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Alabama Power retiree and Navy veteran witnessed Cuban missile crisis up close

With the world on the brink of nuclear war 60 years ago, H.L. Casey was at the epicenter of the confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Casey and 3,447 other Americans spent 48 days sailing near Cuba aboard the USS Randolph beginning in October 1962. He said a pilot aboard the 888-foot-long aircraft carrier first spotted a Russian submarine armed with nuclear missiles, which heightened the diplomatic showdown between President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. During the U.S. blockade, the Randolph and 11 Navy destroyers trapped the Soviet sub and dropped depth charges to force it to the surface.

“We knew it was a serious situation, but a lot of the enlisted guys didn’t realize how close we came to major problems,” Casey said. “It was very tense but being young men full of spit and vinegar, we were ready to go.”

Veteran H.L. Casey, present and past. (Contributed)

The Randolph covered a 500-square-mile course in the Caribbean Sea, working with other U.S. ships and planes to keep all Russian shipments from reaching Cuba. Military surveillance had found missile launch sites being built across the island, needing only for large, long-range rockets to be brought in by boat to be operational. The Randolph left the region only for a quick trip to Norfolk, Virginia, where ammunition was loaded on the ship.

Casey’s CVS-15 carrier and about 300 other U.S. ships would stay on alert until the Cuban Missile Crisis ended in November. “That was the highlight of my military service,” said Casey.

Born in Montgomery in 1942, Casey moved to Meridian, Mississippi, and then to Anniston as his father Howard Taft Casey managed Kinney Shoes stores before returning to the Capital City in 1957. The son would graduate from Robert E. Lee High School in 1961 and join the Navy a month later.

After boot camp in San Diego, young Casey headed to New Iberia, Louisiana, where he did security shore duty for a year. He was sent to Norfolk to board the Randolph as a seaman and soon afterward was sailing straight toward Cuba into the height of international tensions.

From January until November 1963, Casey attended firefighting school, 16-millimeter motion projector school and trained for handling the Navy’s amphibious LCM (landing craft, mechanized) and LCVP (landing craft, vehicle, personnel).

Casey’s Navy portrait. (Contributed)

Though nothing would compare to his time in the Caribbean, life was nonetheless interesting aboard the 93-foot-wide ship that carried up to 100 aircraft and sailed at nearly 40 mph. Casey’s duties as he rose in rank to boatswain’s mate third class included handling the liberty boats that took sailors to shore, providing general ship maintenance, refueling and standing watch. He would learn to steer the ship at sea, which Casey said isn’t as difficult as it might seem.

“You don’t really have to worry much about running into anything at sea,” the 80-year-old said with a laugh. “Somebody barks out a direction and you’re watching your compass to stay on course.”

Casey was at sea “probably 35-40%” of active-duty service from October 1962 until June 1965, which led to visiting Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. base on the southeast tip of Cuba (“that was the worst”) and other ports in the Caribbean, as well as Bermuda; the Panama Canal Zone; St. Thomas, Virgin Islands; the St. Lawrence Seaway; Quebec, Canada; and New York.

“In Canada, we tied up to a pier, which was unusual, because we usually anchored outside of ports,” Casey said. “We stayed there 10 days. The people of Quebec opened their arms to us — of course, we brought a lot of money in for them — but they were great, just fantastic people.”

Casey said that while being in the Navy had its ups and downs, it was “a great learning experience that taught me great discipline that has served me well.”

After two years in the reserves and being honorably discharged in 1967, Casey was eligible for military honors, including the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal for the Cuban Crisis and Good Conduct.

“I never filed for them: I’m kind of low-key,” he said. “It was my privilege to serve this country and not for the country to serve me.”

Casey aboard ship. (Contributed)

Casey returned home to Montgomery, went to work for a short time with an appliance company, then applied for a job with Alabama Power. He began working as an appliance repairman in 1971 in Demopolis but eventually returned to Montgomery in appliance repair. He also worked in communications before retiring in 2002. Casey’s sister, Elaine Acker, also worked at the company, in Human Resources. She retired after 42 years in Tuscaloosa.

“I’m grateful for Alabama Power and what they stood for and for allowing me to make a good living,” Casey said.

Casey and his family have always stood for America: He and two brothers had a combined military service of more than 40 years. Older brother Howard Donald Casey, who died in 2014, was a lieutenant in the Marine Corps. Younger brother James Milton Casey, of Jacksonville, Florida, retired as a lieutenant colonel after 25 years in the Army.

“That was one thing Mom and Dad were proud of, that we were willing and wanted to serve,” Casey said. “And the best warriors we had were Mom and Dad and sister Elaine back home, always praying for us and those serving.”

Alabama NewsCenter is profiling Alabama Power employees who served in the Armed Forces in honor of Veterans Day. This story originally appeared in Powergrams, the company’s magazine for employees and retirees.