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Sharpsville native writes book about living though Cuban Missile Crisis

Jan. 22—When the Cuban Missile Crisis began, Sharpsville native Donna Searle McLay found herself and her daughter among the thousands of civilians who were evacuated from Cuba to the United States.

When she left Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, McLay was about 26 years old. Now 87, McLay is able to share her story during the missile crisis through a first-hand account published last year: "Living the Cuban Missile Crisis: An American Teacher's Memoir."

"I wanted people to understand that there had been a difficult time that could have been disastrous, but because the heads of state in Russia and the United States were definite about not firing missiles at each other, we all survived," Donna said.

"By the time I got around to writing the book, about 80 percent of Americans weren't alive when it had happened."

Donna first arrived in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in late July 1960. Her husband at the time, Ralph Searle, served as a military policeman in the Navy at the base.

Since Donna previously worked as a fifth-grade teacher, including a stint at the former South Pymatuning Elementary School, she taught at William T. Sampson High School, which catered to the children of the base's military and civilian personnel.

That was until Oct. 22, 1962, when the school principal pulled Donna aside and told her that, when lunch came, the students and staff would dismiss for lunch.

But instead of returning to school, everyone would be taken by bus to ships that would bring them to the U.S.

In the weeks and months leading up to the evacuation, the Soviets had secretly shuttled medium-range missiles and troops to Cuba. American officials learned of the missiles on Oct. 16, shortly before all civilians were evacuated from Guantanamo Bay.

"I remember being worried for the kids, because they were going to have to live with their grandparents or relatives somewhere in the U.S.," Donna said.

Donna and her daughter Laura, who was just over a year old, were taken aboard the USS Duxbury Bay, a destroyer originally built in 1944 to carry 232 people, while her husband and other servicemen remained in Cuba.

There were 351 passengers about the Duxbury Bay during the evacuation, while three other ships were similarly loaded to capacity. Many passengers about the Duxbury Bay had to share their bunks with crew members, although Donna and Laura were not among them, Donna said.

"While we were onboard the Duxbury Bay, I was watching planes fly overhead and wondered what was under us," Donna said.

"Later when I started reading books written about that time, I learned that there were Russian submarines underwater following us, and they each had one torpedo, which they did not use."

The Duxbury Bay arrived in Norfolk, Va. on Oct. 25, and by the next day, Donna and Laura, along with a few possessions from Cuba, were staying in Sharon with Ralph's in-laws.

Eventually an agreement was reached between American President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premiere and First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev to withdraw the missiles from Cuba, while the Americans would withdraw missiles from Turkey and Italy.

All of the missiles were removed from Cuba by Nov. 28, 1962. Afterward, it was learned the Soviets had deployed more than 100 nuclear warheads to Cuba, Donna said.

"It was really a marvelous thing that Khrushchev and Kennedy agreed that they would not interfere with each other and start shooting people or dropping bombs anywhere, because it would have been so easy for them to just ignore the other side," Donna said.

Although many years have passed since the Cuban Missile Crisis and the evacuation from Guantanamo Bay, Donna said the whole experience remained an important part of her life — prompting her to read multiple books on the subject.

Having read multiple historical books and now living in the Tel Hai Retirement Community in Honey Brook, Pa., Donna eventually decided to write about her own experience around 2020.

Despite having officially retired from teaching in 2003, Donna continued to teach smaller classes and workshops such as a memoir-writing class that prepared her to write her own book.

"I'd read a lot of the books and realized that I didn't think anyone had written about what it was like during the Cuban Missile Crisis from a civilian's perspective," Donna said.

Donna said another important step came from a Road Scholar People-to-People Cultural Exchange trip she and 30 other Americans made in 2017 to Cuba, where she had a chance to learn about Cuban culture — from the different dialects spoken to the Cuban school system.

"Because I had gone on that trip, I thought 'now is the time'" Donna said regarding her decision to start writing.

However, the book does more than tell the story of Donna's family during the evacuation.

Some chapters describe Donna's upbringing in Sharpsville to her marriage with Ralph, the birth of Laura and life in Guantanamo Bay Naval Base before the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Interspersed with Donna's experiences are historical segues that detail the experiences of other figures during the crisis, from the Soviet troops' covert journey to Cuba to the decisions made by Kennedy and other American leaders to avert an open confrontation over Cuba.

When it came to planning out the book's chronological sequences and arranging the different personal and historical chapters, Donna said she imagined the book playing out like a movie, similar to the war movies she had seen at the former "The Ritz" theater in Sharpsville.

"If you're going to write about something, I'd recommend running it through your brain like a movie. I'd lived through it and read so much about the missile crisis, that it was very clear what needed to be written down," Donna said.

Now that the book is published, Donna said she hopes younger people can read about the crisis and learn how close the world's two superpowers at the time came to a conflict, and the importance of Kennedy and Khrushchev in pulling back from the brink.

However, if she does write another book, Donna said she plans to pen a fictional story set during a different historical time period.

"My far-in-the-future think is a book that takes place in Boston in the 19th century," Donna said. "Maybe have a man and woman eloping after college and ending up in West Virginia. That's going to be my next book."

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Like David L. Dye on Facebook or email him at ddye@sharonherald.com.