Turning Stones - George McKale


Skaggs Island and the Cuban missile crisis

We have an exciting new exhibit at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art: “Revolutionary Island: Tales of Cuban History and Culture, The Sarah & Darius Anderson Collection,” running from though March 24. The exhibit includes a diverse collection of material including paintings, sculpture, cigar boxes, baseballs and posters, and a collection of material addressing the Cuban experience from the revolution to present day.

Now, when I think of Cuba, and the infamous missile crisis of 1962, I think of nearby Skaggs Island.

Skaggs Island is located off Highway 37 between Novato and Vallejo.  Here’s some quick and dirty history. In 1849 the island and surrounding parcels were sold in Europe as land that was gold bearing.  Ouch!

Just for the record, no gold was ever found in the vicinity of Skaggs Island. The land was used to raise draft horses and grow barley.  Eventually the land was sold to M.B. Skaggs, the founder of Safeway stores.  The Navy purchased the land in 1941 developing a self-contained and highly secretive communications center.

The Cuban missile crisis was a 13-day confrontation in October of 1962, involving the Soviet Union and Cuba as allies, against the U.S. Though only three years old at the time, the crisis was certainly a hot topic in my elementary school years. During a confrontation known as the Bay of Pigs, the U.S. attempted to overthrow the Cuban regime. The failed attempt prompted Nikita Khrushchev to place nuclear missiles in Cuba to deter other such attempts to overthrow the Cuban government.

The U.S. considered military intervention, but opted on a military blockade instead.

A few years earlier, the Naval Security Group (NSG) at Skaggs Island was recording and analyzing Soviet radio transmissions.  Such transmissions were encrypted, and the goal of the NSG was to break the codes. A sonograph machine assisted communications experts at Skaggs Island; once the signal code was broken, individuals determined which letters in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet matched the secret Soviet symbols. In September of 1962, the US confirmed that the Soviets were installing missiles in Cuba. Encrypted transmissions also indicated that submarines were being manufactured in Cuba, submarines with long-range missile launching capabilities.

Coincidentally, I recently heard from Colorado resident Tom Montelbano, who was stationed at Skaggs Island in 1966. His heroic efforts focused on a different conflict, the Vietnam War.  Mr. Montelbano was praised by his commanding officer, R.A. Vail, for providing a color guard at the VFW parade in Sonoma on May 1, 1966. On a side note, if anyone reading has photographs of that parade, I would love to see them.  So would Mr. Montelbano!

Today, Skaggs Island is being restored back to the wetland it once was. The new owners, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, has been working diligently over the past few years, decommissioning an important part of local and world history. The military operated there for 51 years.  It’s demise came with the crumbling of the Berlin Wall. In it’s heyday, Skaggs Island included 300 personnel, homes, a movie theatre, elementary school, market and water tower.

So, to come full circle, go out and visit the exhibit at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, where there is something that is sure to please even the youngest art and history enthusiasts.

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