Owosso-born Author Recalls Naval Career in New Book
By SALLY YORK, Argus-Press Staff Writer | Posted: Thursday, July 21, 2016
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, U.S. Navy Ensign Gary Slaughter helped defuse a possible confrontation between his destroyer and a Soviet submarine armed with a nuclear-tipped torpedo.
The Owosso native’s skillful handling of what could have prompted World War III was featured in two documentary films, including “The Man Who Saved the World” by the PBS. The tension-filled incident is one of 60 episodes Slaughter recounts in his “Sea Stories: A Memoir of a Naval Officer (1956-1967),” to be released Sept. 4.
“These Navy stories kept coming back to me,” Slaughter explained during a recent telephone conversation from his home in Nashville, Tennessee. “I loved the Navy and I’m very proud of my service.”
Area residents may know Slaughter from his five award-winning Cottonwood novels, based on a fictionalized version of Owosso during World War II. “Sea Stories” marks his first shift to nonfiction.
He said he found it easier to pen the memoir than the novels. “I didn’t need to invest time and energy creating the stories and antics of fictional characters,” he said. “I simply recounted what I had observed and remembered as a young man. “Moreover, when I was in the navy, I was very fortunate to have experienced a great number of truly amazing real-life adventures and met some remarkable people.”
Slaughter hasn’t lived in Owosso since he was a young man, but he remains strongly attached to the place where he was born and raised, which he describes warmly in “Sea Stories.” “I was glad to get out of the snow, but I have so many memories here,” he said. “I still have close friends and some cousins who live in Owosso. It’s a warm, friendly town.” Slaughter is returning next month to give talks and book-signings for “Sea Stories.”
He will appear at the Shiawassee Arts Center at 2 p.m. Aug. 28 and at an Owosso Rotary Club meeting Aug. 31. Other events are being scheduled as well.
He will no doubt describe to attendees what happened on Oct. 27, 1962, called “Black Saturday” by the Kennedy administration. His ship, the USS Cony, an anti-submarine warfare destroyer, surfaced a large Soviet submarine from the waters south of Bermuda.
Because Slaughter was the only man on board the Cony trained to communicate in Russian code, he quickly became the point man for dealing with the sub’s stressed-out Soviet commanding officer, Captain Vitali Savitsky, who assumed his crew was under attack by the Cony.
Following a terse exchange, Slaughter writes, “Savitsky and I simply stared at each another, and the situation settled into an uneasy standoff. I had never seen a Soviet naval officer up close. With his droopy, squatty and dour face, he looked like an over-the-hill prizefighter and fit the part of the villain perfectly.”
When an overzealous U.S. Navy pilot flew his patrol plane over the scene, a frightened and angry Savitsky — his eyes wild, hair mussed —aimed his nuclear torpedoes directly at the Cony.
“I was right there looking at those torpedo tubes,” Slaughter remembered. “I thought, this could be it.”
His captain ordered him to signal Savitsky an apology for the plane’s abrupt arrival, and then to “keep that Russian bastard happy.”
The 22-year-old Ensign spent the next several hours trying his best. To his surprise, the chilly relationship thawed. Savitsky not only nodded and smiled at him from time to time, he even accepted Slaughter’s offer of fresh bread and cigarettes for the Soviet crew.
The crisis was averted, thanks in part to Slaughter’s ability to stay cool under pressure. “I had lots of training in the navy and ROTC,” he said. “There’s a certain mentality you develop when you become an officer. Yes, we were young guys, but we were calm, cool and collected.”
Forty years would pass before Slaughter found out — thanks to Soviet Union’s fall and the consequent opening of military records — the torpedoes weren’t conventional, but nuclear. What’s more, Savitsky had the authority to use them.
Conventional torpedoes are deadly enough, but if Savitsky had fired nuclear weapons that day, the U.S. might well have retaliated in kind, with the situation quickly escalating into an all-out nuclear war between the superpowers.
The significance of what was avoided sank in. “I knew I played a pivotal role,” Slaughter said, “but we worked as a team aboard the ship. I couldn’t have done it alone.”
Other memories he relates in “Sea Stories” include:
1. The time a boiler explosion killed two sailors aboard a destroyer where Slaughter served as engineering officer.
2. A snafu in the engineering log room resulting from a naive yeoman’s use of his initials, FRT, to reclassify hundreds of Navy documents.
3. An apparent suicide attempt by a sailor who, fueled by beer, jumped into the icy waters off the coast of Portland, Maine.
“One good sea story does not always lead to another,” Capt. Earl H. Russell, USN (Ret.) wrote after reading “Sea Stories.” “It is truly remarkable that Gary Slaughter should have managed to provide 60 good sea stories in chronological sequence describing the life of a young man from the Midwest through his halcyon youth to that of a highly trained expert in anti-submarine warfare.
“That these events took place in a decade of change throughout the naval establishment provides the opportunity to share a multitude of situations that will be of interest not only to the military reader but to all that have an interest in history and autobiographical writing.”
Disillusioned by the infiltration of politics into the Navy, Slaughter left after 11 years and became an expert in the field of corporate information technology, a field that was exploding due to the ever-widening use of computers.
For three decades he owned and operated a number of IT consulting and software businesses that served large corporations.
His pioneering IT career didn’t leave him time to write books, he said, and he was over 60 years old when he penned his first book, “Cottonwood Summer.” The series.
The fiction series, launched in 2004, was highly successful with readers and critics. His wife, Joanne Slaughter, became his editor and researcher.
Cottonwood books have been selected as a finalist for the Benjamin Franklin Award for Adult and Popular Fiction, the Foreword Book of the Year Award for Adult Fiction, and the Next Generation Indie Book Award for General Fiction and Young Adult Fiction.
These days the 76-year-old Slaughter, who lives in Nashville, Tennessee, is promoting the soon-to-be-released “Sea Stories” and thinking about his next book.
“I am considering another nonfiction book about the people, places, and events that I experienced during my 30-year career in the IT consulting and training business,” he said. “I am sure that it will be as interesting to readers as ‘Sea Stories.’”