Saving the World. Quietly.

| March 5, 2017

DPAA did not announce the accounting for of any US personnel this week.  So instead, today you’re getting yet another “walkabout” ramble – this time, on a historical topic.

Consider yourself forewarned.  (smile)

. . .

The Cold War produced many crises.  But the most serious – and most dangerous – of them was the Cuban Missile Crisis.

What follows concerns one specific incident during the Cuban Missile Crisis that was unknown in the West for nearly four decades.  Had it turned out differently, the planet would be a far different place today.

. . .

On 1 October 1962, a small flotilla of four Soviet diesel-electric submarines departed their base on the Kola Peninsula.  Their departure was in support of Operation Anadyr  – the Soviet operation to install MRBMs (R-12/SS-4), IRBMs (R-14/SS-5), associated other weaponry, and position up to 60,000 Soviet troops in Cuba unobserved.  The operation had begun some weeks earlier.

Operation Anadyr’s strategic objective was to protect Cuba from a US invasion; a secondary benefit would be to greatly increase the number of deliverable Soviet nuclear warheads that could be used reliably to target the US.  (The so-called “missile gap” of 1960 election fame indeed existed, but it was the Soviets – not the US – who were holding the short straw.  If successful, Operation Anadyr would roughly double the number of reliably deliverable Soviet warheads targeting the US.)

The submarines in this Soviet flotilla deployed in support of a secondary operation that was simultaneously part of Operation AnadyrOperation Kama.  This subsidiary operation would have stationed seven Soviet ballistic missile submarines at Mariel, Cuba.

The deployment of the 4 submarines on 1 October 1962 did not include any ballistic missile submarines.  The submarines comprising the flotilla – B-4, B-36, B-59, and B-130, with B-59 serving as the flotilla’s flagship – were Foxtrot-class diesel-electric attack submarines.  They were being deployed to clear the way for the planned deployment of ballistic missile subs.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, from the Soviet perspective), Operation Anadyr was discovered prematurely by US intelligence.  Some evidence of Soviet activities was discovered during September 1962 while equipment was en route to Cuba by US intelligence assets.  But partially complete missile installations were not discovered until a US U-2 overflight of Cuba on 14 October 1962.

The latter discovery tipped off the US government that something serious was going on in Cuba regarding Soviet nuclear forces.  The result was the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The secondary Operation Kama also failed.  All four of the subs in the deploying flotilla were detected while transiting the Sargasso Sea, and were tailed by US naval assets.  Three of the four were eventually forced to surface by the US Navy.  Only B-4, which the US Navy attempted to force to surface shortly after it had fully recharged its batteries, was able to evade and escape without being forced to surface under the guns of US Navy warships.

During the pursuit of these submarines, the world likely came closer to a general nuclear war than ever before or since.

. . .

Unknown to US intelligence,  warheads associated with the MRBM and IRBM installations in Cuba detected by US overflights were not the only nuclear weapons on Cuba at the time.  Along with MRBMs and IRBMs, the Soviets had clandestinely deployed short range missiles (both FKR-1 and Luna, AKA FROG, missiles) with nuclear warheads to Cuba.  They had also deployed a small number of tactical nuclear bombs suitable for delivery by jet aircraft.

Additionally – and also unknown to the US at the time –  each of the Soviet submarines in the Operation Kama flotilla was equipped with one nuclear torpedo.  The warhead on that torpedo was the RDS-9; it had a yield of between 3 and 10 kilotons.

Moscow retained release authority over the nuclear weapons based in Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  But under certain selected circumstances, the Soviet submarine captains of the four submarines deployed in Operation Kama were authorized to use their nuclear torpedo without first obtaining permission from Moscow.

. . .

The danger point came on 27 October 1962 – termed “Black Saturday” of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The “pucker factor” at the beginning of the day was already extreme.  The crisis had been ongoing for over almost 2 weeks; nerves on both sides were hugely frayed.  The entire crisis was nearing resolution, one way or another:  US forces were scheduled to invade within a few days (3 at most) if last-ditch diplomatic efforts failed.  And on that day, several incidents occurred that ratcheted tensions up even higher:

  1. Khrushchev received a communications from Fidel Castro that appeared to urge preemptive use of nuclear weapons by the Soviet Union if US forces invaded Cuba.
  2. Cuban air defense batteries had begun firing at US low-level reconnaissance flights.
  3. A Soviet SAM battery downed a US U-2 overflying Cuba piloted by USAF Major Rudy Anderson, killing him.
  4. A second US U-2 flying a polar sampling mission ended up several hundred miles off course due to aurora-induced navigation error and overflew several hundred miles of Soviet territory without authority. Soviet aircraft scrambled from Wrangel Island and attempted unsuccessfully to shoot it down; the US scrambled F-102 interceptors equipped with nuclear air-to-air missiles over the Bering Sea in response.
  5. And, finally, the incident that nearly caused thermonuclear war: the US attempted to force Soviet submarine B-59 to the surface.

. . .

Soviet submarine procedure of the day required daily contact with Soviet military authorities by all submarines.  However, the prescribed time for contact with higher HQ was also apparently rigidly fixed.  And on 27 October 1962, Soviet submarine B-59 – due to US surveillance – had not been able to make contact with higher HQ for one or more days.

The boat was also in bad shape.  HVAC was inoperative, so the boat had become dangerously hot.  Carbon dioxide levels were extreme.  Due to US pursuit, they’d also been unable to completely charge batteries for some time; battery levels were thus extremely low.

They’d been able to periodically monitor US radio broadcasts, so they knew the Cuban Missile Crisis was both ongoing and worsening.  But without contact with higher HQ, they didn’t know if hostilities had broken out between the US and USSR.

It was at this point that US naval assets attempted to force B-59 to surface.  They closed in and began dropping practice depth charges in the immediate vicinity of the boat.

These charges were nonlethal, having roughly the explosive power of a hand-grenade.  The US had informed the Soviet government earlier that use of these devices was intended to signal submarines in the “naval quarantine” area to surface immediately.  But since B-59 had been out of contact, they’d not received this word.  (It’s unclear if the Soviet Navy advised any of the submarines in the flotilla of this information from the US, as it appears this information may never have been passed to Soviet Naval HQ.)

At this point, B-59’s commander had had enough.  He decided to use his nuclear torpedo to destroy his attackers, notwithstanding the fact that his boat would simultaneously “go out with a bang” as well.

He approached his boat’s political officer, whose agreement was necessary under then-current Soviet Navy procedure to use the weapon under such circumstances.  The political officer agreed.

Normaly this would have been enough.  Under Soviet Navy procedures then in effect, agreement by the ship’s captain and political officer was sufficient under dire circumstances for a Soviet submarine captain to use an onboard nuclear torpedo.

However, B-59 was also the Soviet submarine flotilla’s flagship.  Because of that fact, the flotilla’s commander was also on board.  And under those circumstances agreement of the flotilla commander – Captain Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov – was also necessary to launch the torpedo.

Captain Arkhipov did not agree.  After some time, he persuaded the B-59’s captain instead to surface and await orders from Moscow vice launching the nuclear torpedo – and thereby almost certainly starting a global thermonuclear war.

. . .

Why Captain Arkhipov didn’t allow the use of the weapon is not precisely known.  Even years later, Arkhipov reputedly didn’t discuss the matter much, if at all.  He was reportedly a somewhat shy and quite humble man.

However, Arkhipov‘s personal history may provide a clue.

Fifteen months earlier, Arkhipov had been executive officer of Soviet submarine K-19 – yes, the K-19 of the somewhat-inaccurate film “Widomaker” fame.  This fact had given him immense respect within the Soviet submarine community.

It also meant that Arkhipov had been in a position to see, firsthand, the horrible nature of death due to radiation poisoning.  Indeed, he himself had received a nonlethal (but unhealthy) level of radiation exposure during the incident.  Eight of his shipmates were not so lucky; they all died within 3 weeks.  Another fifteen died within 2 years.

I strongly suspect this factored into his decision.

In any case:  for whatever reason, on 27 October 1962 Captain Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov of the Soviet Navy refused to approve the use of a nuclear weapon against US naval forces.  Had he authorized the use of that nuclear weapon, the world would be a far different place today.

Ideological and political issues notwithstanding, the world owes the man a huge debt.

. . .

Captain Arkhipov did well in his later military career.  He remained in the Soviet submarine service; he was selected to command other submarines, then submarine squadrons.  He was selected as a Rear Admiral in 1975, and afterwards commanded the Kirov Naval Academy.  He was promoted to Vice Admiral in 1981 and retired in the mid-1980s.

Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov died of kidney failure on 19 August 1998, at age 72.  It’s believed his radiation exposure during the K-19 near-meltdown incident in July 1961 likely contributed to the kidney failure that killed him.

His actions during the Cuban Missile Crisis were not revealed until nearly 4 years after his death with the publication of a Russian book in June 2002.  Prior to that time, it was not known in the US that the four Russian submarines involved in Operation Kara possessed nuclear weapons – or that one of them was nearly used.

Arkhipov has been called by “the man who saved the world” for his actions during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  While that’s normally hyperbole when applied to any individual human, this may well be one case where the phrase is completely accurate.

Rest in peace, Admiral.  Thank you.


Author’s Note:  multiple internet and published sources were used in the preparation of this article.  Not all sources are linked above.

Category: Historical

Comments (13)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. AW1Ed says:

    Give me a ping, Vasili. One ping only, please.

  2. Thunderstixx says:

    Fair winds and following seas Admiral.
    I was6 at the time and vaguely remember the feeling of dread in a small Iowa town…
    Thank you for a cool head in a time of crisis,

  3. OldSoldier54 says:

    Whoa! Great post, Hondo!

    I had no idea that but for one man, himself a Soviet officer himself … Chernobyl on a global scale.

    Thank God for the son of Alexander.

  4. borderbill (a NIMBY/BANANA) says:

    27 Oct ’62- I was a 2ndLt USMC. Our artillery battery was on a shoot at Camp Fuji. We got called off the shoot and back on to ships-weren’t told what for. Thank You, Admiral Arkhipov.

  5. Ex-PH2 says:

    Oh, dear. My mother, not truly understanding the real nature of nuclear war, started storing water in glass jugs and crackers in the basement of our house. We were barely 10 miles from a city that had several things that made it a target city: a big railyard that included passenger rail; several factories, including a GE electronics plant, a Caterpillar plant, a Firestone tire plant, and a major grain processing plant. Barely two miles from our house was a factory that made, among other things, ‘float’ glass and tempered glass. Tempered glass not only is heat resistant, it is also high-stress resistant. The Sears Tower and other skyscrapers in Chicago have windows filled with that kind of glass.

    We were also barely 35 miles from an Air Force base, and there were two major hospitals in that city.

    I understood the consequences of a nuke hitting the nearby city and the glass factory so close to us. I was in high school, taking chemistry. My mother didn’t understand. She really ‘didn’t want to think about it’.

    Fair winds and following seas, Admiral. You stopped it before it started.

    • timactual says:

      I was living within walking distance of the Pentagon in 1962. The good news was that we didn’t need to waste time and money stocking up on water and food.

      There were evacuation plans, but even at my tender age I snickered at those. Like you, I had some understanding of the consequences, due no doubt to my reading habits.

      Fallout shelters are nice, but only if you are not part of the fallout.

  6. The Other Whitey says:

    Even if they were the enemy, a lot of Soviet submariners were heroes in every sense of the word.

    Another was Engineer Seaman Sergei Preminin, who hand-cranked K-219’s control rods into place, preventing a meltdown that would’ve hit the US East Coast as a tremendous dirty bomb, at the cost of his own life. According to some sources, the ambient temperature in the reactor compartment at the time was over 150 degrees.

    Although we will most likely never know, the same may be true of some of the men who went down aboard K-129 in 1968. Far too many things about that incident don’t add up.

    • Hondo says:

      Much the same was true during the K-19 incident, TOW. Except in that case, it was 8 men who ended up voluntarily giving their lives to save their shipmates.

      On the K-19, the entire engineering group, including its officer-in-charge, received lethal doses of radiation while jury-rigging a reactor cooling system to replace the one that had failed. They were the eight individuals who died within 3 weeks of the incident. The most highly exposed died within a week.

      • timactual says:

        True, dat. It is good to remember that courage, honor, and sacrifice are not confined to any single country.

  7. Silentium Est Aureum says:

    I’ve always had the deepest respect for my brothers of the ‘phin, regardless of who they sailed for. It ain’t easy being a submariner, and in a lot of cases, it’s a lot harder than anyone can imagine.

  8. ex-OS2 says:

    Great article Hondo, very interesting.

    Rest In Peace, Admiral.

  9. HMC Ret says:

    Rest in peace, Admiral. And thank you …

  10. 11b-mailclerk says:

    “9” as the last digit does not seem to be a lucky number for Russian subs.