Follow the inside story of the Cuban Missile Crisis as it evolves day by day from now through October 28!
(Photograph: A US Navy P5M Marlin overlies a Foxtrot-class submarine. The destroyer Charles B. Cecil (DDR-835) is in the background.)
The Most Dangerous Day
Saturday, October 27, 1962, was the twelfth of the “Thirteen Days” Bobby Kennedy referred to in the title to his book about the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is widely considered the most dangerous day of the crisis.
No less than three separate incidents could have sparked a shooting war: A U2 based in Alaska flew off course over Russia; Soviet SAMs shot down a U2 over Cuba and killed the pilot, almost provoking a retaliatory airstrike from American bombers; and a Soviet submarine captain, furious with the USN ships trying to force him to surface, ordered his nuclear-armed torpedo loaded into the firing tube and prepared for launch. (The latter incident represents the alternate history point of departure for Final Failure.)
The Submarines of October: US and Soviet Naval Encounters During the Cuban Missile Crisis
National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 75.
William Burr and Thomas S. Blanton, editors.
These materials are reproduced from http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB75/ with the permission of the National Security Archive. Copyright 1995-2009 National Security Archive. All rights reserved. (Some of the detailed information in the original article has been cut for its appearance here.)
Washington, D.C., 31 October 2002 — Forty years ago today, the U.S. Navy forced to the surface a Soviet submarine, which unbeknownst to the Navy, was carrying a nuclear-tipped torpedo. This was the third surfacing of a Soviet submarine during the Cuban Missile Crisis. After a day of persistent tracking by the U.S. destroyer, the Charles P. Cecil, commanded by Captain Charles Rozier, Soviet submarine B-36, commanded by Captain Aleksei Dubivko, exhausted its batteries forcing it to come to the surface. On 27 and 30 October respectively, U.S. Navy anti-submarine warfare (ASW) forces surfaced Soviet submarines B-59 and B-130. No one on the U.S. side knew at the time that the Soviet submarines were nuclear-armed; no one knew that conditions in the Soviet submarines were so physically difficult and unstable that commanding officers, fearing they were under attack by U.S. forces, may have briefly considered arming the nuclear torpedoes. Indeed, one of the incidents—the effort to surface B-59 on 27 October 1962—occurred on one of the most dangerous days of the missile crisis, only hours after the Soviet shoot-down of a U-2 over Cuba and as President Kennedy was intensifying threats to invade Cuba.
The U.S.-Soviet conflict over nuclear deployments on Cuba that produced the October 1962 crisis has necessarily been a focal point of public interest, but the drama that unfolded above and below Caribbean waters is now receiving greater attention. While experts on the missile crisis, as well as the participants themselves, have been long aware of the cat-and-mouse game between U.S.ASW forces and Soviet submarines during October and November 1962, only in recent months has the hidden history of Soviet submarine operations during the crisis become more widely known. …
One of the most startling disclosures was that each of the submarines carried a nuclear-tipped torpedo, which greatly raised the dangers of an incident as the U.S. Navy carried out its efforts to induce the beleaguered Soviet submariners to bring their ships to the surface.
During the missile crisis, U.S. naval officers did not know about Soviet plans for a submarine base or that the Foxtrot submarines were nuclear-armed. Nevertheless, the Navy high command worried that the submarines, which had already been detected in the north Atlantic, could endanger enforcement of the blockade. Therefore, under orders from the Pentagon, U.S. Naval forces carried out systematic efforts to track Soviet submarines in tandem with the plans to blockade, and possibly invade, Cuba. While ordered not to attack the submarines, the Navy received instructions on 23 October from Secretary of Defense McNamara to signal Soviet submarines in order to induce them to surface and identify themselves. … According to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, when Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara reviewed the use of practice depth charges (PDCs), the size of hand grenades, to signal the submarines, “those few minutes were the time of greatest worry to the President. His hand went up to his face & he closed his fist.” …
The U.S. effort to surface the Soviet submarines involved considerable risk; exhausted by weeks undersea in difficult circumstances and worried that the U.S. Navy’s practice depth charges were dangerous explosives, senior officers on several of the submarines, notably B-59 and B-130, were rattled enough to talk about firing nuclear torpedoes, whose 15 kiloton explosive yields approximated the bomb that devastated Hiroshima in August 1945. Huchthausen includes a disquieting account of an incident aboard submarine B-130, when U.S. destroyers were pitching PDCs at it. In a move to impress the Communist Party political officer, Captain Nikolai Shumkov ordered the preparations of torpedoes, including the tube holding the nuclear torpedo; the special weapon security officer then warned Shumkov that the torpedo could not be armed without permission from headquarters. After hearing that the security officer had fainted, Shumkov told his subordinates that he had no intention to use the torpedo “because we would go up with it if we did.”
Possibly even more dangerous was an incident on submarine B-59 recalled by Vadim Orlov, who served as a communications intelligence officer. … [He] recounted the tense and stressful situation on 27 October when U.S. destroyers lobbed PDCs at B-59. According to Orlov, a “totally exhausted” Captain Valentin Savitsky, unable to establish communications with Moscow, “became furious” and ordered the nuclear torpedo to be assembled for battle readiness. Savitsky roared “We’re going to blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all.” Deputy brigade commander Second Captain Vasili Archipov calmed Savitsky down and they made the decision to surface the submarine. Orlov’s description of the order to assemble the nuclear torpedo is controversial and the other submarine commanders do not believe that that Savitsky would have made such a command.
Soviet submarine commanders were highly disciplined and unlikely to use nuclear weapons by design, but the unstable conditions on board raised the spectre of an accident. Orlov himself believes that the major danger was not from the unauthorized use of a nuclear weapon but from an accident caused by the interaction of men and machines under the most trying of circumstances. Captain Joseph Bouchard, the author of a major study on Naval operations during the missile crisis, supports this point when he suggests that the “biggest danger” was not from “deliberate acts” but from accidents, such as an accidental torpedo launch. If the Soviets had used nuclear torpedoes, by accident or otherwise, the U.S. would have made a “nuclear counter-response. U.S. aircraft carriers had nuclear depth charges on board, while non-nuclear components (all but the fissile material pit) for more depth charges were stored at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Fortunately, the U.S. and Soviet leadership, from heads of state to naval commanders wanted to avoid open conflict; cool heads, professionalism, and some amount of luck, kept the crisis under control. …
Of the four submarines that secretly left for Cuba on 1 October, the U.S. Navy detected and closely tracked three. … Some Soviet submarines may have escaped U.S. detection altogether.
While the four Soviet Foxtrot submarines did not have combat orders, the Soviet Navy sent two submarines, B-75 and B-88, to the Caribbean and the Pacific respectively, with specific combat orders. B-75, a “Zulu” class diesel submarine, commanded by Captain Nikolai Natnenkov, carried two nuclear torpedoes. It left Russian waters at the end of September with instructions to defend Soviet transport ships en route to Cuba with any weapons if the ships came under attack. Although the Soviets originally intended to send a nuclear-powered submarine for transport ship defense, only a diesel submarine was available. Once President Kennedy announced the quarantine, the Soviet navy recalled B-75 and it returned to the Soviet Union by 10 November, if not earlier.
Another submarine, B-88, left a base at Kamchatka peninsula, on 28 October, with orders to sail to Pearl Harbor and attack the base if the crisis over Cuba escalated into U.S.-Soviet war. Commanded by Captain Konstatine Kireev, B-88 arrived near Pearl Harbor on 10 November and patrolled the area until 14 November when it received orders to return to base, orders that were rescinded that same day, a sign that Moscow believed that the crisis was not over. B-88 did not return to Kamchatka under the very end of December. While the U.S. Navy detected and surfaced most of the submarines en route to Cuba, it remains to be seen whether it detected any traces of submarines B-75 or B-88.
A Note on the ExConn Tapes
As noted previously, JFK had ordered a recording system to be installed in the Cabinet room, which he could operate by pressing a button under the table. As a result, virtually all ExComm meetings were recorded; these recording were released to researchers and the public only in the last decade or so.
While many people think that Richard Nixon was the first president to tape White House conversations, the practice went back to FDR. The biggest difference between Nixon’s system and those of his predecessors was that the Nixon system was fully automatic, and earlier systems were turned on and off at the President’s discretion.
Guest post by Douglas Niles, author of Final Failure: Eyeball to Eyeball, an alternate history of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Doug and I co-authored three alternate history military thrillers: Fox on the Rhine, Fox at the Front, and MacArthur’s War. He is also known for his fantasy novels and is an award-winning game designer.