Veteran Ron Weiss was there during the dark times of the early 1960s
When Nov. 22 rolls around this year, Ron Weiss will pause and reflect on that dark day in history 50 years ago. Weiss was an Army sergeant at the time and, like millions of other Americans, watched in horror as President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.
It was a horrible day in American history and one of the key moments in the early 1960s as the Cold War was at its height and the danger of a worldwide nuclear war was not a fairy tale. And during his three-year hitch in the Army, Weiss had a brush with history that would leave a lasting impression on the Forest Lake man, now 71.
During his active military service, he would witness the president’s assassination and two other major events – the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 and the Cuban Bay of Pigs episode in April 1961. Weiss was an observer while stationed in Kansas in 1961, but far from the sidelines in 1962.
During the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, as the United States and the Soviet Union were on the brink of another war, Weiss was sent to the Florida Keys, 90 miles from Cuba, where the Soviet missile build-up led to 13 chilling days in October. It was a crisis that had the American public on pins and needles.
The early years
Weiss was expecting nothing of the kind when he entered the military. He grew up on a small family farm near Finlayson and graduated from McGrath High School in the spring of 1960. He considered college before opting for the Army.
“They were drafting at the time, and I enlisted to get better training,” Weiss said.
He was sent to Fort Riley in Kansas for basic infantry training before being attached to the 1st Infantry Division, the “Big Red One.” His advanced training was in radio and radar communications at Fort Riley and he was a quick study. He rose in rank and quickly earned his sergeant bars.
Like most Americans, Weiss was in the dark when the Bay of Pigs Invasion turned into a disaster in April 1961. The attempt by the CIA and its Brigade 2506 paramilitary force to overthrow Prime Minister Fidel Castro failed. The invasion was launched from Guatemala and was crushed after three days of fighting.
Four American pilots lost their lives in the conflict. More than 100 of the CIA-trained Cuban counter-revolutionary invaders were killed and another 1,200 were captured.
Weiss watched as the events unfolded and more of the plot was exposed. He sympathized for the country’s new president who carried through with the invasion plan that had been crafted in the final years of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration.
Weiss is now convinced the invasion was doomed from the start. The whole episode was a “screwed-up mess,” Weiss said.
“It was unbelievable,” he said. “Castro knew a lot about it.”
So did the Russians, who reportedly had information about the invasion days before the ill-fated attempt on April 16 to land anti-Castro forces on the island.
Weiss followed the Cold War with interest. The desire to overthrow Castro, he said, followed Castro’s successful move to oust President Fulgencio Batista in 1959 at the conclusion of the Cuban Revolution that had started in 1953. Batista’s ties with the U.S. were strong, but that ended with Castro’s rise to power and a bump in anti-Castro views in the United States.
By 1960 relations between the United States and Castro became strained. Castro’s moves to nationalize three oil refineries, sugar mills and banks owned by U.S. companies contributed to the Eisenhower administration signing off on a $13 million plan by the CIA to overthrow Castro.
To this day, Weiss says he is troubled by the plan that landed in Kennedy’s lap.
“They had so many plans to kill Castro,” Weiss said. “It was all dumped on (Kennedy).”
A second crisis
Weiss was still at Fort Riley in the fall of 1962 when he found himself in the red zone of the next test — the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was halfway across the country in Kansas and his unit was told little of what was happening in and near Cuba.
“There was no word going out,” he said. “We were in the dark.”
He learned in a roundabout way of what may be coming. During a leave, a bartender at a local watering hole pointed to the television and the news reports of tension with the Soviets and Castro. Get ready, the bartender warned Weiss, because a serious crisis was brewing.
It was a day or two later when Weiss and others in the 1st Infantry Division were told to prepare for duty in Florida. A convoy of more than 200 vehicles left Kansas and arrived several days later for assignment at Homestead Air Force Base south of Miami.
“I didn’t realize how huge it was,” Weiss said, thinking back on the crisis.
In Florida, the Army was placed in charge of coordinating all communications among Army, Navy and Air Force units in and near the Florida Keys. Five air bases were involved, Weiss said. Weiss was assigned to head a military communications unit that had direct contact with the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
The crisis came to a boiling point that fall when American surveillance planes produced photographic evidence of a missile build-up at numerous locations in Cuba. U-2 aircraft photographed images of Soviet medium-range and intermediate-range ballistic nuclear missiles being deployed on Cuban soil.
Photos also revealed the construction of defensive surface-to-air missile sites as proof that the Soviets were readying attack missiles within easy striking distance of key targets in the United States. The SAMs would be used to defend the missile launch sites.
The crisis reached a head when Kennedy ordered a Naval warship blockade to halt more shipments of arms to Cuba. Weiss said he is convinced that the Russian partnership was encouraged by Castro, who soured even more on the United States after the failed invasion 17 months earlier and failed assassination plots.
For the Soviet Union, Weiss said anger over American missiles based in Turkey that were within easy reach of Russian soil also fueled the confrontation.
Weiss’ work was not only on American soil.
In the early days of the crisis, he boarded a Chinook helicopter carrying a multimillion-dollar radio communications trailer. The unit was delivered to Guantanamo Bay Naval Station in Cuba, which to this day remains under American control.
“I was on the ground for 10 to 15 minutes,” Weiss recalled of his brief stay in Cuba as the trailer was unloaded.
Back at Homestead Air Force Base, Weiss spent his days in the radio communications center. From the command tent where he was stationed, Weiss could watch the massive fleet of B-52 bombers that would take off and land a couple of times a day.
“That was not good,” Weiss said, thinking of the mission the bombers could be sent on with short notice.
Cuba was the obvious first target, but it was also clear the Strategic Air Command forces would strike deep into the Soviet Union if war broke out, Weiss believes. It was also known that SAC bombers carrying nuclear payloads were in the air at all times, he said.
Several days before the crisis was to be resolved on Oct. 28, 1962, Homestead played host to President Kennedy and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. They were in Florida to inspect the preparations but also to honor the widows of four U-2 pilots who had lost their lives flying missions for the U.S.
Weiss worked communications that day and took part in President Kennedy’s inspection tour. Because of the tense times, two planes were used that day to transport the president to Homestead. Kennedy’s delegation on Air Force One was the second to land that day.
Weiss was four rows from the front when Kennedy spoke to the command leaders. He also talked with the four widows, Weiss said.
“That was pretty impressive,” he said.
On the walking tour, Weiss trailed Kennedy and McNamara as they inspected aircraft, including U-2s and B-52s.
Based on his recollection of the day, the president’s talk and his analysis of the challenges facing the president, Weiss said he believed Kennedy carried the burden that he may one day make the ultimate sacrifice.
Weiss was relieved that calm heads prevailed and the crisis ended. In a public statement, the United States agreed to never invade Cuba again, and in private talks it agreed with Soviet demands to remove its missiles from Turkey and Italy. The Soviets agreed to dismantle the missile sites in Cuba and remove all rockets and nuclear warheads.
By late in November, the naval blockade was lifted.
After nearly a month in Florida, Weiss and his fellow troops were sent back to Fort Riley.
One more test
It wasn’t Weiss’ last dance with history. On that sad November afternoon when a president was shot down in Texas, Weiss looked on in disbelief from Kansas.
U.S. military forces around the world were placed on alert following JFK’s assassination. Weiss was awaiting orders when a general entered his quarters and told him he had been selected as one of 29 from the Army to serve in Kennedy’s funeral honor guard.
For reasons he second-guesses today, Weiss said no, asking instead to be placed on reserve status if a substitute was needed.
“I should have done it for him,” Weiss believes now. “I never thought of what an honor it would have been.”
After serving through three major historical events, Weiss said that in 1963 the honor guard duty would have been too tough emotionally for him.
“I just knew I couldn’t handle it at that point,” he said of the special assignment in Washington.
Perhaps it was his admiration of Kennedy and the tough decisions that Kennedy met head on that made the president’s death so hard to comprehend, he said.
“I can still see him standing there,” Weiss said of Kennedy at Homestead. “All the battles he fought and won without a World War III. And it was close.”
By the close of 1963, Weiss was nearing the end of his three-year hitch. His rank was good and so was his pay grade, but his skill set with radio communications put him in line for assignment to Vietnam.
“That was the real start of the Vietnam War,” he said. “My odds of going were good.”
He passed on re-enlistment and moved back to civilian life while serving in the Army Reserves from 1964-1967.
A new life
Weiss was ready to leave the stress of military life behind him. He returned to Minnesota and worked on the family farm before heading to St. Cloud, where he worked six years for AT&T as a lineman and small-town supervisor. In 1973 he moved to Minneapolis, where he went to work as an electrician.
He retired in 2002. Weiss and his wife, Julie, have been Forest Lake residents for just under 20 years. They raised 10 children.
He has been active at American Legion Post 225 since moving to Forest Lake. He served two years as commander and has held duties for the 3rd District, including leading the solemn American flag-burning program each spring.
Weiss was a lead advocate in the creation of the Gold Star Family Weekend event, which honors families that have lost loved ones in defense of the United States. He is also a member of the local VFW Post 4210.
One of his key involvements has been with the Post 225 and combined Legion-VFW color guard. Working in a color guard is old hat for Weiss.
While stationed at Fort Riley, Weiss joined the 1st Infantry Division Color Guard and also took part in a national color guard unit on special occasions. It was this service that led to his nomination to serve on the presidential funeral color guard in 1963, he said.
There was one special opportunity that he did not pass up.
Two years after former President Eisenhower left office, the 1st Infantry Color Guard was selected to present flags at the dedication of the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Eisenhower’s hometown, Abilene, Kan. At the conclusion of the program, it was Weiss who presented one of the flags used in the dedication to the former First Lady, Mamie Eisenhower, as her husband looked on.
It was just another brush with history for a small-town guy who proudly served his nation and continues to serve veterans today.