There are a couple of men whose name remain mostly unsung, but who were instrumental in preventing nuclear Armageddon during the Cold War. One of them was Vasili Arkhipov.
Some people try to attain greatness but never find it, while others simply live their life – and stumble from one incredible episode into the next.
One of those men was Vasili Arkhipov. He was present in the dreaded K-19 nuclear missile submarine when the infamous accident with her nuclear reactor happened. Twenty-two crewmembers would die in the two years after the accident.
Then, Arkhipov was present in the B-59 diesel electric submarine of the Type 641-class (NATO: Foxtrot), when that submarine found itself in the middle of the hottest moment of the Cuban Missile Crisis – and almost triggered a nuclear war.
Arkhipov was born in what was then the peasant town of Staraya Puknava, some 40 kilometers east of Moscow, on January 30, 1926. At the age of 16 he enrolled at the Pacific Naval School, saw action on a minesweeper in the short-lived Russo-Japanese war in August 1945 and then went back to school at the Caspian Naval Higher School, where he elected to serve on submarines.
Arkhipov’s career up until his assignment to the K-19 seems to have been straight forward, although not much is known about the details. He served on submarines in both the Baltic Fleet and Northern Fleet. His wife later described Arkhipov as someone who kept to himself; unassuming, but balanced and well-grounded, although not without quirks.
He then signed up to serve on the K-19, later dubbed ‘The Hiroshima’ after its deadly nuclear accidents, after which he was reassigned to become commander of the 69th submarine brigade of four Type 641, or Foxtrot submarines based in Sayda Bay, near Murmansk, as part of the Northern Banner fleet.
Cuban Missile Crisis
Arkhipov was aboard the B-59, from which he commanded the 69th Brigade, when the diesel-electric submarine operated in warm waters. Not designed for operations in the tropics, with no air conditioning on board and no system cooling the battery charging system, temperatures inside the cramped submarine shot up to as much as 60 degrees Celsius (140 Farhrenheid) in some compartments.
Men moved around in only their underwear; some developed infectuous rashes. When they tried to sleep in their bunks, they lay in puddles of their own sweat. But in the western Sargasso Sea they had to remain hidden, mostly submerged, while American warships chased them, hoping to prevent them from entering the so-called quarantine area the Americans had imposed, hoping to stop nuclear missiles from reaching Cuba.
On October 27, 1962, things came to a head. Unbeknownst to the world and thus also the Americans chasing them, the Russian submarines secretly brought with them a nuclear-tipped torpedo. Frustrated and furious over aggressive American action against his boat, B-59’s captain ordered the torpedo armed and surfaced…
To hear how this ended, and how Vasili Arkhipov was instrumental to our survival as a species, listen to Episode 7.2: To The Brink And Back.