Hero of the most dangerous day in history
“If you were born before 27 October 1962, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov saved your life. It was the most dangerous day in history.”
- Edward Wilson, The Guardian
Thus began an article about his heroic deeds in The Guardian. We would add that if you were born after that date, if not for Arkhipov, you might not even be alive, or barely alive but coping with radiation poisoning day-to-day in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic, Fallout New Vegas style nightmare of a world. Now, take your iodine pill, crawl into your lead box and close your three little eyes. Good night!
Well, not quite, because Vasili Arkhipov did not blindly obey, but rather disputed Moscow's contingent orders to launch his submarine's nuclear torpedoes at America, a move that would have been certain to provoke retaliations and bring the whole world into an all-out nuclear war. MAD. Mutually Assured Destruction. Of both sides. Possibly of the whole planet.
On that fateful day on the 27th of October 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis was in full swing. The Bard himself could not have dreamed up the drama that played out over and under the high seas on those fateful days.
Allow us to set the stage.
The Cuban Missile Crisis
It's 1962. Soviet Russia and the Western world are eyeing each other warily across the globe, ready at any moment to launch a mutually destructive nuclear attack.
The Foxtrot class Soviet diesel submarine designated B-59, carrying a T-5 nuclear torpedo, was sailing with three other attack submarines from the Russian Murmansk Oblast to the Caribbean Sea to support a Soviet arms shipment to Cuba. The most probable reason that Russia was shipping arms to Cuba was that its missile guidance systems were limited in those days. The soviet Union could easily reduce Europe to rubble but, much like present-day North Korea, America was slightly out of its reach. However, Cuba is only 90 miles from the coast of Florida.
And the Americans?
The USS Cony had detected the submarine, and tracked it for a day, preventing it from surfacing, take in fresh air and recharging its batteries. Its diesel engines were overheating the submarine and emitting dangerous levels of carbon dioxide, slowly poisoning the crew.
The Americans started lobbing depth charges at it. These were practice depth charges, intended to serve as a warning. However, that nuance was lost on the target, confirming President Kennedy's worst fears. Indeed, this happened hours after the Soviets had shot down of a U-2 spy plane over Cuba, causing the US President to amp up his threats over Cuba. In this context, Kennedy had worried that measures like depth charges could be misinterpreted by a nuclear torpedo equipped sub and thus start a thermonuclear war.
The B-59 could not receive orders from Moscow. It could hear American civilian stations, but nothing was relevant to their situation. When the Americans began to lob depth charges at it, the captain and the political officer both agreed to presume that WWIII had broken out. The captain ordered his crew to prepare to launch a fifteen-kiloton, Hiroshima size nuclear torpedo that would have effectively destroyed its biggest pursuer, an aircraft carrier named the USS Randolph, as well the eleven other destroyers that were present.
Götterdämmerung minus one
About a year before, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov had been a commander on one of the first nuclear propulsion submarines, the K-19. It was a hastily built boat that was accident prone and had been nicknamed “Hiroshima” by the sailors. When it suffered a dramatic coolant loss and the nuclear reactor started heating up and threatening to melt down, the commander snapped into action. His men, Arkhipov in the lead, jury-rigged a backup cooling system. Twenty two of them died from radiation exposure within two years.
Now, on the diesel powered B-59, conscious of the dangerous situation they were in, he had to convince both the captain and the political officer not to start a nuclear war. Maybe influenced by the carbon monoxide and the intolerable heat aboard the sub, his captain was having a fit and wanted to nuke the Americans. “We're going to blast them all. We'll die, but we will sink them all“, he shouted.
Arkhipov was not really part of the sub's official command structure regarding the use of nuclear weapons, but he was a fleet commander and so had to be included in the decisional process. He had to argue with the captain and the political officer to hold their fire. WWIII had not broken out, he argued, but vaporizing the Randolph had a more than good chance of doing just that.
Political officers, sometimes called 'комиссáр' (kommissars), were a strange breed. They were responsible for the political supervision and ideological 'education' of their field units, and tasked with ensuring that they conformed with the dictates of the communist party. We could find no details of their communication, but allow us to presume that he must have been a very tough cookie to crack.
Vassili argued with the two and it is said that punches were thrown.
It was clear that the B-59 and its exhausted and sweat drenched crew had to come out for a breath of fresh air. It had been built for exploration in the cold arctic waters, not the warm Caribbean soup it had to sail into. Consequently, temperatures on board in this environment were surpassing the limits of bearability, reaching close to 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
Arkhipov eventually prevailed, the sub surfaced and didn't fire its nuclear payload... yet.
Then, incredibly, just when the moment was not calling for an imbecilic move, an American P2V Neptune plane flew low over the scene and dropped incendiary devices over it for use as flashes for a photo opportunity.
The captain freaked out. The B-59 immediately loaded its nuclear torpedo into its tube, opened its torpedo doors, turned and aimed itself at the USS Randolph.
When the plane dropped incendiary devices on them, Archipov must have gone into persuasion overdrive and, again, prevailed.
On the radio, the American commander asked the Soviet captain if he needed anything, and the Soviet captain answered only “Nyet.”
An hour of radio silence followed...
The American commander told his men to "Keep that Russian bastard happy." The B-59’s crew was offered bread and American cigarettes. It slipped away from its escort soon after.
Back in the motherland, the crew members were disgraced by their superiors. An admiral told them : “It would have been better if you'd gone down with your ship." When he first heard about it, in a sudden rage, the Soviet defense minister slammed his glasses on his desk, breaking them to pieces.
Vasili Arkhipov got no recognition for his heroic, nuclear war-averting intervention. Eventually, he went on to teach at the Kirov naval academy. He hated to talk about all this and he eventually died from the sequels of the irradiation he suffered before this action, during his heroic intervention on the K-19 nuclear submarine.
As we started researching this man's brief but most momentous intervention in world affairs, we were surprised to find a wellspring of information about him and what he did on that one occasion, sometimes slightly contradictory. But, as you can see, he was much more than just a one trick pony.
A clear model of courage and levelheadedness such as Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov exhibited in world threatening circumstances, deserves to be recognized and remembered by humanity. In this writer's opinion, he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize, no less.
His nomination would represent a much needed and practical counterweight to past laureates such as Henry A. Kissinger, Aung San Suu Kyi and Yasser Arafat, whose contributions to world peace remain, to say the least, controversial.