Navy veteran Auburn man receives long-awaited medal for service during Cuba Missile Crisis | Local News | Auburn, New York State |


For Bill Gabak, his search for a medal he won during his service in the United States Navy began with a newspaper article.

Gabak, from Auburn, was reading a story about the USS Willard Keith, the Navy destroyer he served as the helmsman on. At the bottom of the article, it is mentioned that the crew received the Armed Services Expeditionary Medal for their efforts to prevent the Soviet Union from delivering weapons to Cuba during what is now known as the Crisis of the missiles from Cuba.

The problem? Gabak was unaware of the commendation.

“I said, ‘Well, I didn’t get a medal!'” He recalls in a telephone interview with The Citizen on Wednesday.

With the help of the office of US Representative John Katko, the oversight was corrected. Katko presented Gabak with the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal at a small ceremony held at the congressman’s office in Syracuse.

“It was a great honor for me to help William Gabak acquire his due medal and present it to him at a ceremony this week,” Katko said in a statement. “I have an incredible admiration for the men and women who serve our country, and I will continue to do everything in my power to ensure that they are recognized for their sacrifices.”

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Gabak joined the Navy in 1959 as a reservist and was subsequently called up for active service. On June 2, 1962, he was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, when told that his crew would be sent to Florida and that they “would stock up on ammunition and food because we would be there for a while” . They were ordered to intercept grain barges from the Soviet Union supplying Cuba with missiles and other supplies.

There was an incident that Gabak remembers. The USS Willard Keith intercepted two Soviet barges and the captain ordered the ships to turn around or the destroyer would open fire. One of the barges changed course, but another stopped. A Russian-speaking ensign, Gabak said, was sent to the barge. The captain also went to the barge and, according to Gabak, could see the “missile fins protruding through the compacted grain”.

“He told them they would not go any further,” Gabak said. “They would have to turn around or they would be sunk.”

He added, “It’s the closest thing we’ve ever had to a scary episode. Luckily they turned around.”

Other than this event, Gabak says he hasn’t heard from anything more about what would become the Cuban Missile Crisis. At the time, little information was shared about what was going on. For example, he was unaware that his ship was part of a large-scale effort to prevent the Soviets from delivering missiles and other supplies to Cuba.

Over time, Gabak learned more about what happened. He found more details on the Internet, which is how he discovered that the USS Willard Keith had received a medal for its role in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

To get the medal, he gathered information and passed it on to Katko’s office last year. After a long wait, he was informed that his service aboard the destroyer was warranted and that he would receive the medal.

Katko’s office helped other veterans secure the medals they won. Anyone interested in requesting copies of their medals should contact the Katko district office in Syracuse at (315) 423-5657.

Online producer Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.


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