Q: I’ve heard on occasion that during the height of the Cuban missile crisis, there was a Soviet submarine captain who prevented World War III by refusing to fire his nuclear payload on a U. S. ship. Is this true, an exaggeration or an urban legend?
Cathy Stoltz, of Belleville
A: Some might call it a miracle that Vasili Arkhipov was even alive when, by many accounts, he single-handedly prevented what might have turned into a nuclear holocaust on Oct. 27, 1962.
Just a year before, Arkhipov was serving as deputy commander aboard the K-19, the Soviets’ new Hotel-class ballistic missile submarine when he found himself facing his first life-or-death struggle. After a few days of routine exercises in the waters off Greenland, the K-19 developed a severe leak in its reactor coolant system, leading to the system’s failure. Making matters worse, radio communications also were affected, making contact with Moscow impossible.
With no backup systems available, Commander Nikolai Zateyev ordered his engineering crew to devise a solution to prevent nuclear meltdown, requiring the men to work in high radiation levels for extended periods. They eventually jury-rigged a secondary system, but at a terrible price. Within a month, the entire engineering crew was dead and the rest of the crew — including Arkhipov — had been exposed to massive doses of the lethal emissions.
Nevertheless, Arkhipov found himself second in command on the B-59, one of four attack submarines that had been ordered to sail to Cuba from Murmansk on Oct. 1, 1962. Each carried 22 torpedoes, one of which was nuclear-armed, according to Priscilla Roberts’ “Cuban Missile Crisis: The Essential Reference Guide.”
On Oct. 24, the U.S. imposed a naval “quarantine” (i.e., blockade) around Cuba after discovering that the Soviets had begun constructing launch facilities for ballistic missiles on the island. Before setting up the quarantine, U.S. officials warned the Soviets that they would drop practice depth charges to force submarines to surface. The Kremlin, however, reportedly failed to transmit this warning to its sub commanders.
So you can only imagine the tension that filled the B-59 on Oct. 27, when a group of 11 U.S. Navy destroyers and the aircraft carrier USS Randolph located the Soviet sub near Cuba. Despite being in international waters, the Americans followed through on their threat and began dropping explosives to force the submarine to surface for identification.
But the crew on the sub did not know why explosions suddenly were going off around them. There had been no contact from Moscow for days and, because the ship was trying to hide from its pursuers, it was running too deep to monitor U.S. civilian radio broadcasts.
Adding to the pressure, temperatures in the submarine had climbed above 100 degrees because the air-conditioning system had failed and the ship obviously could not surface without exposing itself.
“The Americans hit us with something stronger than the ‘grenades’ (smaller charges) — apparently with a practice depth charge,” intelligence officer Vadim Orlov wrote later. “We thought, ‘That’s it, the end!’”
That’s when Captain Valentin Savitsky decided war indeed may have started. He said it was time to launch the ship’s nuclear-tipped torpedo, which reportedly had roughly the power of the U.S. bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
“We’re gonna blast them now!” Orlov remembered Savitsky shouting. “We will die, but we will sink them all. We will not become the shame of the fleet.”
It was just what President John F. Kennedy had feared. When told by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara that the U.S. was dropping grenade-size signals over the subs, Kennedy reportedly winced. His brother Robert, then attorney general, later said that talk of depth charges “were the time of greatest worry to the president. His hand went up to his face (and) he closed his fist.”
Like the Americans, the Soviets also had devised a type of fail-safe mechanism for just such a situation. To launch a nuclear torpedo, three officers were required to vote unanimously. On the B-59, they were Savitsky, political officer Ivan Maslennikov — and Arkhipov, who, although second in command on the sub, was commander of the entire submarine flotilla, which made him Savitsky’s equal. The vote was 2-1 to launch, resulting in an argument as Savitsky pleaded with Arkhipov to make it unanimous.
Again, consider the conditions in which this potentially history-altering decision was taking place.
“For the last four days, they didn’t even let us come up to periscope depth,” Anatoly Andreev, a crewman on a nearby sub, wrote in his journal. “My head is bursting from the stuffy air. Today three sailors fainted from overheating again. Those who are free from their shifts are sitting immobile, staring at one spot. Temperature ... is above (122 degrees Fahrenheit).”
But even faced with Savitsky’s heated arguments, Arkhipov refused to wilt, sticking with his refusal to launch the torpedo that would have certainly vaporized a U.S. ship and perhaps started a nuclear nightmare. Instead, Arkhipov persuaded Savitsky to surface, where the sub was met by a U.S. destroyer. So after helping save a ship the year before, Arkhipov may have saved the world this time. He was later promoted to vice admiral in 1981 before dying of kidney cancer in 1998 at age 72, perhaps triggered from his days aboard the K-19.
If you’d like to explore this in greater depth, I highly recommended the episode of PBS’ “Secrets of the Dead” entitled “The Man Who Saved the World.” At the moment you can find the 53-minute video on YouTube.
Name the Russian who prevented a nuclear war in 1983.
Answer to Saturday’s trivia: On Feb. 1, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the law authorizing the Department of the Treasury to sell a new type of security — the U.S. savings bond. Government bonds had been offered at various times since 1776, but these were always subject to market fluctuation. As a result, many of those who bought Liberty Bonds to help finance World War I sustained significant losses when forced to sell their bonds prior to maturity. Designed to lure the country’s millions of small investors with their safety, early savings bonds were sold at 75 percent of face value and paid 2.9 percent interest when held until their full 10-year maturity. On April 30, 1941, Roosevelt himself purchased the first Defensive Bond, which became known as War Bonds after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Now savings bonds can be purchased in any amount from $25 to $10,000 only through www.treasurydirect.gov.