Latvian conscript in Havana recalls Cuban crisis

  • 2002-11-07
  • Philip Birzulis

Jazeps Onukrans witnessed history.

For a few weeks exactly 40 years ago, one Latvian man had a very personal connection to the Cuban missile crisis: he was in the heart of Cuba while it all happened.

Jazeps Onukrans, 64, has mostly led a quiet life. Now living in retirement in the town of Pinki just outside of Riga, he worked for many years as a collective farm tractor driver. Like most males of his generation in the Soviet Union, he had to do three years of military service, and Onukrans was posted in Ukraine, first in the infantry and then in various logistical positions.

But two years into his army stint, he was suddenly ordered to report to the Crimean port of Feodossija. He and his companions were dressed in civilian clothes and put on board a transport ship. From the moment the vessel passed through the Dardanelles Straits from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean, Onukrans said they were shadowed by American reconnaissance planes, while he occasionally caught sight of Soviet submarines lurking nearby.

But they were not told their final destination - Onukrans said that even the ship's captain had three envelopes containing orders, to be opened only at certain stages.

But he stated that towards the end of the 22-day sea journey, it was clear to everyone on board that they were going to Cuba, where they landed on Aug. 22, 1962.

"It was like a holiday, really," he said. "It was a far better posting than being sent up north past Murmansk, where they had a terrible time."

Onukrans was assigned to work in an army food warehouse in central Havana, located inside a refrigerated brewery that had been built by the Americans in the days before Fidel Castro came to power, in 1959. The Soviet soldiers were ordered to keep wearing their civilian clothes, to continue the fiction that they were "specialists" who came to help the Cubans.

When the crisis broke, Onukrans said there were not many changes to this relaxed routine. The soldiers were, however, issued weapons just in case they should find themselves in a war zone.

He does remember seeing the Soviet missiles being driven around the island on trucks during daytime - in his opinion, this was done to give the American spy planes the impression that the relatively small nuclear arsenal was bigger.

Onukrans said he wasn't afraid.

"Somehow I took it all calmly - the blockade didn't last long," he said. "Somehow I couldn't even imagine that it (nuclear war) could happen."

He said that the troops were aware of the American naval blockade that Kennedy had imposed, and of some emergency diplomacy going on, but not much else.

His wife Arija remembered that people back in Latvia were similarly ill-informed. Onukrans said that for a period of months there was a ban on sending any letters, while at other times the censors allowed no mention where he was - messages arrived with a mysterious Moscow postmark. But he managed to cleverly inform his mother that he was in Cuba by slipping in C-U-B-A as the first letters in a sentence of one of his letters.

In the years since, Onukrans said that he has not dwelled on the crisis, finding out "only what I have seen in the papers and on TV." But even though he left Cuba in October 1963, he has a lingering fondness for its people - from figuring out the phrase "cold water" to get a drink in the hot climate, he eventually learned to speak Spanish so that he could communicate with the local employees in his warehouse.

He said that back in the early 60s, the Cubans were genuinely friendly to the Soviets. Castro was considered a hero, and Onukrans himself is a little in awe of the revolutionary who has survived so many other world leaders.

"For a dictator to hang on for so long is something - he was around even before ours were," said Onukrans. "In those days the Cubans had enormous respect for him - how it is now, I don't know."