On October 27, 1962, the world stood at the closest it had ever been to nuclear war. It was the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. And an accident, not under the control of either of the superpowers, almost turned the cold war hot.
Some background. In 1961, the Soviet submarine K-19 had a mutiny on its hand. If it was not for the actions of the senior command staff, including Vasili Arkhipov, in securing the nuclear reactor, it would have resulted in a nuclear accident unparalleled anywhere in the world until the accident at Chernobyl. The action put Arkhipov in to a form of super-stardom among the Soviet military.
In October of 1962, US spy satellites spotted intermediate ranged nuclear tipped missiles on the island of Cuba. So began the 13 days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Soviet and US warships were dispatched. Among them, the B-59, with its new executive officer, the hero of the K-19, Vasili Arkhipov. And the B-59 was fitted with several nuclear-tipped nuclear torpedoes.
As submarines are apt to do, the B-59 attempted to operate by stealth. Unfortunately for the B-59, it lost direct communication when it dived. Even more unfortunately for it, the USS Beale, working in partnership with the aircraft carrier the USS Randolph, found it, hiding in the depths. The fleet was under orders not to let any ships through, so they began to use practice depth-charges; non-lethal but the captain of the B-59, Valentin Savitsky, had no way of knowing that. After the amount of bombardment, the captain was certain that World War III had already broken out, and was responding in kind.
After a period of bombardment, and without any way to communicate with the Soviet high command, the captain made the order, arm the nuclear torpedoes. For the use of nuclear weapons, you require a unanimous content of the captain, executive, and political officers. The captain and political officer, Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov, were in unanimous decision, use the nuclear torpedoes on the USS Randolph, an act which would have had nuclear fallout landing on Miami before the end of the day.
Had this happened, the Pentagon had put into place what they called the Single Integrated Operational Plan, a doomsday scenario which would have, within a half hour, launched over 5,000 nuclear missiles against their pre-determined targets. The response from the Soviet Union would have been far less, only 1,400 missiles, but it would have been enough.
The call came down to the B-59’s executive officer, the hero of the K-19, Vasili Arkhipov.
He refused to agree. The men argued, to no avail. Arkhipov would not change his mind.
Eventually the depth charges proved to much, and the B-59 was forced to surface when its batteries began running low from the continual maneuvering to avoid the depth charges.
This action by a man already hailed as a hero by those in the Soviet Union, averted World War III. Once back in communication with Moscow, and the information of the incident was made known, the Soviet command issued the order, turning away the blockade runners, and began the communication which halted the crisis.
Later in life, he rose to the rank of vice-admiral, and commanded the Kirov Naval Academy. He retired in the mid-1980’s where he settled in to a quiet life in Zheleznodorozhny, Moscow Oblast.
He passed away on August 17, 1998, at the age of 72.
The 50th anniversary of the incident passed by last week quietly. We should all remember the lessons of that day, and the heroes of that day.
Admiral Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov, the world, the people born since your fateful decision, owe you our very lives, and we salute you.