I was the commanding officer of the USS Peregine, a steel hulled mine sweeper. In the summer of 1964, I was ordered to take the Peregrine into the shipyard where it was converted into a "Special Operations" boat to track the movement of Soviet Ballistic Missile Submarines.
It was less then two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis and tensions were running high between the US and Soviet navies. Upon completion of the conversion, the Peregine set sail for the Atlantic. For the next twenty months we steamed the Caribbean, the African East Coast, and the North Atlantic - from
the Arctic Ocean and Norwegian Sea to Greenland. Wherever there was the possibility of a Soviet submarine, we tried to be there before them.
For a time we operated out of Rosyth, Scotland, which put us right on the sea lane used by Soviet ships departing their main naval ports near Mumansk. To reach the open Atlantic, Soviet ships had to pass through what was called the "GIUK" gap. The Gap was a series of narrow passages between Greenland,
Iceland, and the United Kingdom, which because of their narrowness, allowed US and NATO forces to easily identify and track Soviet ships.
Finding surface ships was easy, but finding submersed Soviet submarines was difficult, especially when they ran through deep underwater trenches several thousand miles in length.
Because of the nature of our operations, we often were escorted by Soviet ships that constantly harassed us, hoping to keep us preoccupied so that Soviet submarines might slip by undetected.
To locate Soviet submarines, the Peregine towed a sophisticated piece of sonar behind it that could be lowered to depths up to 1500 feet. It was connected to the ship's stern with a tow wire, which made it susceptible to being captured by a Soviet ship using a grappling hook.
To grapple my sonar, the Soviet destroyers would charge at my ship at high speeds, that at first always seemed to put them on a collision course - but they just wanted to pass astern at close range to maximize their chance of 'grappling' the towed sonar.
To avoid them from 'grappling' it, I would slow the ship down, and if necessary come to an all stop. By slowing or stopping the ship, the sonar would sink out of the range of their hooks.
Close encounters were the norm at the time. I was ready for that. But what I wasn't ready for was for them turning their large search lights onto my bridge at night - a flagrant violation of international 'Rules of the Road.'
One night, a Soviet destroyer pulled the 'bright light - close approach' tactic. As they did so, the Soviet bridge officers leaned over their bridge, which towered over mine, and looked down upon me with folded arms and grim, stoic faces. I stared back.
I had had enough of their antics and decided it was payback time. The search light was high above the bridge near their fire control directors, so if I chose to put a bullet through the light, it would not threaten any of their crew. I took a rifle out of the armory and aimed the gun at the search light
and waited to see what they would do. The Soviet officers just stared, figuring I was kidding them - an American surely would not risk a third World War over a simple search light.
Minutes went by. I pointed up at the light and pointed at my gun and shook my head in positive up and down motion - no reaction - after a short wait, I finally lowered the gun. They had called my bluff. But I wasn't done yet.
I passed the word over the ship's announcing system: "Bag of potatoes to the bridge." I pulled a nice large one out of the bag and held it up to show the Soviets. They were unimpressed. I threw it up and down in my hand for a few minutes, then threw a perfect strike right into the light.
Now the search light was made of many overlapping prisms, so it made a delightful musical clatter as some of the prisms broke, which brought only slight stirring among the Soviet spectators. After a few more potato strikes however, the destroyer moved slowly away - just out of my potato range.
Not to be deterred, I passed the word, "Yeoman Smith lay to the bridge." We had a decent softball team on board with the biggest and best player being Yeoman Smith.
"Smith, can you hit that light?" I asked him.
"I can try." He said with a smile.
Smith's first try went wide, but the second potato hit the light dead center, at which time I ordered: "Rapid continuous potatoes; commence firing."
The flurry of potatoes hitting the search light caused a commotion on the Soviet ship's bridge. They were ready to exchange guns shots, but potatoes???
The Soviet ship moved 300 yards astern of me and stayed there.
A few hours passed, during which I went into a slow steam, not satisfied that I had gotten even. I decided to up the ante.
I had on board several thousand small depth charges, part of my anti-submarine project. They had 3 hand grenade type pins inserted. Depending on which pin you pulled, they would hydro explode at 50ft, 150ft, or 500 ft.
I opened one box and removed its twelve bombs. I pulled the 50 ft. pins out of all of them, punctured holes in the ammo box, and placed the bombs back in the box and clamped it shut. I informed the crew what I intended to do. "You're nuts" was their general reply. "But go ahead - we're with you."
I dropped the box off the fantail. It was so dark out that the Soviets never saw the box go overboard, so they had no clue what was about to happen.
Within minutes there was this tremendous "WHOMP" - like a large depth charge. I smiled and I envisioned the confusion on the Soviet destroyer's bridge. Then, as I regained my senses I thought, Holy c--p, what did I just do? The Soviet ship came to an all stop and faded back into the dark sea.
Not knowing if they knew I had done this, my mind came up with numerous scenarios of what the next few hours or days would bring us. Possible physical retaliation - or a report to Moscow -- that would protest to Washington -- with an immediate change of command and court martial?
Instead, I got what I wanted - I got left alone! We proceeded on our mission and had no further visitors for a whole month. But that month alone gave me time to ponder how foolish I had acted.
Two things became obvious to me. One, the operator of the destroyer's sonar would probably receive a medical discharge because the explosion would have blown out his eardrums. And two, I probably blew out the destroyer's sonar dome, which would force it back to port where its poor Captain would have to
explain to unsympathetic commanders how he go bested by a puny little American ship.
I didn't even want to consider option 3: How I might just have extended the Cold War.
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Read other articles by Commander Mike Cuseo