Why this man is the only reason we are all still alive today
Nobody knew at the time but it was the most dangerous day in history.
On October 27, 1962, the world nearly erupted in a nuclear war which would have wiped out most of the planet’s population.
And Armageddon didn’t happen because of one man – a softly-spoken, calm-headed Russian submarine officer called Vasili Arkhipov to whom all of us today owe our lives.
Only 50 years later did anyone else know about the incredible story, and how the world was just seconds away from catastrophe.
As Thomas Blanton, director of George Washington University’s National Security Archive, said in 2002: “A guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world.”
And in 2007, 19 years after his death, Arkhipov was honoured for his heroic actions with a new ‘Future of Life’ prize, which recognises those who take exceptional measures to safeguard to future of humanity.
The world was in the grip of the Cuban missile crisis when senior officer Arkhipov was onboard a Soviet B-59 submarine in the Caribbean with instructions to head to Cuba.
In recent days tensions had been ratcheted up to breaking point, with an American spy plane having been shot town over Cuba, while another U2 had got lost and strayed into Soviet airspace.
On October 27 the Soviet sub was spotted by US forces, and an American destroyer, the USS Beale, began to drop non-lethal depth charges on the B-59, intended as warning shots to force it to surface.
The Beale was soon joined by other US destroyers, which piled in to pummel the submerged submarine with more explosives.
What the Americans didn’t know was that the B-59 had a tactical nuclear torpedo on board, with the same power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
And the officers had permission to launch it without waiting for approval from Moscow.
Deep down under the sea, the sub’s captain, Valentin Savitsky, thought the Americans were firing bombs and that he and the crew were about to be blown to pieces.
Believing that World War III had broken out, he ordered the B-59’s 10 kiloton nuclear torpedo to be prepared for firing, aimed at the USS Randolf, the giant aircraft carrier leading the task force.
Vadim Orlov, an intelligence officer who was there, later wrote: "The Americans hit us with something stronger than the grenades – apparently with a practice depth bomb. We thought, that’s it. the end."
He said the Soviet captain then shouted: ““Maybe the war has already started up there … We’re gonna blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all- we will not become the shame of the fleet.”
If the B-59's torpedo had vaporised the Randolf, the nuclear clouds would quickly have spread from sea to land.
The US would certainly have retaliated, sending their own nuclear warheads to strike Moscow and other enemy targets.
In turn, the Russians would have dropped nukes on London, the airbases of East Anglia and troop concentrations in Germany.
The next wave of Russian bombs would have wiped out so-called ‘economic targets’, a euphemism for civilian populations, and more than half of the UK population would have died.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon would have followed their own nuclear war plan and hurled 5,5000 nuclear weapons against a thousand targets, including China.
The fact that this terrifying doomsday scenario didn’t happen is down to one man, Vasili Arkhipov, who was 34 at the time, Savitsky’s equal and the flotilla commander responsible for three Russian subs on this secret mission to Cuba.
Each of the three Soviet submarine captains in the ocean around Cuba had the power to launch a nuclear torpedo, but only if they had the consent of all three senior officers on board.
After Savitsky’s order to strike, one of his supporting officers agreed, but Arkhipov refused to sanction the launch of the weapon.
Trying to calm the captain down, Arkhipov assured him that their ship was not in danger, and that the explosions – dropped either side of the sub, noisy but always off target – were just warning signals.
As the drama unfolded, President Kennedy also worried that the Russians would mistake the depth charges for an attack.
His brother Robert Kennedy later said that hearing the US was dropping depth charges over the Russian sub was “the time of greatest worry for the President. His hand went up to his face and he closed his fist.”
It is not known how long Arkhipov argued with Savitsky but the nuclear warhead wasn’t readied and the sub rose to the surface, where it was met by a US destroyer.
The Americans didn’t board and the sub was ordered to turn back and return to Russia.
The American had no idea that the sub was carrying a nuclear torpedo until around 50 years later, when the former enemies met at a 50th reunion and shared the story for the first time.
That was also when the world first learned about Arkhipov’s heroism, and just how close humankind got to catastrophe.
Arkhipov, described by his wife Olga as a modest, soft-spoken man, continued in the Soviet Navy, and in 1975 was promoted to rear admiral, and became head of the Kirov Naval Academy.
He was promoted to vice admiral in 1981 and retired in the mid 1980s.
Ironically, though, Arkhipov himself fell victim to that which he saved us all from.
He died on August 19, 1998 from kidney cancer, probably as a result of being exposed to radiation during an accident onboard a nuclear submarine in 1961.
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