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Cold War Warriors

Cuban Missile Crisis 50th anniversary

Commander John Murphy, USN, Ret

The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was the most significant event of my military career. I was a staff officer at the Atlantic Command (CINCLANT-CINCLANTFLT) in Norfolk, Va. at the time. I was assigned to the Atlantic Fleet’s "Intelligence Interpretive Unit". A group of Navy and Marine Corps officer analysts "behind the green door". I had just come from three years as the Operations Officer at a Black Sea warning site. When I first arrived in Norfolk in February 1962, I remember thinking all the concern for the Soviets in Cuba was kind of a joke. A side show. The real Cold War was "over there"- in Europe and along the periphery of the Soviet Union. All this attention to a fledgling Communist nation in banana republic was a joke. Now, fifty years later we all know … This was no joke.

In October 1962 I thought we knew everything there was to know about the Soviets in Cuba. That was our job. We now know that the Soviets did a great job of sneaking a large number of long range, nuclear missiles into Cuba during the summer of 1962. I have also learned that history is a fickle, tricky business. Leo Tolstoy had a theory of military history that said "History is written by the winners." Probably true… at least in the short term. But in the longer term I am learning that history evolves and that you probably never are completely sure you have it all. My military superiors had a saying back then "You make a decision on the facts that you have. A perfect decision that is made too late is a bad decision". Chrysler Corp. chairman Lee Iacoca may have said it better when he noted "Even a correct decision is wrong when it was taken too late". That is "You play the hand you’re dealt." On balance, I think history shows … that we did pretty good.

All the same, there probably will always be important events that historians do not know about. For reasons such as oversight, intentional cover-up or official secrecy. Events that you might learn about years, or even decades after the fact - that can alter the official history written by the "winners". I live in a town that is known for the most crucial battle of the American Civil War. 150 years after the Battle of Gettysburg we are still discovering things that were potential "game changers".

I believe two such events happened before my very eyes during the Cuban Missile crisis and I will try to describe them in this article.

I call them my Cuban Crisis "lost and found" events "Execute Scabbards ’63" was my "lost" event and "Captain Arkhipov Prevents WWIII" was a "found"event. Both events occurred in the chaos of "Black Saturday" (Saturday, 27 October, 1962). Black Saturday was a term coined by the Kennedy White House staff to describe THE day during the Cuban Crisis that was filled with the greatest danger and chaos. And they didn’t know the whole story back then!

Black Saturday was the day when the Soviets shot down a U2 over Cuba; President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev exchanged grim, "back channel messages trying to prevent World War III and there was a serious confrontation at sea between Soviet submarines and the U.S. Navy’s quarantine forces. A day when my own CINCLANT reported to his superiors in Washington "…. four positive conventionally powered long range submarines (3 Foxtrot and one Zulu) in Western Atlantic." No contact evidence indicates the presence of nuclear powered or missile-configured submarines. (Summary of Soviet Submarine Activity in Western Atlantic to 271700Z)."

CNO Flag Plot of quarantine forces, evening of Black Saturday, 27 October,1962

A "Lost" Event - "Execute Scabbards ’63"

I am beginning to wonder if I am the only one (on record at least) who remembers this event? I was the lone Duty Officer in the Intelligence Interpretive Unit on Black Saturday- 27 October,1962. "It" happened early in the morning of - around 0200 as I recall. An accidental order was sent out by my watch superior, the CINCLANT Command Duty Officer (CDO) to launch air strikes against Cuba. It was an accident. A total screw up. The mistake had something to do with a "pre signed" message on a clipboard getting mixed up with bona fide, outgoing messages. However it happened … believe me … it happened! That awful morning I was stunned to read an unclassified, highest precedence ("Flash") message that simply said "Execute Scabbards 63". I was working in a world of highly classified messages covered with code words and Top Secret stamps.

Colored message forms. Bold, colored markings everywhere. And here was a plain black on white, one page, unclassified message demanding my attention. It was addressed to all of our subordinate Army, Navy and Air Force commands. The Flash precedence signaled " URGENT! This is IMPORTANT … LOOK AT ME!". I knew that "Scabbards ’63" was a CINCAFLANT code word for joint Navy and Air Force air strikes against Cuba. We also called it CINCLANT OPLAN 312 and had worked very hard to develop it during the summer of ‘62. The "Scabbards’63" message release was a total "screw up" by our Command Duty Officer and was cancelled within 30 minutes of transmission. In the early 70s I worked with a Navy pilot in the Pentagon who remembered the incident. He was on "Ready Alert" on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier in the Caribbean. He also recalled the order being cancelled shortly after it was received. I wanted to make a copy of the message, but this was in the days before Xerox machines. The message was physically taken from me by the CINCLANT Communications Duty Officer who worked next door. The CINCLANT Command Duty Officer responsible for releasing the message was relieved of duty immediately and sent back to his parent command the next morning. It is an event that was "lost" to history. Besides, we had enough going on that historic day. Who needed this "non event" in the command history files. Not something to be proud of.

A "Found" Event - Captain Arkhipov Prevents World War III

My second example of a "Lost and Found" event also occurred on Black Saturday. In the early evening when we thought things were calming down. We never heard about what I now call the "Captain Arkhipov" event until 2002. Forty years after the fact. And we learned about it from the "losers"-the Russians. So much for Tolstoy’s theory of military history. It is especially ironic that we learned about it from the Russians. In a book that would probably never have been published in Soviet days. But this was a new day and a new generation of Russian journalism. The book was entitled "Kubinskaya Samba Kvarteta Fokstrotov" (the Cuban Samba of the Foxtrot Quartette) by Russian journalist Aleksandr Mozgovoi. It was published in Russian only. Any official, Soviet record of this incident remains classified. "Putinized" so to speak.

Foxtrot B59 on surface. Almost caused WW III on night of 27 October,1962.

The Mozgovoi book introduced us to Captain Vitaliy Arkhipov - Chief of Staff of a group of submarines known as 69th Torpedo Submarine Brigade. A group of four Foxtrot Class diesel electric submarines that had deployed secretly from the Murmansk area on 1 October. The Foxtrots were designated B36, B59, B75 and B130. Captain Arkhipov was aboard the B59 where he was equal in rank to the commanding officer, but technically "second in command" (i.e. the Executive Officer in U.S.Navy parlance). Arkhipov also was the Chief of Staff of the 69th Torpedo Submarine Brigade reporting directly to the 69th Brigade commander, Captain Vitaliy Agafonov who was aboard Foxtrot B4. The 69th Brigade’s primary mission was to go to Mariel, Cuba and help establish a submarine base for ballistic missile submarines. They were an important part of the overall Soviet plan for introducing missiles into Cuba known as Operation ANADYR. After President Kennedy’s 22 October TV speech to the nation- the 69th Brigade had a change of orders . They were now told to assist Soviet cargo ships as they tried to transit through the U.S. Navy’s naval quarantine northeast of Cuba. We had been tracking the Foxtrots through the Atlantic since mid October and were viewing them as a minor, nuisance. We knew about the ballistic missiles in Cuba by then (detected on 14 October by a U2), but we did not know that the 69th’s Foxtrots had nuclear weapons. Weapons that they had been successfully test fired the previous year. They had completely destroyed a group of combatants at anchor at Novaya Zemlya island. Each of the 69th Brigade Foxtrot submarines carried two nuclear torpedoes that were capable of a 20 kiloton blast. Equivalent to what we dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

B59 was armed with two 20 kiloton, nuclear torpedoes.
Had they been fired on the night of 27 October, they could have ignited WW III.

When reading Mozgovoi’s book, I was surprised to learn how poorly supported the 69th Brigade was for its bold, and important mission. From 22 October on … we were sending out a variety of intelligence summaries designed to keep our forces informed on any important crisis events and the location of all key U.S. and Soviet forces. Even our submarines received special brevity summaries tailored to their specific area of operations.

The Soviets did a great job of getting their missiles into Cuba secretly – in a very brief time frame (four to five months). Also, of deploying their Operation ANADYR forces covertly. But, their top down style of management had its weaknesses. The General Staff was top heavy with Army Marshals who did not have a clue what it was like to operate in a diesel submarine in the tropics. Especially when they were being pursued by modern ASW forces. The Soviets appeared totally inflexible in their command and control for these highly vulnerable submarines. The subs HAD to come to the surface at precisely Midnight- Moscow time for their daily communications broadcasts. This was 6PM in the Caribbean. If they missed a communications broadcast… tough luck. Unbelievable.

The 69th Brigade submarines that were able to surface (most weren’t for fear of detection) … were receiving their general situation reports from U.S. commercial, radio broadcasts intercepted by their embarked Communications Intelligence teams. Naturally, these intercept teams were focusing on the worst news. For example, that President Kennedy had told the nation in his 22 October TV address, that any attack by Soviet forces in Cuba would lead to a full, retaliatory response on the USSR. True. Also, that we were preparing for a full scale invasion of Cuba. Also true… if the Soviets were stupid enough to give us a reason to attack. Finally, that special camps were being set up for Soviet prisoners of war in Florida. Not true, but…. something the Soviet sailors might have taken as "good news"? "Akhhhhh, tovarishch! News Year’s Eve on Miami "bitch" ! "

By the time we set the naval quarantine on 24 October- the 69th Brigade was starting to succumb to the tropical conditions in and around Cuba. They had been built for Murmansk or Leningrad …the Barents or the Baltic… not the tropics. On Black Saturday, the B130 was asking for permission to come to the surface to repair three of its four diesel engines that were out of commission. The American news reports made them believe war was imminent. True…. If they started it. The B26 had been detected and forced to surface. It later got away and headed home to repair faulty equipment. We had been aggressively pursuing all four of the Foxtrots since 24 October and only the B4 with the Brigade commander aboard had gone undetected.

Commanding Officer of the B59, Captain Vasiliy Savitsky had kept the B59 submerged for four days before his encounter with our ASW ships and aircraft on Black Saturday evening.. He had no communications with Moscow during this entire period. He was obsessed with avoiding detection and being forced to surface. A clear violation of his pre-sailing orders.

Most of what we know about what was going on aboard B59 that day comes from the Officer in Charge of the Communications Intelligence team, Senior Lieutenant Vadim Orlov. Orlov notes that the sub had been aggressively pursued by our ASW forces for 18 straight hours. The conditions in the submerged sub had become deplorable. Temperatures ranged from 120 to 160 degrees Fahrenheit in the compartments. The Soviet sailors were tough, but went about their duties as if in a stupor. The American destroyers above them were dropping PDCs (Practice Depth Charges) that were shaking and jolting the sub violently. The Russians called them " stun grenades" and were convinced the Americans were trying to sink them. We saw the PDCs as international signals telling them to come to the surface and be identified. We saw them as a humane way of communicating with a very crafty foe. The PDCs were part of carefully crafted ROEs (Rules of Engagement) that had been sent to Moscow through diplomatic channels. They did appear on American and Soviet broadcasts to Mariners days before the incident. But, the Foxtrots were apparently unaware of the meaning of our PDC signals because they were unable to come to the surface for their communications with Moscow.

B59’s Captain Savitsky felt isolated. It was him against the world. For all he knew… World War III was going on "up there" and here he was just fighting to stay alive. Crew members were losing consciousness as oxygen levels became low and noxious fumes from the ship’s batteries crept through the poorly ventilated compartments. After one particularly strong explosion…Captain Savitsky is reported to have "lost it". He was enraged and ordered that his nuclear tipped torpedoes be readied for firing.

Lieutenant Orlov notes that Captain Savitsky screamed "There may be a war raging up there and we are trapped down here turning somersaults! We're going to hit them hard! We will die, but we will sink them all and not stain our Navy’s honor"

Captain Vasiliy Arkhipov. Second in Command on Foxtrot B 59. On night of 27 October he convinced his commanding officer, Captain Vasiliy Savitsky to not fire his nuclear torpedoes against U.S. Navy Quarantine Forces"

Then reality set in. In the person of Captain Vitaliy Arkhipov. The decision to fire a nuclear weapon was not one that the commanding officer of B59 could make on his own. It had to be approved unanimously by three officers - the Commanding Officer (Capt. Savitsky); his second in command, (Capt. Arkhipov) and the ship’s Political Officer (Captain Ivan Maslennikov). Savitsky and Maslennikov voted to fire the nuclear torpedoes, but Arkhipov disagreed. A heated argument broke out between Savitsky and Arkhipov and history now records that Arkhipov won. Slava Bogu! (Thank God!) Arkhipov had convinced the others to not only not fire the nuclear torpedoes, but to also bring the B59 to the surface immediately. To await further orders from Moscow. This is the moment when Captain Arkhipov may well have saved the world from nuclear annihilation.

When the B59 did surface they found they were surrounded by a large gathering of U.S. Navy ships. The sub was bathed in search lights and challenged to identify itself. One of the B59 officers noted in his personal journal "We felt like a wolf that had been hunted down. It was a beautiful, but frightful scene."

When the destroyer escort USS Cony (DDE508) challenged B59 by flashing light – the sub responded "КORABL". Shortly afterwards, a sailor from our communications center came to my duty station and said "Mr. Murphy, we have flushed a Soviet sub and it has given us his name. Can you translate it for me." I said "Sure- his name is SHIP". We laughed and agreed the Captain of B59 was pretty cool in the face of adversity. At the time I remember thinking "Impressive. To have a sense of humor at a time like this." I now see that the official U.S. Navy reports state that the B59’s response to the Cony was "KORABL X" or "SHIP X". Whatever. I also recently learned that B59 also gave two other names to our ships that night.

To USS Murray (DD576) it was "PRINAVLYET" which I loosely translate as "ROGER (understand)-IN HASTE". Later to the destroyers USS Bache (DD470) and USS Barry (DD933) the name was "PROSNAVLAST" or " WAKE UP – POWER". Again, gibberish, but it got the Americans off their backs. Meanwhile one of the American ships was playing good, American jazz music over their outboard speakers. Designed to relax the Russians- as if that was possible.

The joke is on me….. May 1993, St. Petersburg, Russia

In a previous article describing this incident I described a 1993 dinner at the Krylov Ship Design Bureau in St. Petersburg. My first day in Russia. Krylov was a top Soviet bureau that helped develop the Foxtrot submarine. I told the Russian scientists of the Foxtrot incident on Black Saturday. I presented it as a joke to show that even in the worst of situations there can be some humor. I spoke loudly in Russian as a Russian scientist translated for the three Americans present (including my old buddy Edmond Pope). I milked it for all it was worth and when I got to the punch line of KORABL (SHIP)…. I pronounced the letters, slowly and distinctly ( К-О-Р-A-Б-Л ). When I was done the room erupted in laughter. Of course… I did not know the "rest of the story" at thе time. Maybe some of them did? For the rest of us… it would be another decade before we found out the Russian side of this incident.

Of how Captain Vasiliy Arkhipov may have prevented the War III in his heated argument with Captain Savitsky – 200 feet below the Atlantic Ocean- on Black Saturday evening, 27 October, 1962. Fifty years ago this month!

Arkhipov Postscript

Prior to the Cuban Crisis, Captain Arkhipov had already distinguished himself in the Soviet Navy when he helped put down a mutiny aboard the Soviet K-19 nuclear submarine. This incident would later become known in the west through the Hollywood film "The Widowmaker". After the Cuban Crisis- Captain Vitaliy Arkhipov went on to command several Soviet submarines and submarine squadrons. He was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1975 and served as the Superintendent of the prestigious, Kirov Naval Academy in St. Petersburg. He was promoted to Vice Admiral in 1981 and retired in the mid 80s. He died in his hometown of Zheleznodorozhniy near Moscow in 1999. A belated thank you Admiral Arkhipov! Wherever you are. For more … go to

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