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The Saviour!

It had not been in contact with Moscow for a number of days, as its battery was almost dead, and the air conditioning system had collapsed… it became increasingly difficult to control the level of carbon dioxide inside the vessel… and then, blasts, one after another, rocked the submarine! In face of such a situation, Captain Vasily Alexandrovich Arkhipov (January 30, 1926 – August 19, 1998) got involved in an argument with Captain Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky inside the Soviet Navy’s diesel-powered submarine B-59 over whether or not to launch a nuclear torpedo…

October 27, 1962… the world stood witness to the situation when it was virtually a pressure-cooker, as rendered by the Cold War. The Global Community was looking up to the then US President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. A couple of days prior to the incident, the US had come to understand that a solid Missile Base was under construction in Cuba. Washington also received the information that Soviet Union was setting up the base! When a US spy plane tried to click photos of the base, Cuba shot it down, thus, prompting President Kennedy to order the US Navy to block Cuba’s shipping routes. The US President also set a deadline for Cuba to stop the construction of the Soviet Missile Base, saying that otherwise, the US would have to declare a war against its tiny neighbour!

Although the World was all set to experience the Third World War, Soviet Union hardly paid heed to the US President’s warning! Instead, Moscow sent some submarines, including Nuclear Weapons Carrier B-59, to the region as a counter measure!

The Soviet B-59 submarine.jpg
The Soviet B-59 submarine in the Caribbean near Cuba. Circa Oct. 28-29, 1962.

The B-59 and other Soviet submarines took their respective positions in International Waters near Cuba, for monitoring the movements of US naval vessels. As Moscow ordered the Soviet Navy to maintain secrecy of the mission, the submarines had to hide themselves deep under the sea for many days. (Unfortunately), units of the US Navy – the Aircraft Carrier USS Randolph and 11 Destroyers – detected B-59 near Cuba on October 27. The US vessels immediately began dropping depth charges in an attempt to force the Soviet submarine to the surface for positive identification. However, B-59 moved deeper into the sea.

Disconnected with the outside world and constantly facing depth charges, Captain Savitsky thought that the war already begun. Political Officer (of the submarine) Ivan Semonovich, too, was of the same view. As per the rules, the Captain would have obtain the permission of a Political Officer before using a nuclear weapon…

However, Arkhipov’s presence changed everything on that eventful day. Although he was the Second Officer of B-59, Arkhipov was the Commander of other submarines, like B-4, B-36, B-130… He used to enjoy a status same as that of Captain Savitsky. So, three of them had to agree to use a nuclear torpedo. And, Arkhipov was not ready to use it!

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One of the American spy plane images photographs missile sites in Cuba that helped instigate the crisis.

Arkhipov was the Deputy Commander of K-19 nuclear missile submarine in July 1961. While taking part in a manoeuvre near Greenland, crewmembers of K-19 found that there was a problem in the submarine’s nuclear reactor cooling system! As they failed to contact Moscow, Arkhipov asked seven engineers to resolve the issue. Working in ultra-radioactive atmosphere, they somehow managed to cool the reactor by using alternative methods. Although K-19 managed to avoid a huge disaster, majority of the crewmembers died within a year because of the effect of radioactivity. Kremlin showered praises on Arkhipov for handling the situation well and asked him to take charge of B-59, later.

During the arguments, Captain Savitsky lost his cool. Anatoly Andreev was in another submarine, sailing nearby. He used to maintain a diary. On that day, he wrote: “For the last four days, they didn’t even let us come up to the periscope depth… My head is bursting from the stuffy air. Today, three sailors fainted from overheating again… The regeneration of air works poorly, the carbon dioxide content is rising, and the electric power reserves are dropping. Those who are free from their shifts, are sitting immobile, staring at one spot. … Temperature in the sections is above 50 degree Celsius.

Captain Arkhipov.jpg
Captain Arkhipov

Till the end, Arkhipov stuck to his point and B-59 returned to Moscow without using the nuclear torpedo! The B-59 officers were disheartened because of their failure to hide themselves as ordered by Kremlin. However, Arkhipov was not at all worried. The fact is that Captain Arkhipov’s decision saved the world from Cold War Nuclear Armageddon on that day! When the US Navy attacked the Soviet submarine, it had no idea that B-59 was carrying a nuclear torpedo. It can be easily surmised what could have happened, if B-59 used the weapon on October 27. Even Noam Chomsky believes that Captain Arkhipov saved the world by keeping his cool during the Cuban Missile Crisis…

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