Arkhipov had already had one scrape with history before the events of 1962. The year previously he had been second in command of a K-19 submarine, a Hotel class nuclear sub which was prone to problems. On American Independence Day 1961 the sub was south of Greenland when an explosion almost disabled the submarine. It was only the self-sacrifice of seven members of the crew which resulted in their deaths that stopped the submarine from blowing up.
These crew members managed to improvise a circuit which enabled the reactor to cool.
However, the submariners had been about to riot – in fear of their lives from radiation poisoning - and it was only the cool headedness of Arkhipov and his personal backing of the Captain that saved the sub from a mutiny.
So began a deadly game of cat and mouse which involved US destroyers dropping depth charges to try and flush the submarines from the hidden reaches of the sea. Arkhipov’s submarine was trapped by the aircraft Carrier USS Randolph and eleven US Navy Destroyers. The depth charges they dropped were practice ones, with the intent of driving the submarine to the surface.
Such was the bombardment that finally Arkhipov’s submarine surfaced. It returned to the USSR with its metaphorical tail between its legs. Arkhipov continued in the service of the Soviet Navy, rising to the rank of Vice Admiral (below) and retired sometime in the mid 1990s. He died in 1999.
Yet what was not discovered until years later were the activities on the submarine before it surfaced. The Captain of the submarine, his nerves shot to pieces by the bombardment had ordered the assembly of one of the nuclear torpedoes and had been preparing to take a shot at one of the destroyers.
He believed that a war must have already started.
Moscow had left the decision to use one of these nukes with the captain of the submarine but with a proviso. If he felt the need to use the weapon the next two officers in terms of rank had to agree to its use as well. The political officer on board said yes. The Executive Officer, Arkhipov, said no.
As such the shot that could have triggered a nuclear war never happened. One can only imagine what the world might be like today if Arkhipov had been the third to utter ‘yes’ on that fateful day.
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