INTERVIEW WITH REAR ADMIRAL JOHN F. SIGLER - (18/12/97)
(A bit of preliminary talk re: naval ranks)
INTERVIEWER: Thank you for coming along. Now why was it decided... what were the advantages of having a shipboard summit?
REAR ADMIRAL JOHN SIGLER: Well, I remember that the reasons presented to me were that... first of all the historical significance, recalling Yalta, and that was really part of it. And then the President really wanted to have a place where he could have real privacy; and we had gotten some sofas, and assuming that the weather was going to be good, they would have actually had a place that... on the ship that would have been totally private; they could have sat down and really, with the exception of the interpreters, been by themselves and had real personal talks. And because of the size of the ships, the number of media who could be out there to do all the photography and interviews and so forth, would have been limited, and I think that was another reason for Malta. But I think the main thing was that it had that historical significance.
INT: So what was the significance of linking Yalta with Malta, if you like, what was that significance?
JFS: Well, that was... Yalta being an epic turn of events, a change from a war time to a new peace, and this being the end of the Cold War, or the beginning of the end of the Cold War, and again the end of an epoch and perhaps the start of another one.
INT: So was Malta a good choice of location? How did you get to hear about what the plans were?
JFS: Well, I was the commanding officer of USS Belnap, which at the time was the Sixth Fleet flagship, and we were home-ported in Gaeta, Italy. There were only two US ships that were home-ported in the Mediterranean; the other one was a destroyer attender. And Belnap was available during that time, as were some other ships that were deployed from the United States. They chose us because we were a flagship and had been used to entertaining at the highest levels, heads of state around the Mediterranean, and of course had a good presentation for the ship. The first time I heard about it, we were in a repair period in France, in Toulon, and I got a call that said: "You need to get the ship cleaned up and fixed up very quickly, and it looks like you're going to be the host for a summit at Malta." And so, of course, the first thing I did was go to a map to find out exactly where Malta was, and where the port in Malta would be. So that's how it first occurred to me - that was in about... well, it was around Thanksgiving, so it wasn't very far before...
INT: And did you...
JFS: (Overlap) We only had a few weeks to prepare.
INT: Sorry. So did you have any misgivings about what the weather would be like?
JFS: No, not at all. The weather normally... December can be tricky in the Mediterranean; storms come up without much notice, but they tend to only last a short period of time and die down quickly. And we'd looked at the forecast for Malta, and it looked like Malta would have good weather; the chances of a storm of the kind that we actually had was one in 10 - only about every 10 years would you have a storm like that. Unfortunately, I think it had been about 10 years before... (Laughs)
(Above to be done again)
INT: Can you just tell us about what the chances were, because the lorry went by?
JFS: The chances were probably about one in 10 that we would have that kind of storm. Unfortunately, it was about 10 years before, as we found out later, that the last one took place.
INT: Very good. And what was the atmosphere like, what was the anticipation like before the summit actually began?
JFS: Well, there was great excitement. My crew was particularly excited. We did a lot of protocol kinds of things, and they worked very hard to get the ship cleaned up and presentable for those kinds of things. To do it for the President of the United States and the head of the Soviet Union, was... and be part of history, was just very exciting for all of us, and then there was great anticipation that the summit itself would really produce some results that would really mark the end of the Cold War.
INT: And you personally, did you feel that the Cold War was winding down at this point, in that case?
JFS: We had a sense that it was. We had had some visits with Russian ships, and we found out the Russians weren't much different than us. We'd been looking at them through the sights of guns for years and years and years, and we found out that we had a lot in common, and all of our meetings were very friendly, and getting friendlier as we had more of them. In fact, before the... before the summit started, we arrived about three days in advance, and the Russian ship arrived about two days in advance, and before the presidents arrived we had exchange visits, and they were wonderful; everybody was very, very friendly.
INT: That's great. And do you know what exactly hopes the American team had for the summit? Were you informed as to what they were expecting out of it?
JFS: I really wasn't part of the... As commanding officer of the flagship, I was not part of the original strategy development for the summit. However, after the summit got started, because of the weather, I was invited to come in to the meetings that the President and his team were having, to advise on weather, and then invited to stay, so for me it was fascinating to see decision-making at that level of our Government.
INT: And even before it started, were there fears that the Russians might be sort of obstreperous? I know there have been reports, and in some of the papers Gorbachev was doubtful really about his relationship with Bush, because Bush had never really done anything to back up his claims that he supported perestroika, and he'd never actually met Gorbachev at all as a president.
JFS: I can't speak to that. I know that there were some concerns about one area that concerned us, which was conventional weapons: there was a significant disagreement between the Soviet Union and the United States on conventional weapons limitations. But beyond that, I wasn't really involved in any personality issues.
INT: OK, that's fine. And can you tell us about how you heard about the storm, and how you had to tell... or how President Bush came to realize that there was going to be some terrible weather coming up?
JFS: Well, we got there... I think it was a Tuesday, and the weather was lovely, and in fact I went ashore a couple of days and went for runs, and Malta was a beautiful place; great history, and wonderful art. And so we thought, "This is going to be just terrific." And the President was to arrive on a Friday, and we had a satellite ... weather satellite tracking station on board the ship, so we were able to keep track of weather across the Mediterranean and around the world. And we saw a little storm developing toward Gibraltar, and said, "This may affect us in a few days, but it's 50-50 chance. And if it does, it'll move quickly past us; it'll probably affect us for six or eight hours or so." And we watched the storm track all the way across the Mediterranean in the days before the summit started on the Saturday, and it got to Malta and then it stalled, and it really stayed right over Malta. It had actually been moving along quite rapidly, and for some reason it just stopped there, and it stopped for about 36 hours. And it was quite a terrible 36 hours for me personally; I kept thinking, you know, if the commanding officer of a warship has his ship go aground in a bad storm under normal circumstances, you face a court martial, and you go and do something else after your career is over. If you do it with the President of the United States on board, you're famous forever, and that's something I didn't really want to do. (Laughs) So it was an unnerving 36 hours. At the same time, being part of that history was really great. And so, as I've said before, it was the best of times and the worst of times.
INT: And so when President Bush turned up, was it you who had to brief him about the problyou were about to face?
JFS: We didn't know just how bad it was going to be that Friday, and so the Friday evening was very rela. He came aboard; we had a very simple arrival ceremony; he met some of the crew. And that evening, they were to prepare their notes and their strategy for the next day, for his meeting on Saturday morning. We had a dinner, a very small dinner - I think there were only about 10 of us in one of our smaller messes on board the ship - with the President, and very relaxed, a lot of joking, a lot of laughter, so everyone was very relaxed. And again we saw this storm; I briefed the President that it looked like it was going to be windy; it might affect the first meeting Saturday morning, but it looked like it would clear up by Saturday afternoon, and the rest of it would go as planned, including a state dinner on board our ship Saturday night.
INT: And so when did it get really, really bad, and when you did have to adjust the plans as to whether...?
JFS: (Overlap) The storm really started to kick up in the early morning hours of Saturday morning, and the weather was bad enough by Saturday morning that they changed the plan to go... And I've forgotten the sequence of which ship it was supposed to be on first - I think it was us, and they changed... and then to the Russian ship in the afternoon... but they changed the venue to go to the Russian cruise liner that the Russians had brought in port for their hotel and (unclear) purposes, because it was tied alongside a pier and it was a large ship and it was stable, so they decided to go there. The President was very mobile, and with his time at (unclear) port, was used to being in rough water and so forth. But our information on Mr. Gorbachev was... with his agrarian background, that he was not the kind of guy who would want to get in a rough sea and so forth. So they were there to have a summit, not to decide that it had to be on a warship, so they went to the cruise liner, and that decision was made early Saturday morning.
INT: And what was the atmosphere like on the boat, what was it like on the Belnap when you realized that the storm was quite so terrible and the first location had to be elsewhere?
JFS: Well, the ship's crew had... our first concern, of course, was the safety of the President, and the second concern the safety of the ship, and so we had to man watch stations that we normally wouldn't man in port. In fact, we had a full watch on the bridge, just as if the ship were underway, and basically I was on the bridge for the 36 hours, and we were so busy keeping the ship safe that we really didn't have time to think about the consequences of the impact of that on the summit. There were some funny things that happened during that 36 hours. Normally, the President's secret service changes out every four hours, and of course they had responsibility for the President's safety; but because of the heavy seas, they had to stay on board overnight that Saturday, and they ended up... I think it was like 18 hours before we could get some relieves out, and all of them unfortunately got seasick, so they were not feeling well. In fact, I think everybody except my crew and me and the President were seasick, because the ship was really rolling and pitching violently because of these heavy waves and high seas in port, and the thing that really made it a violent evolution for the ship was that the wind was coming from one direction, and because of the opening of the harbor, the seas were coming from a different direction, which is a bad combination for a ship.
INT: Sort of meeting in the middle.
JFS: Meeting in the middle, and we were there. (Laughs)
INT: OK. So, on the afternoon, President Bush went over to the Gorky and he had his meeting. It's very funny, incidentally, because of course the Russians say, actually, President Bush felt very, very ill, he couldn't manage it at all. (Laughter) That's what they say. But... so he went, and he came back to the Belnap at lunchtime. Can you tell me what happened then, what it was like? I've heard that his boat almost disappeared behind the waves. (Wait for plane) First of all, if you could tell me about how his boat was almost subsumed by the waves, and then about how he got stuck. ... All right, so...
JFS: The waves had gotten up to three or four feet by that time, and when you photographed the boat from the shore, which is where the cameras were, it looked like the boat was really in trouble. It really was not, but it would go down and sort of disappear below the waves, and come up. And I saw news reports afterwards that talked about the boat being swamped, or in danger of being swamped. It never was. The problem we had was getting the boat alongside the ship, because with those kinds of waves... and again, the wind was in one direction and the waves in another direction... the real problem we had was getting that boat alongside the ladder that went up to the ship, and we couldn't... we just couldn't bring it aboard on one side, so we took it over to the other side and got it aboard, but it became apparent that if it was going to get any worse than that that lunchtime, that it was going to be impossible to get the President, except in an all-out emergency, ashore or back on the ship, so at that point we recommended that we cancel until the weather died down a little.