Vasili Arkhipov - The Man Who Saved The World
Date: Monday, September 29 @ 05:00:51 MDT

In 1962 at the height of the Cuban missile Crisis, a Soviet Naval ofiicer prevented the launch of a nuclear armed torpedo, and therefore a possible nuclear war. |Read More|

JFK and Nikita Khrushchev.jpg The year is 1961, the Soviets and the U.S are locked in deadly arms race for nuclear supremacy on land, in the air and at sea. On the 23rd of October that year, submarine commander Nikolai Shumkov is sent to Chernaya (black) Bay in the Novaya Zemlya atomic test site. His mission, to test the soviet Navy's latest addition to their arsenal, a torpedo tipped with RDS-9 nuclear warhead. The test weapon code named Korall, detonated with a force of 4.8 kilotonnes twenty meters under the surface of the bay sending a huge plume of highly radioactive water high into the air. Without doubt, the devestating effects of this weapon made a powerful and lasting impression on him. Shumkov was later to recieve the Ushakov Medal for his successfull testing of the Soviet Union's first nuclear armed torpedo.

In 1962, the United States had more than eight times as many bombs and missile warheads as the USSR. The U.S. had also deployed 15 Jupiter IRBMs (intermediate-range ballistic missiles) at Izmir, Turkey. These missiles could strike Moscow within just 16 minutes. This gave the U.S. a highly significant "first strike" capability, and upset the delicate status quo of the shared policy of M.A.D. (Mutually Assured Destruction). In a move to redress this imbalance, under strict secrecy Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had installed medium and long range SS-4 and SS-5 nuclear missiles (under Soviet control) in Cuba in an operation code-named Anadyr.

In addition to the missiles, on October 1st, four diesel "Foxtrot" class attack submarines of the Soviet Sixty-Ninth Submarine Brigade had been dispatched from Sayda Bay Murmank. Submarines B-4, B-36, B-59 are captained by Alexei Dubivko, Ryurik Ketov and Valentin Savitsky. The fourth boat B130 was captained by Nikolai Shumkov, the same submarine he had used for the nuclear test in Novaya Zemlya the year before.

Cpt. Dubivko, Shumkov, Savitsky & Ketov
The captains had been given orders to establish a submarine base at Mariel bay Cuba. They were to undertake this mission under strict secrecy, carrying nuclear-tipped torpedoes and unusually the authority to use them independently without any direct authorisation from Moscow. According to captain Ketov, the four of them had made a pact that if one deployed a nuclear weapon, then they would all follow suit.

During the duration of the missile crisis, U.S. naval officers had no knowledge of Soviet plans for a submarine base, or that the Foxtrot submarines they would encounter were nuclear-armed. Nevertheless, the Navy high command worried that the submarines, which had already been detected in the north Atlantic, could endanger enforcement of the blockade. Therefore, under orders from the Pentagon, U.S. Naval forces carried out systematic efforts to track Soviet submarines in tandem with the plans to blockade, and possibly invade, Cuba.

While ordered not to attack the submarines, the Navy had received instructions from Secretary of Defense McNamara to signal Soviet submarines in order to induce them to surface and identify themselves. Soon messages conveying "Submarine Surfacing and Identification Procedures" were transmitted to Moscow and other governments around the world.

The next morning, on 24 October, President Kennedy and the National Security Council's Executive Committee (ExCom) discussed the submarine threat and the dangers of an incident. According to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, when Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara reviewed the use of practice depth charges (PDCs), the size of hand grenades, to signal the submarines, "those few minutes were the time of greatest worry to the President. His hand went up to his face & he closed his fist". Within a few days, U.S. navy task groups in the Caribbean had identified Soviet submarines in the approaches to Cuba and were tracking them with all of the detection technology that they had at their disposal.

The U.S. effort to surface the Soviet submarines involved considerable risk; exhausted by weeks undersea in difficult circumstances and worried that the U.S. Navy's practice depth charges were dangerous explosives, senior officers on several of the submarines, notably B-59 and B-130, were rattled enough to talk about firing nuclear torpedoes.

Capt. Valentin Savitsky
A disquieting account of an incident aboard submarine B-130, when U.S. destroyers were pitching PDCs at it. In a move to impress the Communist Party political officer, Captain Nikolai Shumkov ordered the preparations of torpedoes, including the tube holding the nuclear torpedo; the special weapon security officer then warned Shumkov that the torpedo could not be armed without permission from headquarters. After hearing that the security officer had fainted, Shumkov told his subordinates that he had no intention to use the torpedo "because we would go up with it if we did."

Significantly more dangerous was an incident on submarine B-59 recalled by Vadim Orlov, who served as a communications intelligence officer. Orlov recounted the tense and stressful situation on 27 October when U.S. destroyers lobbed PDCs at B-59. According to Orlov, a "totally exhausted" Captain Valentin Savitsky, unable to establish communications with Moscow, "became furious" and ordered the nuclear torpedo to be assembled for battle readiness. Savitsky roared "We're going to blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all." Deputy brigade commander Second Captain Vasili Archipov managed to calm down Savitsky, and they made the decision to surface the submarine.

If the Soviets had used nuclear torpedoes, by accident or otherwise, the U.S. would have made a "nuclear counter-response" and the third world war would have ensued. Fortunately, the U.S. and Soviet leadership, from heads of state to naval commanders wanted to avoid open conflict; cool heads, professionalism, and some amount of luck, kept the crisis under control.

At the conference commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis held in Havana on 13 October 2002, Robert McNamara admitted that nuclear war had come much closer than people had thought. Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, said that "a guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world."

Chronological order of events

2) National Security Archive
3) The History Channel - "Nuclear Sharks"

First test of the RDS-9 in 1955

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