Day 971: Forget The Superheroes – This Man Literally Saved The World

originally published August 28, 2014

Look deep into his eyes. Ignore the fact that he might at any moment pitch forward from the weight of all those medals; he deserves your reverent gaze. Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov is very possibly the reason you are alive right now. Depending on how deeply you’re willing to reach into the pocket of his story – and it’s a story of such divine magnificence I’m personally ready to ink it in the history books with the crimson blood of unquestioned truth – Vasili’s stoic glare was once all that stood between us and the apocalypse.

The story of how Vasili derailed a potential nuke-storm is only part of his exceptional life, one that could not possibly fit between the frames of a biopic unless Peter Jackson was around to puff up the length beyond three hours. Part of his life actually did find its way into a Harrison Ford flick (though Ford himself played some other scowling Soviet), but not the part that earned him a spot in today’s kilograph.

Had Vasili not found himself stationed in precisely the correct submarine on that fateful day in 1963, while the Cuban Missile Crisis was doling out the likely ineffective instructions of “duck and cover” to the Western world, the physical landscape of our little planet might be significantly more pock-marked and desolate. But let’s start in the preamble, somewhere around the second act of Kathryn Bigelow’s K-19: The Widowmaker.

The summer of 1961 was a rough one for Vasili. While serving aboard the K-19, scooting around the North Atlantic and performing some just-in-case exercises, the sub developed a nasty leak in its reactor coolant system. The radio had also failed (I could make a joke about why the USSR lost the Cold War here, but that would be too obvious), so that meant the sub was drifting alone with a reactor that was heating up faster than Lewis Black opining about the current state of Fox News.

Captain Nikolai Zateyev ordered his engineering team to build a MacGyver’ed cooling system, which forced the men to interact with the most radiation-heavy part of the sub for an extended period of time. Everyone on board was splashed with radiation, but those guys on the engineering crew were drenched in it, soaked to the bone marrow with murderous isotopes. All seven of them were dead within a month. But where Vasili stepped in was when the crew was about to mutiny.

Zateyev decided to abandon the mission and steer southward to meet up with some diesel submarines so that he could jettison his crew to a less murdery vessel. He also declined the offer by an American sub to swoop in and help, because he didn’t want any Soviet secrets getting leaked. It was the right call, but the crew was incensed, not to mention a little bit on edge from the knowledge that every last one of them had just absorbed a frightening amount of radiation through their skin. Most weapons were tossed from the sub – only Zateyev’s most trusted officers remained armed.

Vasili was one of those officers. Other members of the crew were losing their cool, but Vasili intervened and kept control of the situation, probably saving the lives of everyone on board. Well, everyone except the poor suckers who died within the month. It was for this act of bravery that Vasili was handed a heap of those shiny medals, and it was because of his commendable calm in this shit-storm of fear that he was assigned to be second in command aboard the Foxtrot-class sub B-59 near Cuba the following year – an appointment that very likely saved the world.

On October 27, 1962, the terrifying window of history we now refer to as the Cuban Missile Crisis was in full swing. Eleven US Navy destroyers and the aircraft carrier USS Randolph were scooting around the Gulf of Mexico, hoping they wouldn’t find any Soviet nuclear vessel poking its nose so close to American land. They did spot the B-59, and began dropping some practice depth charges in an effort to force the sub to the surface so they could identify it.

The crew on the B-59 had no idea what was going on. They hadn’t heard anything from Moscow in a few days, and at such a depth they couldn’t receive radio messages from anywhere. For all they knew, those blasts meant they were engaged in a full-on war. Even if they climbed from the depths, the best they could hope for was to click into an American broadcast frequency, which was just as likely to be the new Smokey Robinson record as a news report that could provide any info about a war.

Captain Valentin Savitsky wanted to launch a nuclear torpedo at the American fleet. They were all alone in open water and significantly outnumbered. It was the safest course of action, or so he believed. Political officer Ivan Maslennikov was in agreement. But to take such aggressive action without any official orders required the unanimous approval of all three top-ranked officers, and that included the sub’s #2, Vasili Arkhipov.

Vasili once again kept his head. It also helped that, because of his previous awesomeness he was technically equal in rank with Captain Savitsky, and was also in charge of the flotilla of nearby submarines. The debate ensued – and here is where history takes its little plunge into foggy waters. One witness claims that Savitsky lost his temper a little, but quickly calmed down and the argument was brief. The official record has a more extensive and hostile disagreement occurring between the three officers, with only Vasili standing firm and opting not to launch the first nuclear strike in history against a nation that also had nukes in its arsenal.

Either way, this could have gotten really ugly.

At this point, the sub’s batteries were running low. The air conditioning had given out, so the B-59 was forced to surface. Maybe it was Vasili’s superlative debating skills, or perhaps Captain Savitsky simply saw the logic in not potentially dooming the entire world to crawl around in ash for the next few millennia, but the decision to abort the torpedo launch was reached. The sub turned around and headed home.

Two-against-one. That’s how close we came to World War III that October. Those of us who weren’t alive at that time have no concept of how terrifying it was to live in the shadow of such a horrific threat. I can recall the twilight days of the Cold War, when nuclear war was something kids still talked about in hushed tones, but it’s quite another thing to imagine the realities of life during that Crisis.

And even for those who did live through it – had you any idea of just how close we were to all-out destruction, you might not have slept again until 1965.

Thanks, Vasili.

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