By: Scott RossPublished: October 27, 2022

Vasili Arkhipov

For all the whinging you hear from people about how the Doomsday Clock is closer than ever to armageddon (of course it is, how would we even begin to move away from the end times?), in the fall of 1962, the global temperature really was piping hot, nearly boiling over on October 27, 1962.

That was the day that Major Rudolf Anderson flew his U-2 reconnaissance plane into Cuban airspace and got shot down by a Soviet-made surface-to-air missile. But that was merely the day's amuse bouche of sphincter-clenching tension.

At about 5pm that same day, four Soviet nuclear submarines were approaching Mariel, Cuba when they were confronted by US destroyers enforcing a naval quarantine of Cuba. Not aware of the Soviet sub's ten kilotonne nuclear torpedo, the destroyers sent depth charges raining down on them in an effort to force them to the surface.

''We're going to blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all. We will not disgrace our navy,'' shouted Captain Valentin Grigoryevich Savitsky, clearly ready to unleash nuclear hell. Mercifully, the firing of a nuclear missile on this particular B-59 sub required the say-so of not one, but three senior officers: Savitsky, officer Ivan Semyonovich Maslennikov and Vasili Arkhipov. Savitsky and Maslennikov were RTG, but Arkhipov stayed calm, refusing to greenlight the launch, and thus averting the start of WW III.

Arkhipov's cred had been well established and his preternatural cool tested in similar-ish circumstances the year before, when the K-19 submarine he was on sprung a leak in its reactor coolant system. Captain Nikolai Zateyev ordered his engineering crew to jerry-rig a back-up system, which they did. Everyone aboard, including Arkhipov, was exposed to high levels of radiation, especially the engineers, all of whom were dead within a month. Another fifteen died over the next two years. The near-disaster was made into the film K-19: The Widowmaker, with Liam Neeson's character, Captain Mikhail Polenin, based on Arkhipov.


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