The Unsung Soviet Savior

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic


The Unsung Soviet Savior

Vail Arkhipov, the man who prevented nuclear devastation


"We're gonna blast them now," Soviet B-59 submarine captain, Valentin Savitsky roared to his crew mates.  "We will die, but we will sink them all!  We will not become the shame of the fleet."  His intelligence officer, Vadim Orlov, was in full agreement – it was time to unleash the nuclear warhead.  "We thought," Orlov wrote later, " 'That' it, the end!' "  The sub's second in command, Vasili Arkhipov, knew his fellow officers believed America had ignited World War III and they needed to retaliate.  After all, the United States destroyers were rocking their submarine with depth charges.He was also upset, but managed to contain his initial reaction and consider other motives.

The explosions couldn't have come at a worse time.  Not only were the Soviet sub's chief officers on edge from the tensions of their secret mission, but the vessel's batteries ran low and the air conditioning system had conked out.  As they suffered 100 degree-plus temperatures and high carbon dioxide levels, the three Soviet officers seriously debated the unthinkable – unleashing a nuclear warhead on an American ship. 

Before the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded, they had received orders to go straight to Cuba.  Then, without explanation, Moscow instructed them to stop and wait in international waters off the Cuban shoreline.  When American ships spotted them, Captain Savitsky ordered his crew to dive deep below the surface to avoid further sightings.  This seemingly logical reaction set the stage for the first act of a tragic drama that could very easily have led to nuclear holocaust – it cut off their radio contact with Moscow.  Orlov had previously heard fragments of news about U. S. President Kennedy's naval blockade in response to Russia's arming of Cuba.  But neither he nor the other chief officers knew any further details about the situation. 

With the rest of the world blissfully unaware, the Soviet submarine's three chief officers hotly debated sending a torpedo churning through the seas to deliver a devastating ten kiloton nuclear warhead.As they did, the U. S. military had no idea that each of Russia's four submarines dispatched to the area carried one of the dreadful weapons.  Similarly uninformed due to their communication shutdown, the Soviet officers were totally unaware that the depth charges the American destroyers were dropping were relatively light-potency practice depth bombs.  They were intended to simply alert the subs to come to the surface and identify themselves.  Captain Savitsky, however, took the U. S. action as a clear declaration of war.

Fortunately for humanity, their submarine carried 34-year-old Flotilla Commander Vasili Arkhipov.  He was the number two officer on the sub, but was in charge of all four of the submarines in the vicinity.  Since he was on the same level of authority as the captain, the Soviet officials decided that neither one should decide whether to use the nuclear-armed torpedo in an emergency.  Unlike the three other submarines, which required only the captain's order to release their disastrous nuclear weapons, its procedures called for agreement among the three top-ranking officers.

Arkhipov, a modest soft-spoken man, told the captain he thought the ship was not in danger since none of the depth charges had yet hit the sub.  He correctly identified the low-level explosions as signals for them to come to the surface and identify themselves.With the fate of the world in the balance, he stood his ground against Savitsky, gradually dousing the flames of his rage with logic.  The captain's rational mind eventually overpowered his initial fury.  Perhaps, he reasoned, Vasili Arkhipov was right.  If so, he risked being remembered not as the "shame of the fleet," but the shame of humanity.

As history has recorded, the outcome was radically different than the horrendous potential that hung in the balance of the overheated Soviet Submarine on that late-October day in 1962.  U. S. president John Kennedy and Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev executed a nerve-wracking life-and-death chess game in front of the world.  Neither, however, had any intention of setting off the nuclear firestorm that the Soviet captain and his intelligence officer were actually preparing to ignite.

The roots of the Cuban confrontation reached back through decades of bitterness between the world's two main superpowers.  Once the atomic bomb emerged, an inevitable contest of nuclear supremacy dominated the political landscape.  Both countries aimed nuclear-armed missiles toward each other until literally thousands of the terrible messengers of death packed the power to wipe them both off the face of the earth.  As the high-stress contest unfolded, the United States' and the Soviet Union's nuclear launch sites crept closer and closer to each other.  When the U. S. planted Jupiter ballistic missiles in Turkey, just off Russia's border, Khrushchev responded with his own bold countermove – constructing nuclear launching sites in its Communist partner, Cuba, only 90 miles off the Florida coast.

When American U-2 spy planes confirmed this, President Kennedy felt he had to take action.  On October 23, 1962, he convened a meeting of the nine members of the National Security Council and five other key advisors.  Curiously, as this Executive Committee of the National Security Council, or EXCOMM soon discovered, America had no plan in place to address the threat.  The intelligence department's personnel had been convinced the Soviets would never install nuclear missiles in Cuba.  EXCOMM's members quickly alleviated this lack of planning and concocted six potential courses of action. 

One option was to simply do nothing, since the Soviets were basically reacting to the U. S. provocation of planting missile bases near their border.Secondly, they could use diplomacy to pressure Russia to remove the missile bases.  A third option involved offering Fidel Castro the choice of splitting with the Russians or being attacked.The fourth alternative was to stage a full-force invasion of Cuba and overthrow Castro.  With the fifth possibility, they would use air power to bomb all known Cuban missile sites.  Lastly, they could involve the Navy to blockade any suspicious ships from arriving.  In the midst of wrinkled brows and clenched teeth, the options were passionately batted around the room.  The Joint Chiefs of Staff were unanimous in their belief, however, that a full-scale attack and invasion of Cuba would be the only answer.

Over the next crucial days, Kennedy and Khrushchev exchanged their viewpoints by telegraph.  Khrushchev had previously stirred the political cauldron by noting the Soviets were aggressively building missiles "like sausages."  He claimed, though, that these Cuban missile sites were simply being constructed as a defensive maneuver and America shouldn't be concerned.  Despite this claim, Kennedy and his staff were extremely concerned.  Deciding on a naval blockade of all ships potentially carrying missile-site equipment to Cuba, he informed Russia of his intentions.  Khrushchev fired back that this "outright piracy" would lead to war.  The blockade was "an act of aggression," he warned, and their ships would be instructed to ignore it.

As many books and documentaries have recorded, he didn't ignore it and eventually called his ships back and dismantled the missile sites.  In reciprocation, Kennedy agreed to remove the missile-launching sites from Turkey.  The people of the world breathed a sigh of relief that the tense stand-off finally reached a peaceful end. It has often been said that this verbal clash was the closest the world ever came to nuclear war.  Despite its obvious severity, it was not the closest the world ever came.  That transpired far below the surface of the Caribbean and was only thwarted by a little-known submarine officer with a name many of us can't even pronounce, let alone remember.  That's okay – as modest as he was, he probably wouldn't mind.  In fact, he likely wouldn't have felt he  deserves to be called an unsung savior.  But he does.


Submitted: January 01, 2021

© Copyright 2022 Dennis L. Goodwin. All rights reserved.

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Add Your Comments:


Serge Wlodarski

Good story.

Fri, January 1st, 2021 11:22pm


Thanks a lot Serge. I actually wasn't aware of him until I did research on what I thought was simply going to be a story on the Cuban Missile Crisis in general.

Have a good one,

Sat, January 2nd, 2021 6:32am

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