Forgotten Heroes, Part II

By John Mark Young

Read last week’s column: Forgotten Heroes, Part I

One of the ships the Soviet Union (USSR) sent to assert its naval strength in the area around Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962−and close enough to attack the continental United States−was a diesel-powered nuclear submarine, the B-59.  It was one of four Foxtrot class submarines and it was armed with nuclear weapons.

A group of 11 U.S. Navy destroyers and the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Randolph were patrolling the area to defend our coastline.  They were in international waters, but they detected the presence of a hostile submarine somewhere nearby.

The U.S. Navy fleet didn’t want to attack the underwater submarine, because it hadn’t initiated any hostile moves, but it didn’t want it to go unchallenged either.  So they began dropping signaling depth charges in the vicinity of the unknown submarine.

The intention was to force the submarine to surface so it could be identified, not to attack it.

The Soviet submarine was too deep to pick up any radio broadcasts or to be able to communicate with Moscow.  It didn’t want to surface and expose itself to possible hostile fire from the U.S. Naval fleet above.

Those on the submarine knew how critical and tenuous their position was so close to the U.S. mainland and to the contested Cuban waters.  They could hear the depth charges being detonated close to them which they believed could be intended to sink them.

What should they do?

In addition to the Soviet B-59, there were three others, the B-4, B-36, and the B-130 as part of their undersea flotilla.  Their commanding officer was Commodore Vasily Arkhipov.   Each submarine had at least two officers, the commanding officer, and the executive officer, both of whom were required to agree before launching one of their nuclear missiles.  With Commodore Arkhipov aboard the B-59, there were three officers, so all three on it had to agree to launch a nuclear missile.

A fierce debate arose among the three naval officers with launch authority.  Two of them believed that war had probably broken out if the U.S. Navy were dropping depth charges over them.  The Captain of the submarine, Valentin Savitsky, believed that the war had already started and they should launch their nuclear missiles to fight for their mother country.  The Executive Officer agreed with him.

Only Arkhipov was against the launch.  A year earlier there had been a crisis aboard another ship that Arkhipov was on and his courageous leadership at that time had fortunately enhanced his reputation.

The situation aboard the Soviet submarine became critical.  Its batteries were running low and its air conditioning failed.  The submarine began to overheat with high levels of carbon dioxide and they couldn’t stay submerged much longer.

A fierce debate raged among the officers.  If they didn’t launch and a war had already started, they would be derelict in their duties if they didn’t join in.  On the other hand, if a war hadn’t already started, their launch could trigger a devastating nuclear World War III.

Eventually, Arkhipov persuaded Savitsky to surface and seek orders from Moscow, even in the vicinity of the U.S. naval fleet.  When they did surface, they were actually fired upon by American aircraft nearby.

Fortunately, when it did surface, it made contact with a U.S. Navy destroyer which offered it safe passage if they’d just return to the Soviet Union.  That’s what they finally received orders to do, averting a tragic nuclear confrontation.

Two decades later a similar incident happened on September 26, 1983 when the Soviet air defense system had a false alarm which supposedly detected a missile launch from the United States followed by five more.  Should the Soviets retaliate?

The duty officer of the command center at the time who detected the supposed launch, Stanislav Petrov, also endured urging from his subordinates to launch a counterattack.  He considered it, but thought that, if the Americans really were going to launch a preemptory attack against the USSR, they’d do it with more than just six missiles.  

He courageously disobeyed orders to launch and prevented an erroneous retaliatory nuclear strike on the United States and its NATO allies that could have resulted in a large scale nuclear war.  The “launch” turned out to be an electronic malfunction.

In the aftermath of the incident, Petrov actually received a reprimand for supposedly not documenting his actions well during the crisis. He later stated that “I was made a scapegoat” and suffered a mental breakdown.

Both Soviet Naval officers were later featured in the PBS documentary episodes entitled “The Man Who Saved the World” and other movies and were posthumously presented “Future of Life” awards by the Future of Life Institute. In 2004 Petrov was awarded a World Citizen award by the San Francisco-based Association of World Citizens and even was a guest of Walter Cronkite on CBS news.

Vasily Arkhipov was appropriately recognized for his courageous prevention of a nuclear war too.  The Soviet Navy eventually promoted him to Vice Admiral, and he became head of the Kinov Military Academy.

It’s frightening to know how close we’ve come to nuclear war−we’re still here thanks to these two “forgotten heroes” who were actually two enemy military officers…