Foreign Relations: Shots & a Shrimp Boat

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For three days the 67-ft. shrimp boat Ala drifted eastward through the Florida Straits, nudged along by the Gulf Stream. Its diesel engines had burned out, its radio was powerless, it was taking water. The two Negro shrimpers out of Florida's Fort Myers stood knee-deep in water, bailing for their lives. Near dusk, a MIG jet out of Cuba swooped toward the boat.

"That jet came in so low I could see the pilot," recalls Benjamin Washington, 27.

"I waved at him with an old green rag, and Paris [the boat's skipper, Paris Jackson, 44] waved at him with a pair of coveralls. He was so low I saw a black spot with an eagle—or maybe an animal of some kind—on the body. He flew around a lighthouse at Elbow Key and circled back. Then he started shooting. I could see the bullets spraying in the water on the port side, maybe a couple hundred yards away. Paris hit the deck. God, I was scared.

"Then, all of a sudden, there were three more jets, silver ones. One of them was up high circling, and the other three came at us all in a row and shot again. We didn't go in the wheelhouse or anything. We didn't want them to think we had guns or ammunition. They'd have sunk us right there. The second time the bullets went across the bow close to the anchor line. I wasn't watching too close. I don't know if they were Russian jets or not, but I knew they shouldn't be doing that. We weren't flying a flag. We didn't have one."

Phantoms v. MIGs. On U.S. radarscopes in Florida, the MIGs had been traced out of Cuba. As soon as they passed the 24th parallel, 50-odd miles north of Havana, two U.S. Marine Phantom interceptors scrambled from Boca Chica Naval Air Station near Key West. The Marines raced toward the MIGs at 1,600 m.p.h., met them near the boat, some 60 miles north of Cuba, within five minutes. They saw the MIGs fire at the stricken vessel, radioed Boca Chica for instructions. Four more Phantoms were dispatched.

For a few moments the U.S. Phantoms and the Soviet-built MIGs maneuvered for attack positions, their pilots uncertain of what to expect. All held their fire. Then the MIGs broke away and dashed back to Cuba.

In the long history of the cold war, there have been many more provocative incidents. But the reaction to the shrimp boat incident served to show how high U.S. tensions have risen about Cuba. Cried Democratic House Speaker John McCormack: "An act of aggression." Said Connecticut's Democratic Senator Thomas Dodd: "A shocking thing." Declared Georgia's Democratic Senator Richard Russell: "An act of piracy. I would favor a policy of hot pursuit on any attacking MIGs. I would follow them back to Cuba."

President Kennedy ordered the State Department to draft the stiffest protest yet sent to the Cuban government, declared that U.S. armed forces will "take all necessary action against any repetition of such an attack." He did not spell out that action, but the standing orders to U.S. military pilots were changed. Before, they were under instructions to fire only if fired upon. From now on, they will shoot at anyone attacking U.S. vessels or aircraft.

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