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October 23, 2012

BEAM: Paying tribute to an unknown hero

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — Ever heard of a man named Vasili Arkhipov? I hadn’t either. But, according to some, this Soviet submariner saved the world. His act came at one of the tensest moments in American history, when for 13 days in October 1962, the U.S. and the Soviet Union teetered on the abyss of a nuclear holocaust. Fifty years ago yesterday, President John Kennedy announced to the world that our government had uncovered “unmistakable evidence” that the Soviets had built bases in Cuba capable of deploying intermediate and medium range ballistic nuclear missiles against American cities.

Looking back, the Cuban Missile Crisis was perhaps the closest we’ve ever come to nuclear war, if not to World War III. So many things that could have gone wrong didn’t, and somehow both sides reached a compromise that averted the disaster.

All of this happened 13 years before my birth. I didn’t live it like many of you. I can only study accounts of the events outlined in books and personal descriptions of the decisions made, most devoid of the emotion. But the facts themselves can strike fear into any student of the event.

At the time of the crisis, 32 nuclear warheads were on the ground less than 100 miles from the American coast and were near ready for launch. In accompaniment, 43,000 Soviet soldiers were encamped in Cuba. These troops and their commander also had in their arsenal nine Luna missiles, tactical warheads with a range of 40 miles that could strike an advancing force. In case of a U.S. attack, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave this commander permission to deploy the Lunas without his consent.

Most experts agree that if a nuclear warhead of any kind would have been deployed, the U.S. would have countered with a nuclear attack of their own. Estimates show, if the incident would have intensified to using the nuclear ballistic missiles, more than 500 million people would have been killed during the first strikes alone.

Kennedy’s joint chief of staff initially recommended an invasion of Cuba was the only reasonable response. However, Kennedy chose the less militant path and enacted a blockade of the island instead. Since the formal act of a blockade was itself considered an act of war by international law, they officially called the act a “quarantine.” It’s during this quarantine that we learn about Vasili Arkhipov.

Born near Moscow in 1926, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov was a seasoned naval officer by the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He survived the K-19 accident, a notorious nuclear accident aboard a Soviet submarine in 1961 in which high doses of radiation leaked from its reactor.

On Oct. 27, 1962, Arkhipov found himself as second in command of the Soviet submarine B-59 during its mission outside of Cuban waters. Although diesel powered, the ship carried a nuclear torpedo. Several American warships had spotted the submarine and trapped it, dropping depth charges around the vessel in hopes of forcing it rise to the surface.

Underneath the ocean for seven days, the B-59 hadn’t received transmissions from the Soviet Union for a while, and now was too deep to obtain a signal. For all they knew, the two countries could already be fighting a full-scale war. If they unleashed the torpedo now, wouldn’t they die a less dishonorable death?

But firing the weapon would also most certainly provoke America to its own nuclear retaliation, one that could quickly go global. Tensions had heightened the same day when a SA-2 missile out of Cuba shot down a U2 reconnaissance plane, killing the pilot Maj. Rudolf Anderson. Further acts of aggression would not be tolerated.

Believing the sub to be under attack, Capt. Valentin Savitsky asked that the nuclear torpedo be fired. Arkhipov, commander of the entire flotilla of submarines in the area and equal to the captain in rank, vetoed the order. Although his crew disagreed, Arkhipov ultimately prevailed and the sub surfaced, beginning the long journey back to the Soviet Union in purported shame.  

For the next 20 years, Arkhipov served in the Soviet Navy and eventually retired as a vice admiral. He died in 1998 of radiation poisoning.

Only in the past 10 years did his story, like his submarine, begin to surface.

Stories of courage can be found on both sides of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The tales remind us how one act can be important to the fate of others; how one person can quite literally save the world.

As we examine responses to emerging nuclear threats of the 21st century, it’s vital we remember the lessons of the past. Our world still needs saving. The question is who will be brave enough to do it?

Do you have memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis? Please share them with us in the comment section for this column at newsandtribune.com.

— Amanda Beam is a Floyd County resident and Jeffersonville native. Contact her by email at hoosiermandyblog@gmail.com.

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