Vasili Arkhipov stood on the metal floor of the Soviet submarine B-59 on October 27th, 1962. The vessel was armed with 22 torpedoes, but they were not all alike. One torpedo, referred to as the ‘special weapon’ was armed with a nuclear warhead. At that moment, it took only his consent to launch that warhead at the Atlantic fleet of the United States, sparking World War III like a match in gasoline, and effectively plunging the world into the dark ages, or worse, utter non-existence. Despite that pressure, which bore down on him like the weight of so much dark water above, he maintained a calm look in his eye, and considered the ramifications of his decision.
Weeks earlier, Vasili left the icy port of Murmansk in the same vessel. Being a fleet commander, he was one of the few men on the ship aware of the destructive capabilities they harnessed. His orders were in a sealed envelope, and he had waited eagerly to open them. The cold water made him think of the calm moments of his childhood in the peaceful village of Staraya Kupavna, and that calmness was reflected in Vasili. Many of his fellow submariners knew him for this calm disposition, and there, in the water of the northern coast, they too let their thoughts flow like the frost-tipped sea.
The vessel B-59 was one of four submarines that left Murmansk with the same mission. Fifty miles into their journey the sub commanders opened their orders and informed the crew that their destination would be Cuba. Although the Soviets had developed nuclear powered subs at this time, the four ships were powered by diesel. Vasili had been aboard one of these nuclear subs, the infamous K-19, and had seen first hand both the power and the terror they harness. During his time on the K-19, the nuclear reactor ruptured, and he saw with his own eyes four of his comrades pulled from that chamber, already dead from the flooding radiation. He would not forget the contorted screams that remained frozen on their faces. He would not forget the depravity that he witnessed on that ship. It was because of this event that they were now utilizing the older diesel vessels. A nuclear sub like the K-19 ran much smoother and did not require the vessel to surface occasionally to recharge its batteries, but the events on the K-19 served as an example of the madness that nuclear power can add to the already tense situation of being trapped in a metal tube, hundreds of meters below the surface. Some may consider it a deep irony that the Soviets went back to diesel for this mission, out of safety, while still electing to arm with vessel with a different, far more destructive form of nuclear fission. These diesel ships carried with them a palpable stench of oil and battery acid, but for the men aboard the ship these conditions were seen as a comfort, as familiar to them as the brisk air of their motherland.
The B-59’s voyage into the Atlantic went swimmingly. A massive tropical storm was gathering there, and while those conditions would be detrimental to a fleet of surface ships, the massive waves and bellowing storm clouds provided a perfect screen for the small group of submarines to enter enemy territory undetected.
Unbeknownst to the crew, another storm had gathered during their journey. The United States had recently become aware of missile depots on the Cuban mainland and JFK had ordered a full-scale ‘quarantine’ of the island to prevent further stockpiling of Soviet weapons off the coast of America. The tropical storm above them had hindered their communication to Moscow, and thus Vasili and his fellow officers remained on course and maintained a single goal: stay hidden.
The warm water of the wide Sargasso Sea created a double-edged sword for Vasili and the crews of the sub fleet. On the one hand the turbulent aftermath of the tropical storm above created pockets of cold water deep bellow. This coldness masked them from sonar detection. They were like a shadow on a moonless night. But there, in the tropics, the heat of the diesel engine caused the temperature onboard to skyrocket. Here, approaching the equator, the burning fuel of the engine was like a flame in an oven. This deep in distant waters the vessel could not surface. They had to hide in the depths, even as their batteries slowly lost charge. Water was also strictly rationed. Everyone aboard, from Vasili Arkhipov to the lowest ranking man on the ship was limited to one glass of water a day. They suffered together. And they suffered greatly. Many of them knew that these diesel submarines are far more suited for the cold waters of the north and one might even consider it madness to send these vehicles into such tropical waters, let alone for an indefinite period of time within the net of enemy surveillance. Vasili bore all of this with the knowledge of their ‘special weapon’.
They were two weeks into their mission and they still had not received any word from Moscow. Although Vasili was the commander of the fleet, he was in fact not the first in command of B-59. Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky was the caption of the ship, and made the decisions in terms of tactics and navigation. The submariners had a saying at the time.
“The captain is second in command. God is first.”
Behind Savitsky, there was Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov, the political officer. On the other three boats of the fleet during this mission it took only the Captain and the Political Officer to approve the launch of the ‘special weapon’. Each carried a key around his neck, and those two keys interlocked in order to arm the weapon. Never before had the commanders of sub had so much power in their hand. With the simple turn of a key and flip of a switch two men could seal the fate of the human race. Two men could ignite the world and make it rain ash and death. And perhaps we should all be thankful, that on this particular vessel, the B-59, it took three men to turn that key.
Meanwhile, roughly 85% of the United States Atlantic fleet had gathered around Cuba. They were on high alert, as a U2 spy planes just revealed the true nature of Cuba’s weaponry. B-59 and the other ships still had no contact from Moscow and continued on their scorching journey. Desperate for context on what was occurring the communication intelligence officer Vadim Orlov was searching every available radio wave. What he heard was John F Kennedy addressing the American public on the nature of what was occurring in Cuba. This information went straight to Vasili and Savitsky, who were beginning to truly realize the gravity of their mission. They knew a fleet was gathering. They knew the world was lingering on the border of all-out war, and they were at the spearhead. The danger above helped them forget the heat and the stench and the thirst which plagued them in the deep. But the wide Sargasso Sea was growing calmer. They were loosing the layers of cold water that clocked them, and as they continued forward, the battery continued to slowly dwindle.
The time spent in that submarine began to slowly drip like honey in the winter frost. Seconds passed like hours. Hours passed like days. The ship remained hot as an oven, and fear lingered on the back of everyone’s mind.
Somewhere beneath all that dark water, something in Captain Savitsky’s mind began to crumble under that pressure. The news of the American fleet, the lack of news from Moscow, the stifling air around him, all of these things made him begin to taste war on the tip of his tongue. He laid in that stagnant air, trying so desperately to drift into sleep, if only for a moment, clutching the key that was around hung his neck. The chain grew heavier and heavier, it seemed, with each passing moment. When he finally did fall asleep he dreamt only of fire, and woke up covered in sweat, almost as if he was truly being roasted.
Of all the days that had passed like a long season in Hell, October 27th passed by far the slowest. Their luck it seemed, had run out, and as they detected American vessels on the near surface they became quite aware that they too were currently being seen as a dot on a sonar screen.
The crew began to not only hear, but feel, the sonic ping being emitted from the surface fleet. Every few seconds. Ping. Each one was like a string being plucked on their very hearts. As the sound waves made contact with the B-59’s hull, it reverberated through each and every chamber they inhabited. This ping made the torture of the heat feel like nothing. Every ping rippled through them like it did on the metal walls that encased them. Every ping revealed again their position to the forces which they thought sought to destroy them.
In the Soviet military, it was considered standard that three pings, and no more, was a signal to surface in peace. Well the Americans used much more than three. Captain Savitsky began to consider these constant pings as perhaps a form of torture, or perhaps just a way to ensure that the hunter did not lose its prey.
Word of Soviet sub activity was immediately reported to Washington, and although the Americans then contacted the Kremlin of their intention to peacefully surface the vessels, the radio channel to Moscow remained silent as a grave.
What can be said about a man’s psyche in a situation like the one that crew found themselves in? How much pressure can a mind take before it succumbs, throwing reality out the window and embracing anything that could bring a sweat relief? Well whatever that threshold, Vasili Arkhipov certainly remained above it, whereas Captain Savitsky seemed to linger just on that border.
The batteries of the ship were nearing the final fragments of its power when the pings stopped. The crew continued hopelessly trying to evade their hunters. The pings had faded but they were soon replaced with explosions. Every few moments, just like the pings before, another depth charge burst and again sent rippling energy through their ship and their skulls.
There was still no word from Moscow. There was still thick, hot air and an ever-present stench of fuel and sweat. And as the bombs continued to burst all around them, something in Captain Savitsky’s mind finally seemed to snap. He decided that the Americans could be doing nothing else but trying to destroy them. He decided that the war must have already begun, and it was his duty, to god and his glorious country to utilize the weapon that they had granted him. The crewmembers noticed as a great furry gathered in his eyes. He considered himself abandoned and decided that he would rather burn out than fade away. He commanded them to prepare the nuclear torpedo to be fired, and shouted in his madness, "We're going to blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all."
The crew did as they were told, and perhaps they too embraced his decision. They truly did have the power to vaporize nearly the entire Atlantic fleet. All the while, the Americans had no clue of the nuclear capabilities harnessed in the vessel bellow them. To them, it was a game of cat and mouse, something they trained for, practiced rigorously, and eagerly awaited to put to use. Had they known of the warhead aboard, or truly understood the madness that was griping the Soviet crew after so many days in that searing-hot metal tube, they perhaps would not have used explosives like they did. But they considered the sub a direct threat to their blockade of Cuba, and something they didn’t want to deal with later had they been forced to invade Cuba, which was something they all considered a possibility. Regardless, they did what they did and it brought Savitsky to the brink of sparking a nuclear holocaust.
But alas, we cannot forget brave Vasili. He had endured the same thing as every man aboard the B-59. He spent the same amount of time in that maddening heat. He drank one warm glass of water a day. He heard every last ping as it reverberated from the ship and back to the Americans. And he heard the blasts that seemed oh so close to bursting the hull around them, leaving their bodies crushed and lifeless at the bottom of that wide Sargasso Sea. But he stayed cool as the frozen water of the Northern Sea that they left so many long days ago. He still reflected those calm waves and knew he had to do anything possible to quell the fire that burned in Savitsky’s mind. He had seen worse fires in his time. He had felt the tremendous heat and poison air that had bellowed from the reactor room of the K-19, and there too, his eyes remained calm and his thoughts did not abandon rationality.
By the time Vasili got to the torpedo chamber Savitsky had convinced Ivan Maslennikov to utilize the weapon. Savitsky at last removed the heavy chain from his neck and joined his key to Maslennikovs. Although he was eager, Savitsky still could not go through with his choice without Vasili’s agreement. And Vasili simply looked him in the eyes and said ‘no’.
Something made him think back to the vacations that he had taken with his wife over the years. Wherever he was, on the highest mountain, or lowest valley, close to home or a world away, he would pay a close attention to the state of affairs in the world. He would search tirelessly for a local newspaper or radio broadcast, anything, to give him some perspective. Perhaps it was that wide breath of human experience that gave him the strength to hold out despite the miserable state they were in and the captain’s bold choice. Or perhaps he was just an innately empathetic and decisive man. Regardless, he held firm on his disagreement, and maintained a stern look in his eye as Savitsky vented his reasons and beseeched him. “The war has already started,” he said, “for all we know Moscow has already been wiped from the earth. We owe it to them continue fighting. Or at least die trying.”
The battery was at 5%. The air had only grown thicker. Fear had tightened its grip on the neck of nearly every man aboard the B-59. The three men with the power to end the world had still not reached a consensus. And depth charges continued to burst in the water all around them. At this point, Vasili was quite confident that if the Americans wanted to kill them, they would have been dead hours ago.
As it neared midnight the key was still motionless in the firing control. Beads of sweat still slowly dripped down their necks. But facing the brick wall of Vasili’s calm disposition, Savitsky finally resolved to remove the key, and suffer the humiliation of turning himself, his ship, and his crew over to his captors. They climbed through warm waters and at last made it to the surface. The crew had never tasted such a fresh breath as they did when they opened that hatch, and they were met not with gunfire, nor orders to surrender, but with soft jazz music.
Savitsky held a look of spite and defeat as the U.S. ships escorted them back to the open sea and all the way back to their homeport. The soviet powers did not consider what occurred a good outcome. One General even infamously said, “it would have been better if you drowned.”
But Vasili, and the crew of B-59 knew the struggle that they overcame. They danced with the apocalypse that day and it was Vasili Arkhipov who looked the horsemen in the eye and said, “not today”.
After that mission Vasili’s life was lived in a much more calm air. He is perhaps the only man who could come so close to the flame of madness without letting it consume him for even a moment. His memory will remain like a solid glacier, never to succumb to the fire of war.