What if I told you that World War three was stopped by one man saying “no”? Its true. That man was one Vasili Arkhipov, a Russian submarine officer who served on a Russian submarine armed with nuclear weapons during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Vasili was born to a poor, peasant family near the Russian capital, Moscow on 30th January 1926. He joined the Soviet navy at 16 and attended the Pacific Higher Naval School. During World War two he served on a minesweeper fighting against the Japanese in the Pacific and after attending the Caspian Higher Naval School from which he graduated in 1947.
After finishing at the Caspian Higher Naval School he served in the Soviet Union’s submarine service and served in the Black Sea Fleet, the Northern Fleet and the Baltic Fleet.
Fast forwarding to 1st October 1962, submarine B-59 (on which Vasili served) received its orders to escort a delivery of nuclear weapons to Cuba from a sub base in the Kola Peninsula. B-59 was captained by one Valentin Savitsky but since it was the flag ship of the flotilla assigned to escort the delivery it also carried the flotilla commander, our good friend, Vasili Arkhipov. All the submarines in the flotilla (4 in total) were armed with nuclear weapons in the form of one nuclear armed torpedo each.
In response to the Soviets putting nuclear weapons on Cuba, President Kennedy took the decision to authorise the US Navy to quarentine Cuba to stop more nuclear weapons being stationed there. On 27th October 1962, the US Navy detected Submarine B-59 heading towards Cuba and as such attempted to stop the submarine so they could ascertain whether the submarine was carrying nuclear weapons or not. In order to do this the US fleet started dropping practice depth charges to try to force the sub to surface.
Despite the US notifying the Soviet Union of their intention to use practice charges, this important piece of information never made it to Submarine B-59.
On board the submarine all hell broke loose. It had been under water for days and had no way of contacting home due to the uncertainty of what was going on above them. With the sound of the depth charges above their heads its easy to see why Captain Savitsky thought the USA and Soveit Union were at war. Both the Captain and the submarine’s political officer, Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov, agreed to fire their nuclear armed torpedo at the USS Randolph, an aircraft carrier leading the US task force.
And here’s why we are so lucky. Had it been any of the other three subs in the flotilla (who had all capitulated by this point) then that would have been the start of World War Three because the use of the nuclear armed torpedos only required the authorisation of the Captain and the Political Officer. However, Vasili was flotilla commander and equaled the Captain in rank. Using his cool headedness he managed to calm the Captain down and pursuaded him to surface the submarine and wait for further orders.
Had a nuclear weapon been launched that day it is entirely possible that I would not be sitting here now writing this blog post nor you, as a reader, would be reading it. We have a lot to thank Vasili for as he not only saved our lives but I think its fair to say he saved the human race that day too.
Vasili continued to serve in the Soviet Navy after the Cuban Missile Crisis, attaining the rank of Vice Admiral before retiring in the 1980’s. He died on 19th August 1998. He was aged 72.