The October of 1962 was an extremely tense one. According to intelligence reports the Soviet Union was placing nuclear tipped missiles in Cuba. Seeing this as a major threat President Kennedy ordered a large naval blockade to surround Cuba and prevent any more weapons from getting through. Both the US and the soviets were at nerves end, this could after all be the start of the first nuclear war. And so began the stressful fourteen days of the Cuban missile crisis.
The US plan was to block Cuba off from the Soviets by circling the whole island with a naval fleet in a blockade. They would require every ship going into Cuba to be stopped and inspected for missiles. One of the threats to this plan was the massive soviet submarine fleet. So the protocol was to be on constant look out for subs and if one was found to force it to surface and send it back. This was accomplished by firing practice depth charges near the sub as a sort of warning shot. Normally once the Sub realized its cover was blown it would simply give up and head back home.
This wasn’t the case for sub B-59 leaded by Captain Valentin Savitsky. While Stavitsky was an able captain things aboard B-59 were not going great. The air conditioning on aboard had broken and temperatures were quickly becoming unbearable. In hindsight it would have been smart to have just turned back but their mission was of the upmost importance. They were to hide in a Cuban harbor and be ready to strike if war broke out , to accomplish this they were armed with a large nuclear torpedo.
On October 27th as conditions were getting unbearable aboard the B-59 they heard a series of huge rumbles, they quickly realized had been fired at. Unknown to them a US navy ship had found them on radar and fired the mentioned warning shots hoping to make them to surface. The crew was shaken up but the decision was made to try and contact Moscow. Unfortunately the blast from the training depth charges were strong enough that it wiped out the Subs radio and they had no way to make contact with the outside world. What was happening on the surface? Had war finally broken out? Captain Savtisky feared the worse.
He gave the order to prepare the nuclear torpedo. Before it could be fired the three senior officers aboard all had to agree to it. Captain Savtisky gave the order to take the vote. Savtisky said that they should fire it at the US aircraft carrier the USS Randolph. According to one officer he said “We are going to hit them hard. We shall die ourselves, sink them all but not stain the navy’s honor!” The political officer Ivan Maslennikov agreed with Savtisky plan. The choice to launch was now on the next senior officer’s shoulders. Luckily for the world on B-59 they had Vasili Arkhipov commander of the submarine fleet sent on the mission, a well-respected naval commander who had earlier risked his life when the K19 sub’s reactor had almost gone into meltdown. He was something of a hero in the Soviet navy.
Arkhipov realizing that they had no other reason to think war had started refused to agree to launch the torpedo, he argued they should instead surface and see what was actually happening. After a long debate in the brutal heat Arkipov was able to convince the other two of his plan. When they surfaced they found the USS Randolph commanding them to turn back or be fired on. Captian Savtisky took this as a sign that nothing had changed while they were under the water and decided to comply heading back to Russia.
It’s worth noting that at the time the USA had over 25,000 nuclear weapons and Russia had over 3,000. Each of these weapons had the power to wipe out an entire major city. If war had broke out its likely that both sides would have released their stockpiles in an effort to strike first. This would have at the very least turned all of Europe into a nuclear wasteland and possibly plunged the world into a nuclear winter.
It was Arkipov’s level head that avoided that nuclear disaster. His courage was rewarded last year when he won the future of life prize from the Future of life institute. Unfortunately this was awarded posthumously, in 1998 he passed away from complications caused by his earlier radiation exposer on the K19. It’s possible that seeing the effects radiation had on his fellow sailors and himself helped Arkhipov to make his choice that fateful day. Whatever it was the world owes him a thank you for being the one man that stopped what could have been the end of the world.