island 90 miles from American shores.
To end tensions, Soviet leadership offered to remove the missiles in exchange for a promise that the U.S. wouldn’t invade Cuba. It was arguably the closest the two global superpowers came during the decades-long Cold War to initiating a nuclear conflict.
Butcher recalled there were times when ships nearly brushed against each other, which also had the potential to prompt an international incident.
“Those were the hairy times for me,” Butcher said.
During part of his tour aboard the Camp while in the Caribbean, Cuban refugees adrift on boats were frequently picked up and turned over to the U.S. Coast Guard.
Eventually, Butcher served as an interpreter whenever the Camp picked up refugees. At the time, the captain asked if anyone was able to speak Spanish to assist in communication. No one volunteered.
“Captain found in my (personnel) record that I’d taken Spanish in college, although I was very poor,” said Butcher, adding he was chewed out for not immediately mentioning it.
Toward the end of his time aboard the Camp, the ship spent time in the North Atlantic, based out of Grenock, Scotland. When he returned to the U.S., he became a base administrative officer at the Naval Weapons Lab in Dahlgren, Va.
He left the Navy in February 1966 and made a career change, undergoing training with the FBI.
After stints in Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh and Minneapolis, he was transferred to Minot, where he stayed for about 12 years.
When he was to be transferred to New York City in 1980, he chose to leave the agency, instead. His wife, Dina, was set to be appointed Deputy Agriculture Commissioner, a post she held for seven years. The decision was made to support her career.
“I started my private investigator agency, and I’ve been doing it ever since," he said of starting W.T Butcher and Associates Ltd. in 1982.
Looking back, Butcher, who has no regrets from his service, said the missile crisis was a time in which everyone was on edge and he’s proud to have been a part of it.
“It was such a challenge, but it was exactly what I wanted,” Butcher said.