William Fred Yost

William Fred Yost, a National Guard veteran, stands outside his Bluefield, Va., home recently.

BLUEFIELD, Va. — About 58 years ago, many young individuals like William Fred Yost of Bluefield, Va. were starting families and working on careers when President John F. Kennedy was informed that Russian ballistic missile sites were being constructed in nearby Cuba; the opening moves in a tense and dangerous period now known as the Cuban Missile Crisis were soon being made.

Lasting from Oct. 16 to 28, 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis started when the leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khushchev, decided to base nuclear-armed ballistic missiles in Cuba. The island nation’s dictator, Fidel Castro, wanted the weapons to deter any American invasion. In 1961, some Cuban exiles attempted what became known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion. This invasion failed, but Castro wanted to prevent another attack while Khushchev wanted a counter to American missiles in Turkey. 

A U-2 spy plane photographed the Cuban launch sites in October 1962. Cuba is about 90 miles from the United States, and missiles launched from that island nation could have reached Washington D.C. and other major cities within minutes. Kennedy called a special meeting of his advisors, and it was decided that having Russian missiles so close to American soil could not be tolerated. He issued a warning to the Soviets and announced a blockade which he diplomatically dubbed a “quarantine” around Cuba. The world was facing the possibility of nuclear war.

America’s armed forces were put on alert and units across the nation were called to active service. Yost, now 81, was among the young people called to active duty.

“I would have been 21, 22,” he estimated after the Bluefield Daily Telegraph asked him about his memories of the crisis. “I had been married for a year. “My son, he was 17 days old when I left, when I had to report to my unit. It was the 150th Armored Calvary. It was the headquarters unit.”

Parts of the West Virginia unit were in Oak Hill, Bluefield and Beckley, Yost recalled, and Bluefield was the headquarters unit. At that time, Yost was an E-4 specialist, which was the equivalent of a corporal. He first heard of the growing crisis when his unit was called to active duty like many others across the nation. An invasion of Cuba was among the options President Kennedy was considering.

“Well, we belonged to the National Guard unit here in Bluefield and we got called to active duty, to report to Fort George G. Meade in Maryland,” Yost recalled. 

The 150th was activated to replace another unit and to stand by if needed. Yost heard Kennedy’s warning to the Soviets as freighters carrying missiles and nuclear warheads approached Cuba. Kennedy used diplomatic language to describe the actions that would be taken if those ships tried to run the quarantine, but Yost and others in the military heard more forceful words between the president’s lines.

“He told them he would blast them out of the water,” Yost said. “He told them to turn around.”

While civilians read the newspapers and followed what was happening as the confrontation continued, the unit’s members underwent intense training designed to prepare them for action. 

“We had to be combat ready,” Yost stated. “You would have field maneuvers, you would go to the firing range, all the normal things you would do to get ready for combat if needed and keep sharp with your skills. If you were in an armored division, you learned to handle M-48 tanks and shot a 90-mm (cannon.)”

The unit later went to Fort Pickett in Virginia and spent the winter there. The troops were assigned to dilapidated wooden barracks, so they had to work to make them livable, Yost said.

After several very tense days, the United States and the Soviet Union reached an agreement and the Russian missiles were withdrawn. Yost said that he and his fellow troops were glad they did not have to shoot anybody or get shot.

Yost and other veterans recalled the experience of being called up for active duty and having to leave their families when members of the 1st Squadron 150th Cavalry Regiment of the West Virginia Army National Guard (WVNG), including members asked at the Brushfork Armory in Mercer County, came home in early October after being deployed to the Middle East in 2019. The soldiers had been serving in Kuwait in support of Operation Spartan Shield.

Members of the 1st Squadron 150th Cavalry Regiment deserve gratitude for their service, Yost said.

“They should be complimented for what they’ve done, and their families,” Yost stated. “Their families should be complimented, too.”

— Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com

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