Cuba, Castro and Kretchmer
Not much happened after Kretchmer was recomissioned on 22 September 1956. Not much that is, until we got underway for Guantanamo, Cuba. Now, Gitmo was the boot camp of the Atlantic Fleet. Every ship after commissioning or overhaul wound up there to train or “shake down”.
We arrived about mid November and went right to work. We went to sea almost every morning, returning in late afternoon. The men were trained and every machine and system on the ship was tested. One day we acted as guard ship while the battleship Wisconsin fired her big 16 inch guns at a target sled. It was pulled by a tug on a very long line.
The Navy Exchange on the base had a huge selection of the finest Cuban cigars at prices that were cheap even then. Everyone loaded up. Some days we didn’t return from exercises at sea until after dark and the evening meal had been served. So, after the meal (often greasy pork chops), most of the crew would gather on the fantail to smoke the big green cigars they had purchased at the Exchange, while the ship hurried in to port. The seas could be a little rough on the south coast of Cuba, and after the heavy meal, the cigars were more than some could handle. Woe to the man who ran to the rail and lost his pork chop. He was shown no mercy. By the way, we thought we knew rough seas; we had no idea what awaited us in the North Atlantic.
At that time Cuba was known to sailors the world over as having the best liberty ports on the planet. Havana was probably best, but Santiago was the place for the sailors at Gitmo. It was the second largest city on the island at about 350,000 people. In those peaceful days, it seemed that the whole base took the weekend off. Most of the ships steamed for Santiago Saturday morning. to contribute to the economy of a city that had bars serving Hatuey beer and Matusalem rum to the fleet since the Spanish American War. Of course, there were many establishments where other services could be procured.
Every thing changed on December 2, 1956. Fidel Castro and his boys came ashore near Santiago. There were fire fights but finally he was chased up into the hills with twelve or so companions. However, his invasion was bad for the sailors and bad for Santiago which depended on their money. The fleet stopped the weekend visits.
Subsequently, Castro regained his strength, defeated the government forces and marched on Havana. President Batista fled the country on January 1, 1959. But that was in the future.
The Christmas season came and all the ships returned to the U. S. for Holiday liberty. Kretchmer went to Boston, a fine liberty port worthy of it’s own story.. When the Holidays were over, she returned to work and train at Gitmo.
Castro was in the hills, brooding, and all seemed peaceful in Cuba. So, it was decided to send one ship to Santiago to see how things went. Now, what ship was chosen for this task? It was USS KRETCHMER (DER-329). Think of it; a hundred and fifty men were going to a city designed for the entertainment of American sailors and in which it had seen no dollars for six weeks. Saturday was a Cinderella Liberty, meaning all had to return to the ship at midnight. Naturally, being a SK-3, I had the duty. I was Petty Officer of the Watch, and I was on duty when the lucky ones went ashore in the afternoon and when they returned, quite drunk, at midnight. Some were late, some were in the city jail; but no one turned into a pumpkin.
This port visit was unusual in several ways. We tied up port side to a finger pier with warehouses the whole length of it. At the head of the pier was a Harbor Police Station. The side of the building facing us was pockmarked where bullets had hit it, and there were two sandbagged machineguns manned by soldiers. I had a clip in my .45. The man on bow watch had a clip in his carbine as well. I could tell some tales about that liberty; but, they are best told over several beers. Let’s just say that things went well and after our visit fleet visits resumed.
We had a few more adventures. The big one was when returning from a day at sea the ship rammed the pier head on. It put a ten foot gash in the bow and caused a lot of trouble for a lot of people.
That’s enough for now.
Ray Nelson, SK-3, June 1956 to August 1957