Conditions aboard the Soviet B-59 submarine are reaching critical levels. The temperature has climbed to over 100 °F, while American destroyers are dropping depth charges that repeatedly rock the vessel. Fearing that World War III has broken out, the captain prepares to fire a nuclear missile. It is at this key moment that one Soviet naval officer takes action that is to change the course of history.
That commander was one Vasili Arkhipov, a man born into a poor family in a small town near Moscow in January 1926. Arkhipov underwent naval training at Pacific Higher Naval School before serving in the short-lived Soviet-Japanese War of 1945. He subsequently spent the next 15 years serving on various submarines in the Black Sea, Northern and Baltic fleets.
Arkhipov’s first moment to shine came in 1961 when he served as deputy commander aboard the Hotel-class K-19 submarine. In fact, this was one of the earliest nuclear-powered submarines developed by the Soviets. However, the vessel’s coolant system failed, putting the reactor at risk of meltdown. Arkhipov not only helped prevent a mutiny, but he also conducted repair works that exposed him to dangerous levels of radiation.
The brave officer would end up being one of the only men onboard to survive the ordeal. Most of his shipmates died in excruciating agony over the coming months from radiation poisoning. But this incident was not what Arkhipov would be most remembered for.
Indeed, his biggest test came in October 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis. This major confrontation of the Cold War between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. occurred in the aftermath of the American attempt to overthrow the Castro regime in 1961. To protect himself from any further aggression, Castro made a secret pact with the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. As a result, Soviet nuclear missiles were to be placed in Cuba.
So, beginning in the summer of 1962 the Soviets and Cubans started constructing missile launch sites on the island. In addition, the Cubans began bringing in arms from Russia. When the U.S. administration caught wind of what was happening, they were understandably shocked at the prospect of nuclear weapons located only some 90 miles from Florida. President Kennedy responded with a naval blockade of Cuba.
The Americans demanded the dismantling of the missile bases and return of all weapons back to the U.S.S.R. However, Khrushchev responded by denouncing the U.S. blockade and stating that Soviet ships would continue on to Cuba regardless. This showdown between the two superpowers would be the closest that humanity has ever come to nuclear war.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the wider world, a group of four Soviet submarines would play a key role in the crisis. Arkhipov was serving as a leading officer on one of these vessels, the B-59. By this point, the 34-year-old Russian had risen to the rank of commander.
In fact, Arkhipov was not only of equal rank to the B-59’s captain, but he was also in charge of other submarines in the flotilla. Their mission was vague at best: proceed to Cuba, presumably to provide support in case the crisis escalated. What’s more, each of the vessels was armed with a nuclear missile.
But Arkhipov and his fellow officers soon ran into two problems. Firstly, they lost contact with home command in Moscow, with their last order being to hold position in the Caribbean. The second issue was that the U.S. forces had located the submarine, forcing them to go deeper into the ocean.
Moreover, the situation became even worse when the Americans began dropping depth charges, causing the submarine to rock wildly. And because the air conditioning was broken, temperatures inside the submarine were quickly rising above 100 °F. Thus unable either to surface or stay put, the crew began to face the very real possibility of death.
In 2016 one of the crewmen, Vadim Orlov, recounted the scene inside the submarine to National Geographic. “The Americans hit us with something stronger than the grenades – apparently with a practice depth bomb,” he said. “We thought, that’s it, the end.”
Conditions were similarly dire on the other submarines. Indeed, they too were forced to stay underwater for four days with hot temperatures and deteriorating air quality. B-59’s Captain Valentin Savitsky soon became convinced that the Americans were trying to blow up the submarine. What’s more, he began to believe that hostilities – and perhaps even nuclear war – had already broken out above the surface.
As Orlov recalled, the captain yelled, “Maybe the war has already started up there… We’re gonna blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all – we will not become the shame of the fleet.” Their likely target was the USS Randolph, the aircraft carrier commanding the U.S. Navy presence.
So, with no contact from Russia for four days and fearing the worst, the stressed captain of B-59 made the decision to arm the submarine’s nuclear missile. However, before he could fire, he would first have to get approval from two other senior officers. And one of them was Arkhipov.
The second officer was quick to give his approval to the idea. But Arkhipov, described by his longtime friend Ryurik Ketov as having a cool head, refused to agree to the launch. He reasoned that the Americans were not actually trying to blow the submarine up. Instead, he believed they were deliberately dropping the charges away from the submarine to encourage the vessel to surface.
And although we don’t know the full details of how the conversation went, we do know the result. The captain agreed, and cooler heads prevailed. B-59 then surfaced next to a U.S. destroyer and promptly turned around, heading back towards Russia.
Some days later, the crisis finally came to an end as Khrushchev agreed to withdraw the Soviet missiles. In return, Kennedy vowed to respect the sovereignty of Cuba. He also pledged to remove the U.S. Jupiter missiles situated in Turkey and Italy – on the U.S.S.R.’s doorstep.
As for Arkhipov himself, the unsung hero would continue to serve in the Soviet navy. Ultimately, he reached the rank of vice admiral in 1981 and eventually retired a few years later. He died in 1999 of kidney cancer, likely caused by his exposure to radiation aboard the K-19.
It would not be until 2002, on the 40th anniversary of the crisis, that the world would hear Arkhipov’s story. It was then that Professor Thomas Blanton announced, “A guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world.” That sentiment is shared by his widow Olga. “He knew that it was madness to fire the nuclear torpedo,” she said. “I am proud of my husband always.” We’re proud and thankful, too.