Veterans – History in the Making …7
The Man Who Saved the World
In October 2002 the Director of the National Security Archive, Thomas Blanton ordered the release of Secret and Top Secret documents pertaining to an event that had occurred forty years earlier. At the time the Director made a speech during which he alluded to someone who, in his opinion was the man who saved the world. This comment was immediately backed up by Robert S McNamara, who had been Defence Secretary for the US Administration forty years earlier and had been a key player in the political machine at the time.
The actual event both men were alluding to took place on 27th October 1962 not far off the Eastern Seaboard during a thirteen day standoff between the two super-powers of the World, the United States and Soviet Union. These thirteen days, starting on 15th October, became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. The man receiving this posthumous accolade from these two highly respected men was Vasili Arkhipov, a Russian Naval Commander.
Whilst most people have probably never heard of him, the story of Arkhipov is interesting inasmuch as he was involved in one of the most widely reported submarine accidents in history and then years later, at one single moment in time on 27th October 1962 had the fate of the world at his fingertips, literally.
Arkhipov joined the Russian Navy and was involved in the Soviet Russian War in 1945. Following the war he transferred to the Caspian Higher Naval, a School for officer training from where he graduated in 1947 after which he started service in submarine warfare.
In July 1961 he was promoted to Deputy Commander and Executive Officer of the newly designed Russian Hotel-Class ballistic missile submarine, in effect a nuclear powered submarine, better known as K-19. After a few days conducting exercises off the coast of Greenland K-19 developed a leak in the reactor coolant system which led to the failure of both the cooling and communications systems. The submarine was hours away from a nuclear meltdown. Being unable to communicate with Moscow the Captain ordered the engineering crew to come up with a solution. This meant the men having to work in areas of high radiation, which they did and they managed to set up a secondary cooling system thus preventing on-board reactor from meltdown. But as a result of the accident all members of crew of K-19, including Arkhipov, were irradiated. The whole of the engineering crew who were exposed to the worst areas died within a month of the incident and another fifteen sailors on board at the time were dead within two years.
The Cuban Missile Crisis for the United States started on 15th October 1962. This was the date President John F Kennedy was briefed by his Chief of Staff Ken O’Donnell and Robert McNamara. He was show aerial photographs of the Cuban landscape showing what appeared to be ballistic missile launch pads.
Russia had in fact been shipping ballistic missile equipment to Cuba since August of the same year right under the noses of America which had been completely missed.
The next thirteen days involved intense negotiation intermingled with written threats by both the Russian Government under the leadership of First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev and Kennedy in the United States. Much of Kennedy’s military and political team were determined to destroy Cuba completely whereas others, including Jack Kennedy’s brother Bobby, were leaning more towards a peaceful solution. The US believed that Russian missiles based in Cuba could easily reach the closest place on the US mainland, Florida, but any intermediate missiles would possibly reach Washington itself. In turn the US already had similar missiles based in Italy and Turkey, which whilst being obsolete were still pointing at the Russian capital Moscow and other strategic sites.
Kennedy knew the only way to prevent actual missiles being moved to Cuba was to set up a quarantine area that would encircle the island to control shipping. But by the time the quarantine was given approval on 21st October Russian missiles were already in place on the island being prepared for mounting onto the launch pads. The United Nations in the meantime refused to grant authority for the quarantine but the American’s went ahead with it anyway. It was only when the Island was surrounded by US warships that the evidence of what was believed to be enemy submarine activity came to light. The US were unclear what types of submarine were in use and who they belonged to, although they were estimating around four or five which at that point in time were all within the exclusion zone that had been put in place.
The following day John F Kennedy gave a radio speech to the American people, transmitted around the world it was heard by many in the UK. The live speech took around 20 minutes and was intended to advise people of the quarantine area around Cuba due to the instalment of the missile bases. But during the speech Kennedy issued a direct threat to the Soviet Union that if they did not remove the launch pads and any weapons they had on the island, the US would attack Russia with nuclear missiles.
The following day in a show of direct defiance Khrushchev gave his own radio message to the people of Russia proclaiming the might of the Soviet Union.
On the surface of the Atlantic Russian cargo ships continued steaming towards the Island to meet the US fleet which was preventing all shipping going through. But then on 24th October all but one of the cargo ships received orders to turn back to Russia. The one that did not turn was stopped by the US Navy and fully searched but nothing untoward was found. Meanwhile under the surface were Russian five submarines. The head being a Foxtrot class B-59 which was commanded by Captain Savitsky, who whilst being Captain of the submarine also had Comrade Maslennikov the Russian Government on board along with Commander Vasili Arkhipov. All three of these men were required to sign the Special Order.
The Special Order concerned weapons on B-59 which carried missiles that had the capacity to be armed with nuclear warheads. Arkhipov despite only being Commander of B-59 was in effect the same rank as the Captain and also carried the responsibility of being commander of the submarine flotilla. Under orders from Moscow Arkhipov relieved all the submarines, save the B-59 from the area.
As well as monitoring the increasing shipping activity on the surface B-59 had tuned its radio systems into the US radio stations and had picked up the speech made by Kennedy. Tensions were growing as both sides were showing their strengths.
But then on 26th October the US team received a letter from Khrushchev stating that Russia would remove its missiles if the US guaranteed they would not attack the island. But at the same time a cable was received by Khrushchev from General Castro in Cuba urging Russia to make a first strike against the US in the event of any US invasion of the island. Kennedy and his team had already worked out that if they left the situation for much longer an attack might happen to which they would need to retaliate. The air of caution was dissipating in the US camp in favour of direct military action. Defcon 2, the highest state of imminent war, was put in place and all arms of the US Services were put on full alert ready for war.
Then 27th October happened! To start with a United States U2 reconnaissance plane that was taking aerial photos above the island was shot down by a Russian missile based in Cuba. Major Rudolf Anderson Jr was the only fatal casualty attributed to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Then out at sea the Commander of a US warship, allegedly practicing defence tactics, ordered the use of small depth charge grenades to be dropped into the area where they had picked up submarine activity. Immediately B-59 dropped to the bottom to avoid the attack but as a result lost complete contact with Moscow and lost the radio transmissions that they had been receiving from the US mainland.
Arkhipov knew from experience that the B-59 could only stay on the bottom for around eighteen hours and time was critical in terms of the welfare of the submarine and its crew. The fateful moment came when Arkhipov was order to attend the Captain’s cabin where he found Comrade Maslennikov along with the Captain who were discussing their options. With the total breakdown in communications the commanders and crew of B-59 had no idea what was going on or whether any attacks by either side had taken place. But in the opinion of the Captain and his Government adviser they assumed the worst case scenario and believed that a war had started. Their intention was therefore to use the Special Order and fire a direct attack on the US mainland with nuclear tipped missiles.
Commander Arkhipov disagreed and after a heated argument between the three men Arkhipov refused to bend and so the three signatory requirement for the use of the special weapon would not and could not happen. Instead Arkhipov ordered the Captain confined to quarters and took control of the submarine taking it straight up to the surface to be met by the US fleet imposing the quarantine. The submarine was released and returned to Russia. Had there been a unanimous agreement and the nuclear tipped missiles been fired it would have undoubtedly resulted in all-out war.
An agreement between the two super powers was reached the following day, whereby the Russian Government agreed to remove all their weapons and armaments from Cuba and in turn, although it was not made public at the time, the US agreed to demobilize its own missiles in Turkey at a later date, which they did.
On returning to Russia many crew members of B-59 were faced with disgrace from their superiors including Arkhipov, who according to his wife never talked about the incident.
Vasili Arkhipov was promoted eventually to Rear Admiral in the Russian Navy but died in August 1998 at the age of 72 of illnesses believed to be related to the K-19 incident.
At Forgotten Veterans UK and through the Sandbag Times we study these historical events and have open discussions about what might have happened and any lessons that could be learnt from history. If you would like to know more feel free to comment at SBT or look up FVUK on Facebook and Twitter or at our website, www.forgottenveteransuk.com