The Cuban Missile Crisis was a 13-day confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union initiated after the discovery of Soviet ballistic missile deployment in Cuba. Most people consider this tense incident to be the closest the world has ever been to full-scale nuclear war. However, historians would argue another event that happened in international waters at the same time prevented a certain catastrophe.
On October 27, 1962, a group of 11 US Navy destroyers and the aircraft carrier USS Randolph located a nuclear-armed Soviet B-59 submarine near Cuba.
The US dropped explosive depth charges on the vessel, hoping it would force it to the surface for positive identification.
There had been no contact from Moscow for a number of days and although the submarine’s crew had earlier been picking up radio signals, it was now too deep to monitor any traffic.
The batteries on board had run very low and the air-conditioning had also failed, as the crew suffered from extreme exhaustion while fearing certain death.
As a result, they did not know if a war had already broken out and so the captain – Valentin Grigorievich Savitsky – called for their nuclear torpedo to be readied.
Unlike other Soviet submarines in its group, the B-59 required the agreement of all three senior officers on board – Mr Savitsky, Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov, and commander of the deployed submarine detachment Vasily Arkhipov.
However, while the first two unanimously voted in favour of using their “special weapon”, Mr Arkhipov opposed the idea and later persuaded the others to surface the sub and return to Soviet waters.
Had it been launched, the fate of the world could have been very different.
The attack would probably have started a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and its satellite states and the Western bloc, which would have caused global devastation, with unimaginable numbers of deaths on both sides.
However, Mr Arkhipov’s courageous efforts did not come to light until 2002, following a conference where the details of the event were revealed by the National Security Archive following Mr Arkhipov’s death in 1998.
He was consequently honoured the “Future of Life” prize by US-based organisation Future of Life Institute whose goal is to tackle threats to humanity.
The $50,000 (£40,000) prize was presented to his grandchildren Elena and Sergei at the Institute of Engineering and Technology.
Elena said at the time: “He always thought that he did what he had to do and never considered his actions as heroism.
“He acted like a man who knew what kind of disasters can come from radiation.
“He did his part for the future so that everyone can live on our planet.”
Thomas Blanton, who was then director of the US National Security Archive, said that Arkhipov “saved the world”.
Dr Jonathan Colman, an expert on the Cuban Missile Crisis at the University of Central Lancashire, agreed that the award was fitting.
He said in 2017: “While accounts differ about what went on on board the B-59, it is clear that Arkhipov and the crew operated under conditions of extreme tension and physical hardship.
“Once the nuclear threshold had been crossed, it is hard to imagine that the genie could have been put back into the bottle.
“President [John F.] Kennedy had been very worried about the possibility of a clash between American warships and Soviet submarines in the Caribbean, and it is absolutely clear that his fears were justified.
“Ultimately, it was luck as much as management that ensured that the missile crisis ended without the most dreadful consequences.”