As Americans plan July 4 celebrations this week, and enjoy fireworks, fun, family and food, we seldom know or reflect on some of the minutiae that have kept us a free country. Here is the story of one unlikely hero who was our enemy but may be responsible for our freedom.
If you were born before 27 October 1962, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov saved your life. It was the most dangerous day in history. An American spy plane had been shot down over Cuba while another U2 had got lost and strayed into Soviet airspace.
In 1962, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were on the brink of possible mutual destruction- the world as a whole was facing a possible nuclear winter and all the devastation that would come with it. The Cold War had been escalated to “tepid” and was close to becoming hot with the failure of the Bay of Pigs in 1961 and the ensuing Cuban Missile Crisis.
In May 1962, Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev and Cuban President Fidel Castro reached a “secret” agreement that allowed the Soviets to start building missile sites in Cuba, including stocking them with nuclear missiles- 42 of them.
The U.S. at this time had nuclear missiles in Turkey and Italy that could hit Moscow within 16 minutes of being launched. The Soviets had sufficient nuclear weapons capable of widespread destruction among US allies throughout Europe. However, the Soviets did not have nearly the capability to destroy targets in the U.S. itself. They were lacking in reliable intercontinental ballistic missiles to adequately function as a “mutual destruction” deterrent.
Some U.S. brass that felt the loss of allies throughout Europe and the lesser direct causalities from long range nukes that managed hit their targets in the U.S. were acceptable losses given that the payoff would be the annihilation of the Soviet Union and the end of that threat to the United States. If the Soviet Union had nukes in Cuba, that tipped the balance in the Cold War back to near even.
In the fall of 1962, the United States sent a US U-2 aircraft to fly over Cuba to attempt to confirm the rumors that they had heard about the Soviet missile sites in Cuba. On October 14th, 1962, the U-2 arrived back with pictures of these missiles sites. A day later, the pictures were presented to President Kennedy. Tensions rose and alarms were sounded. And, thus, on October 15th, 1962 the 13-day ordeal that became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis began.
Vasili Arkhipov was born into a poor rural family near Moscow. He was military educated and became a career Russian Navy member. He served in minor roles throughout his early career. At one point he helped contain a leaking radiant cooling system on a Soviet military K 19 submarine.
After his time on the K-19 sub, Vasili was made second in command on the B-59, one of four attack submarines that was ordered to travel to Cuba on October 1st, 1962. The sub contained 22 torpedoes, one of which was nuclear, holding the same strength as the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. The captains of each of the four subs were given permission to fire their nuclear torpedoes at their own discretion, so long as they had the backing of the political officer on board. Unknown to the crew of the B-59, the United States began their naval blockade of Cuba on October 24th and informed the Soviets that they would be dropping practice depth charges (warning shots) to force subs to surface and be identified.
Moscow could not communicate this information to the B-59 due to it being too deep underwater to receive radio transmissions. On October 27th, 1962, US destroyers and the aircraft carrier USS Randolph located the sub, trapped it, and began dropping depth charges to force it to surface. The sub’s crew, which had been traveling for nearly 4 weeks with very little communication with Moscow, was very tired and not aware of circumstances. The sub’s captain, Valentin Savitsky, believed that nuclear war had already broken out between the Soviet Union and the US and wanted to fire the nuclear torpedo.
Two of the officers agreed to ‘blast the warships out of the water’. Both the captain and the political officer wanted to launch the nuclear torpedo. Arkhipov refused to agree; unanimous consent of 3 officers was required. He argued that since no orders had come from Moscow in a long time, such a drastic action was ill-advised and the sub should surface to contact Moscow.
The sub surfaced. Upon meeting their American enemies, they were instructed to head back to Russia. They obliged and nuclear war was averted.
The BBC has produced a documentary about Arkhipov which can be viewed on PBS or here. Perhaps on July 4 Arkhipov would say to us, “С Днём Рождения! USA.”
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