Eleuthera Bahamas

Mission Accomplished

By Al Jacobs
Published: August/September 2014

In the search for Wi-Fi, pink sand, and cioppino in Eleuthera in the Bahamas, these boaters discover an extraordinary back story of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Photo of Al Jacobs
Al keeps a sharp lookout as Grace sails over the shallow Bahama Banks.

A good adventure always ambushes you, and that was the case with this one. Eleuthera is less than a mile wide in places, so Teresa and I set out to explore, looking to find the famous pink-sand beach on the Atlantic side of the island. We walked and hiked, and eventually we got ourselves onto an overgrown but paved road we hadn't expected to find. We followed it and soon began to see traces of more and more buildings until we were surrounded by what seemed to be an abandoned military base. We were in the middle of, well, nowhere! There were barracks buildings, the remains of shops, four water tanks that held 200,000 gallons apiece, and many other ruins. After nearly 30 years in the U.S. Army, I knew what I was looking at. But I didn't know why. What was a large abandoned U.S. military base doing out here? Not only was it puzzling, it was downright eerie. We found our pink sand, but I didn't get much sleep that night thinking about what we'd come across.

NASA photo of Eleuthera Bahamas
Photo: NASA
Famously shaped like a fish hook, and known for its dive sites, ancient coral, and exquisite beauty, Eleuthera's name was derived from the Greek word "eleuthero," which means freedom.

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Research quickly revealed that we'd stumbled on an old missile-tracking station from back in the dark days of the Cold War. But that still didn't pass the sniff test for me. Of all the places to establish a tracking site, why here? It was difficult and expensive to establish and maintain, and many other places would have done as well, if not better. Then, at the bottom of a reference, I saw the one word — "SOSUS" — that told me everything I needed to know. SOSUS stood for Sound Surveillance System, a U.S. Navy underwater listening program that enabled operators to track any ship in the Atlantic and pinpoint its location by triangulating its sound signature. Somewhere on that base had been a handful of U.S. Navy personnel fighting the Cold War in top secret, and no one had known it.

Photo of the defunct entrance to a missle tracking station
Photo: Al Jacobs
The now defunct entrance to what was once a critical missile-tracking station.

Back in early 1962, the first SOSUS monitoring station had been established at the easternmost point of land in the Atlantic Ocean, the location of the Eleuthera base, in order to be as close as possible to the underwater listening devices and cables that converged there. The system was operational just in time to help President John Kennedy call the bluff of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis — 13 days in October 1962 that marked the only time in history that the U.S. military was placed on DEFCON2, the next step to nuclear war. Up until the past 10 years, we'd always thought that JFK had rolled the dice and stared Khrushchev down. The truth was something different. Khrushchev originally intended to use more than a dozen submarines to break the U.S. blockade of Cuba that was conducted with surface ships. What he never knew was that we had the brand-new SOSUS technology that told us exactly where each of his Russian subs was.

Because of that knowledge, our Navy was able to bring nearly all the Russian diesel subs to the surface and send them home. The Russians never understood how we gained that knowledge, but it was enough to force Khrushchev to call off his plan to place nuclear weapons in Cuba. Crisis averted. As a footnote, we never knew, until the documents were declassified recently, that many of those Russian subs were armed with nuclear torpedoes and that we came much closer to a global nuclear war in October 1962 than the public knew. It was what happened inside a forgotten base on an off-the-beaten-track island in the Bahamas that changed the course of history.End of story marker

Al Jacobs is a retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel and Ranger, and a history teacher. He and Teresa spent several years cruising in the southeast U.S. and the Bahamas.

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