Heroes come from different places and circumstances. But once you decide to serve your country, then you are considered a hero for risking your life. Even more, if you save millions of lives.
You may not be too keen of Russia, but this Russian officer is celebrated for his bravery and wise decision. He helped prevent a nuclear disaster that could affect millions of people despite their desperate situation.
How did he do it? Read on to find out.
10. Humble Beginnings
The situation onboard the Soviet B-59 submarine is reaching critical levels. The temperature reached to over 100 °F while the American destroyers are dropping depth charges that constantly rocked the vessel. Fearing that World War III has broken out, the captain prepares to fire a nuclear missile. It is at this critical moment that one Soviet naval officer takes action that changed the course of history.
The brave commander was Vasili Arkhipov, born into a poor family in a small town near Moscow in January 1926. Arkhipov finished naval training at Pacific Higher Naval School before serving in the Soviet-Japanese War of 1945. He consequently spent the next 15 years serving on multiple submarines in the Black Sea, Northern and Baltic fleets.
9. First Shining Moment
Arkhipov’s first shining moment came in 1961 when he served as deputy commander aboard the Hotel-class K-19 submarine which was one of the earliest nuclear-powered submarines developed by the Soviets. Unfortunately, the underwater craft’s coolant system failed, putting the reactor at risk of a meltdown. Arkhipov not only helped prevent a revolution, but he also managed repair works that exposed him to dangerous levels of radiation.
The brave officer then ended up to be one of the only men onboard to survive the calamity. Most of his mates died in unbearable suffering from radiation poisoning. But this event was not what Arkhipov would be most remembered for. It’s something greater, believe it or not.
8. The Crisis
His biggest test came in October 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis. This major battle of between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. happened an outcome of the American attempt to overthrow the Castro government. To protect himself from any more hostility, Castro made a secret pact with the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. As a consequence, Soviet nuclear missiles were to be placed in Cuba.
In the beginning of summer of 1962, the Soviets and Cubans started constructing missile launch sites on the island. More than that, the Cubans started bringing in firearms from Russia. Then when the U.S. administration learned of what was happening, they were disturbed by the possibility of nuclear weapons located only some 90 miles from Florida. President Kennedy reacted with a naval barricade of Cuba.
7. Superpower Showdown
The Americans demanded the tearing down of the missile bases and the return of all weapons back to the U.S.S.R. But, Khrushchev responded by condemning the U.S. blockade and saying that Soviet ships would continue on to Cuba despite. This showdown between the two superpowers would be the closest that humanity has ever come to nuclear war.
Meanwhile, unknown to the world, a group of four Soviet submarines would play a key role in the crisis. Arkhipov was serving as a lead officer in one of these vessels, the B-59. By this point, the 34-year-old Russian had risen to the rank of commander.
6. Problems Arise
Vasili Arkhipov was not only of equal rank to the B-59’s captain, but he was also in charge of other submarines in the fleet. Their mission was vague, advance to Cuba, likely to provide support in case the crisis escalated. And each of the vessels was armed with a nuclear missile.
But Arkhipov and his fellow officers soon ran into two problems. First, they lost contact with their home base in Moscow, with their last order being to hold their position in the Caribbean. Second, was that the U.S. forces had discovered their submarine, forcing them to go deeper into the ocean.
5. The End?
Furthermore, the situation became worse when the Americans started dropping depth charges, causing the submarine to rock wildly. And because the air conditioning was broken, temperatures inside the submarine were quickly rising above 100 °F. So it’s unable to surface or stay put, the crew started to face the likelihood of death.
In 2016 one of the crewmen, Vadim Orlov narrated the scene inside the submarine to National Geographic. “The Americans hit us with something stronger than the grenades – apparently with a practice depth bomb,” he said. “We thought, that’s it, the end.”
4. Not Going Down Without A Fight
Conditions were similarly desperate on the other submarines. Surely, they too were forced to stay underwater for four days with hot temperatures and deteriorating air quality. B-59’s Captain Valentin Savitsky soon became convinced that the Americans were trying to blow up the submarine. What’s more, he started to believe that hostilities and possibly even nuclear war had already broken out on the surface.
As Orlov recalled, the captain yelled, “Maybe the war has already started up there… We’re gonna blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all. We will not become the shame of the fleet.” Their likely target was the USS Randolph, the aircraft carrier commanding the U.S. Navy presence.
3. Cool Headed
With no contact from Russia for four days and fearing the worst, the stressed captain of B-59 made the decision to arm the submarine’s nuclear missile. But, before he could fire, he would first have to get approval from two other senior officers. And one of them was Vasili Arkhipov.
The second officer was quick to give his approval to the idea. But Arkhipov, described by his longtime friend Ryurik Ketov as holding a cool head, declined to agree to the launch. He reasoned that the Americans were not actually trying to blow the submarine up. Instead, he believed they were deliberately dropping the charges away from the submarine to encourage the vessel to surface.
2. Cooler Heads Prevailed
Although we don’t fully know how the conversation went, we do know the result. The captain agreed, and cooler heads prevailed. B-59 then surfaced next to a U.S. destroyer and immediately turned around, heading back towards Russia.
A few days later, the crisis finally came to an end as Khrushchev agreed to withdraw the Soviet missiles. In return, Kennedy vowed to respect the sovereignty of Cuba. He also pledged to remove the U.S. Jupiter missiles located in Turkey and Italy on the U.S.S.R.’s doorstep.
As for Vasili Arkhipov, the unsung hero he continued to serve in the Soviet navy until he reached the rank of vice admiral in 1981 and eventually retired a few years later. He died in 1999 of kidney cancer, most likely caused by his exposure to radiation aboard the K-19.
It wouldn’t be until 2002, on the 40th anniversary of the crisis, that the world would hear about Vasili Arkhipov’s story. It was then that Professor Thomas Blanton announced, “A guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world.” That thought is shared by his widow Olga. “He knew that it was madness to fire the nuclear torpedo,” she said. “I am proud of my husband always.” We’re proud and thankful, too.
There are a lot of unsung heroes who protect and serve their country. Vasili Arkhipov was one of them and if it wasn’t for his wise decision, things could have gotten much worse. He didn’t let the fear of the unknown get to him.
His cool-headed attitude helped saved millions of lives and prevented a nuclear disaster. Too bad he wasn’t rewarded when he was still alive. But his family will always be proud of him.