At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis on 27 October 1962, the US Navy detected a Soviet submarine near the blockaded island of Cuba.
The US Navy ships began dropping depth charges around the submarine, called the B-59, rocking it violently from side to side. Onboard, unknown to the Americans, was a tactical nuclear torpedo.
As tempers rose inside the submarine and with no means of escape, the Soviet Captain Valentin Savitsky ordered the torpedo to be armed and readied.
But the weapon was not fired. Why? Because onboard the submarine was Vasili Aleksandrovich Arkhipov, a Soviet flotilla commander who diffused the situation and prevented the torpedo’s launch.
Here’s more about Vasili Aleksandrovich Arkhipov and how he stopped a nuclear war.
Who was Vasili Arkhipov?
Vasili Aleksandrovich Arkhipov was born into a peasant family just outside of Russia’s capital, Moscow, on 30 January 1926. He started his naval career at the Pacific Higher Naval School and went on to serve in the Soviet-Japanese War in August 1945 aboard a minesweeper.
After the war, he transferred to the Caspian Higher Naval School, graduating in 1947 to serve in the submarine service aboard ships in the Black Sea, Northern and Baltic Fleets.
In 1961, Arkhipov was made deputy commander of the new ballistic missile submarine, the K-19. The K-19 was the first class of Soviet submarine armed with nuclear weapons.
Arkhipov’s first nuclear complication
During some training exercises off the coast of Greenland, Arkhipov’s new submarine’s reactor coolant system started leaking, effectively stopping the nuclear cooling system. The radio links with command in Moscow were also affected, preventing the crew from calling for help.
Captain Nikolai Zateyev ordered the submarine’s 7 engineers to find a way of avoiding a nuclear meltdown. However, solving the problem meant exposing themselves to high radiation levels for extended periods.
The crew managed to devise a secondary coolant system and prevent a reactor meltdown, but everyone – including Arkhipov – had been significantly exposed to radiation. The engineering crew died and their officer died with the month and over the next 2 years, 15 more sailors died from the after-effects.
The K-19 gained the nickname ‘Hiroshima’ in reference to her long-lasting destructive legacy. Indeed, Arkhipov died in 1998 from kidney cancer, thought to have been the result of his radiation exposure during the K-19 accident.
The Cuban Missile Crisis
In October 1962, Captain Savitsky’s B-59 was one of 4 Soviet submarines sent on a secret mission to the waters around Cuba. Only days before, President Kennedy had made public the news that the CIA had found evidence of Soviet missile sites being built on the island.
Despite being in international waters, the submarine passed the US Naval blockade around Cuba ordered by Kennedy to threaten “Red ships” with “search or sinking”.
The US blockade was formed of 11 destroyers and the aircraft carrier USS Randolph, who had the submarine surrounded and began dropping depth charges around the B-59. This tactic was designed to force the submarine to rise to the surface in order to be searched by the US.
While the B-59 stayed submerged, tensions onboard quickly rose. There had been no contact with Moscow for several days and the submarine, sheltering deep underwater from the depth charges, was too low to pick up radio frequencies.
Captain Savitsky had little idea what the situation on the surface was, or whether war had already broken out.
Keeping his cool
The temperature within the B-59 was 37 degrees. The air conditioning had stopped working and sailors had been fainting in the stuffy air. Savitsky decided to arm the nuclear torpedo.
To launch, however, he needed the go-ahead from all 3 officers onboard: himself, as captain of the B-59, the political officer Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov, and the flotilla chief of staff and executive officer of B-59, Vasili Arkhipov.
While Arkhipov was second-in-command of the submarine B-59, as chief of staff of the entire submarine flotilla, including submarines B-4, B-36 and B-130, he outranked Savitsky, who ultimately needed Arkhipov’s approval to launch.
Pieced together from witness testimony, we know the two men argued about whether or not to fire the torpedo. Arkhipov explained the US tactic was to force the submarine to surface rather than destroy it.
At the White House, President Kennedy’s brother Robert described how the president also worried the depth charges would provoke the Soviets to a nuclear strike. Robert said, “those few minutes were the time of greatest worry to the President.”
Whatever was said between Arkhipov and Savitsky, the missile was not fired. The B-59 rose to the surface where it was greeted by 11 US destroyers, but the Americans did not board or search the sub.
In fact, they would not know that the submarines held nuclear weapons on board until half a century later, after the Soviet archives were opened.
When he heard that the Soviet submarines had been located by the US, the acting Soviet defence minister Marshal Andrei Grechko smashed his glasses on the desk in front of him. Grechko was enraged the crew had confirmed their presence. Instead, “it would have been better if you’d gone down with your ship,” he said.
While the sailors were met with disgrace from many of their superiors, Arkhipov continued to command submarines in the Soviet Navy after 1962. He was promoted to vice admiral in 1981 before retiring several years later.
Yet undoubtedly, by negotiating with Savitsky and revealing their presence to the US, Arkhipov had avoided the death of his crew, the destruction of the submarine and a nuclear strike.
In a press conference in 2002, retired Commander Vadim Pavlovich Orlov, who had been onboard the B-59 in 1962, revealed they had been carrying the dangerous weapons. He credited Arkhipov as the reason they were not fired. Arkhipov had stopped a nuclear war.