The Man Who Saved the World: Part II
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The Man Who Saved the World: Part II

by | published January 16th, 2019

Editor’s Note: This is Part II of Bill Patalon’s three-part story detailing one man’s heroism during the Cold War. If you’d like to read Part I of this remarkable story, just click here.

From “Missile Gap” to “Photo Gap”

When the Soviets chose to go down this path, they did so under the utmost secrecy, using an elaborately compartmentalized operation based on “maskiroyka” – denial and deception. The gambit, code-named “Operation Anadyr,” started in July 1962, with the arrival in Cuba of missile-construction experts identified as “irrigation specialists,” “machine operators” and “agricultural specialists.”

It was in August 1962 when the Pentagon began suspecting the Soviet Union might be moving nukes into Cuba. Overflights by Lockheed U-2 spy planes discovered so-called “SAMS” (surface-to-air antiaircraft missiles) arranged in the same patterns the Soviet military used to protect ballistic-missile sites on its home soil.

Other intelligence reports revealed the existence of Russian-built MiG-21 fighter jets and Il-28 light bombers.

Unbeknownst to Washington, the first consignment of R-12 medium-range ballistic missiles arrived the night of Sept. 8, followed by another batch eight days later. Known in the West by its NATO designation SS-4 Sandal, the R-12 was a one-stage, megaton-capable missile with an effective range of 1,200 miles.

The plan was to build nine sites – six for R-12 medium-range missiles and three for long-range R-14 (SS-5 Skean) with a range of 2,800 miles.

Although the United States had been running surveillance flights over Cuba ever since the Bay of Pigs fiasco, several problems emerged.

In late August, an erroneous overflight of the USSR’s Sakhalin Island by a U.S. Air Force spy plane – followed by a Mainland China shootdown of a U.S.-supplied/Taiwan-operated U-2 nine days later – prompted the Pentagon to put the Cuba overflights on temporary hiatus.

Attempts to use spy satellites to image the heavily forested interior of Cuba were thwarted by cloud cover and general haze.

When the U-2 spy plane flights were finally reauthorized on Oct. 9, there was a five-week period historians refer to as a “Photo Gap.”

And the cost was high.

On Oct. 14, U.S. Air Force Maj. Richard Heyser flew a U-2 over Western Cuba – and when the Central Intelligence Agency’s National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC) reviewed the 928 images he’d captured, officials were stunned at what they found.

Nukes.

In Cuba.

President Kennedy was informed the morning of Oct. 16 – starting the clock on the “13 days” that define the Cuban Missile Crisis…

Plan of Attack

Washington had no response plan in place – for the simple reason that U.S. leaders had fervently believed the Soviets would never take the risk of putting missiles in Cuba.

Kennedy’s advisors quickly gamed out several paths of response, including:

  • Do nothing – since a global nuclear threat already existed.
  • Resort to diplomacy – and attempt to pressure Moscow to yank the missiles.
  • Employ “The Wedge” – Attempt to get Cuban leader Fidel Castro to avoid a U.S. invasion by splitting with Russia.
  • Launch missile-killing air strikes – to hit all the known missile sites.
  • Invade Cuba – Most likely as a follow-up to the air strikes.
  • Create a blockade – Ring Cuba with U.S. Navy ships that could stop and board all ships bound for the island nation.

While the Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously backed the idea of invasion, President Kennedy and his advisors – including Defense Secretary Robert McNamara – liked the idea of a blockade, which they characterized as a politically more palatable “quarantine.”

And it was the quarantine that served as the catalyst for our tale about Vasili Arkhipov.


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Black Saturday

We fast-forward to Saturday, Oct. 27, 1962.

The evening before, the U.S. State Department received a message that appeared to have been written by Khrushchev himself. The long-and-emotional letter was encouraging, for it essentially said that Moscow would back down in return for assurances that Cuba wouldn’t be invaded.

But a follow-up message from Moscow on Oct. 27 made additional demands – demands the United States found unacceptable.

That same day, U.S. Navy reconnaissance jets were fired upon. And U.S. Air Force Maj. Rudolf Anderson was killed when his U-2 was hit by a SAM and broke up in mid-air. (I promise to write about Maj. Anderson in an upcoming report.)

Unbeknownst to Washington, Khrushchev that day received a letter from Castro urging the use of nukes in case of invasion. Historians today refer to this as “The Armageddon Letter.”

And the CIA said that the missiles in Cuba were now operational.

Little wonder the White House later dubbed Oct. 27, 1962 “Black Saturday.”

And it wasn’t over.

Not by a longshot.

Down in the Caribbean, near Cuba, the “quarantine” was getting dicey.

Real dicey.

You see, as part of Operation Anadyr, to protect the arms-delivery ships, the Soviets on Oct. 1 sent a flotilla of Foxtrot-class diesel-electric submarines – B-59, B-4, B-36 and B-130 – from their base on the Kola Peninsula down to Cuba.

On “Black Saturday,” the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Randolph and 11 destroyers detected the submerged B-59.

The Soviet submarine B-59 is followed by a U.S. Navy chopper in the Caribbean near Cuba in October 1962.

Perceiving it as a threat, the U.S. Navy group was ordered to force the Russian sub to the surface – a goal achieved by dropping “practice” depth charges that are akin to hand grenades: They make “bangs” – but cause no real damage.

But we call it the “Fog of War” for reason – there’s a lack of clarity, a lack of uncertainty…

Which often has tragic outcomes.

And there was nearly one here.

Submarine B-59 hadn’t been in contact with Moscow for several days. And while it was tuning into U.S. commercial broadcasts, once it was submerged to evade its stalkers, it went so deep it apparently no longer was able to do that.

Worse still, messages from the U.S. Navy intended to communicate that American ships were only using practice depth charges were never received by the submarine – or by the Soviet Navy.

In addition to its usual contingent of weapons, the B-59 was equipped with a so-called “special weapon” – a T-5 nuclear torpedo. This sub-launched nuke had a five-kiloton warhead and was designed for use in situations where it might be possible to wipe out enemy aircraft carriers – or entire task force groups.

And, as historians discovered after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the B-59’s captain, a man named Valentin Grigorievich Savitsky – believing that war had actually broken out – wanted to use that weapon.

And that’s where our hero re-enters my story.


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You see, the B-59 was authorized by Moscow to use the weapon.

However, under the Soviet battle procedures in force at the time, the three primary officers aboard the sub had to unanimously agree before the T-5 torpedo could be launched.

The three men in question were Capt. Savitsky, political officer Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov, and Vasili Arkhipov.

Arkhipov was equal in rank to Savitsky. But as the commander of the deployed submarine detachment, he was actually the senior officer on the sub.

And he alone opposed the launch.

Indeed, according to some accounts, the argument that ensued was quite heated. The submarine had been submerged for a long time. Its batteries had run very low, and its air-filtration/air-conditioning gear had failed. The temperature inside sub had soared – as had the CO2 levels – meaning the three officers were waging this life-or-death argument in an atmosphere that blunted rationality.

But Arkhipov stood his ground – even when Savitsky screamed: “We’re gonna blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all – we will not become the shame of the fleet.”

He eventually wore Savitsky down, finally persuading him to surface right in the middle of the American warships stalking them — and to set a course for home.

Had the T-5 been fired, U.S. forces would almost certainly have retaliated with nukes of its own – and then the Soviets would have launched again.

Looking back, historian and Kennedy administration advisor Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. said “this was not only the most dangerous moment of the Cold War. It was the most-dangerous moment in human history.”

British writer and peace activist Milan Rai put it much more simply. Oct. 27, 1962 – the day the Kennedy administration referred to as “Black Saturday” – should be viewed as “Arkhipov Day.”

And it should be celebrated every year…

Sincerely,


Bill Patalon

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  1. Stu
    January 17th, 2019 at 00:46 | #1

    Great read. Thank you.

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