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Monday, October 21, 2013

The Enemy who Saved Your Life: Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov

Most heroes are well-known, native-born individuals whose stories emblazon the pages of American history books. The records of their exploits often inspire generation after generation to be patriotic, proud citizens. However, one lesser known hero was a sworn enemy of the United States who was poised to annihilate the country.  You likely will never read about this man in your high school history class.    

Consider something seemingly improbable yet absolutely true. You may owe your life to one man -- a Soviet Navy officer named Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov.

Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov was born into a peasant family near Moscow in 1926. It is unknown what led this farm boy who grew up many miles from any coast to become a sailor. At age 16, he entered the Pacific Higher Naval School, where he later graduated Arkhipov saw his first military in the Soviet-Japanese War in August 1945, serving aboard a minesweeper. And, in 1947, he graduated from the Caspian Higher Naval School and served on submarines in the Soviet Black Sea, Northern, and Baltic fleets.

Arkhipov had one scrape with history in 1961. That year he had been second in command of a K-19 submarine, a Hotel class nuclear sub prone to problems and known today as “the Widowmaker." On July 4, 1961, the sub was south of Greenland when a major leak was discovered in the radiant cooling system.  Since no backup cooling system was installed pre-sail, the reactor on the sub was in real danger of a nuclear meltdown.

In order to prevent a nuclear accident, the captain of the sub sent workers into high-radiation areas to build a cooling system on the spot. Every member of the sub did what they could to prevent disaster. Vasili, lending his engineering expertise, helped contain the overheating reactor.

The crew succeeded, but not before these workers and many on the crew developed radiation sickness. Every worker that was sent as first responders into the high-radiation areas died within days.

Due to this, a mutiny nearly erupted on board the K-19 sub. Vasili backed his captain in continuing the work and was, eventually, awarded a medal for his bravery in a time of crisis and loyalty to the Soviet Union.

All of this, though, was a precursor to the day Vasili Arkhipov saved the world.

("Vasili Arkhipov: The Man Who Saved the World,", May 14 2013)

After his time on the K-19 sub, Vasili was made second in command on the B-59, one of four diesel-powered, nuclear-armed, attack submarines that was ordered to travel to Cuba on October 1st, 1962. The sub contained 22 torpedoes, one of which was nuclear, holding the same strength as the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. 

The captains of each of the four subs were given permission to fire their nuclear torpedoes at their own discretion, so long as they had the backing of the political officer on board. Unknown to the crew of the B-59, the United States began their naval blockade of Cuba on October 24th and informed the Soviets that they would be dropping practice depth charges (warning shots) to force subs to surface and be identified. At the time, Moscow could not communicate this information to the B-59 due to it being too deep underwater to receive radio transmissions.

On October 27, 1962, U.S. destroyers and the aircraft carrier USS Randolph located the B-59, and despite being in international waters, the Americans trapped it and began dropping depth charges to force it to surface. The sub’s crew, which had been traveling for nearly four weeks with very little communication with Moscow, was very tired and, as as aforementioned, not aware of circumstances.

In the midst of the American barrage, the sub’s captain, Valentin Savitsky, believed that nuclear war had already broken out between the Soviet Union and the United States.

Given the political and military gravity of the missile crisis, total nuclear war and the possible end of civilization was at hand. One spark was likely to ignite the unspeakable consequences of mass destruction. Zero hour was at hand. The Soviets were authorized to launch the nuclear torpedo if three officers in charge unanimously agreed to do so.

Both Captain Savitsky and the political officer, Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov, wanted to launch the nuclear torpedo. But, fortunately for mankind, one other person had veto power over firing the weapon: the second in command, Vasili Arkhipov. Since he was actually commander of the flotilla of submarines, including B-4, B-36 and B-130, Arkhipov was of equal rank to Captain Savitsky.  

Of the three responsible for a nuclear launch, only Arkhipov was against it. He vehemently disagreed, arguing that since no orders had come from Moscow in a long time, such a drastic action was ill-advised and the sub should surface to contact Moscow. A heated argument broke out -- legend, probably false -- says punches were thrown. 

Eventually, though, Vasili won the day. According to author Edward Wilson, his reputation as a hero in the K-19 mutiny reportedly helped in the debate. Eventually the depth charges proved too much when the sub's batteries began running low from the continual maneuvering to avoid destruction, and Arkhipov finally persuaded Savitsky to surface the submarine and await orders from Moscow. 

(Edward Wilson, "Thank You Vasili Arkhipov, The Man Who Stopped Nuclear War,
 the, October 27 2012)

Upon meeting their American enemies, the officers were instructed to head back to Russia. Once back in communication with Moscow, and the information of the incident was made known to command, the Soviets issued the order to return. The B-59 obliged and headed east. Moscow then began turning away all the blockade runners and issued more communication that halted the tense crisis. Nuclear war had been averted.

When the sub arrived back in Russia, the crew of the B-59 were met with some trepidation. After all, they had pretty much surrendered to the Americans. Said one Russian admiral to the submariners, “It would have been better if you’d gone down with your ship.”

Despite the mixed welcome he originally received from the Soviets upon his return, to his wife, Olga, Vasili was always the man who saved the world.

Olga Vasili remembers: “The man who prevented a nuclear war was a Russian submariner. His name was Vasili Arkhipov. I was proud and I am proud of my husband, always.

And, Thomas Blanton, then director of the National Security Archive, agreed in 2002 saying "a guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world."

Arkhipov continued in the service of the Soviet Navy, rising to the rank of Vice Admiral. He retired in the mid-1980s, settling in to a quiet life in Zheleznodorozhny, Moscow Oblast. Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov died August 19, 1998 at the age of 72.

One can only imagine what the world might be like today if this farm boy had not decided to enter the Soviet military, had not served with the highest distinction, and had been the third to utter "yes" on that fateful day in 1962, a time know as the Cuban Missile Crisis when many noted historians claim civilization came closest to total war -- mass nuclear destruction of World War III.

So, maybe as something much greater than a human interest story, American school textbooks should include one more heroic tale with a twist: the story of  a very cautious, wise man named Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov, a Communist enemy who likely saved countless Americans in 1962 and who saved so many of their descendents in the wake of a near World War.

Thank you, cautious, intelligent Vice Admiral Arkhipov. And, I promise you, my children and my grandchildren will also thank you as I relate your courageous deeds to them.

Vasili Arkhipov and his wife Olga.
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