Eight Real-Life Heroes Who Literally Saved The World

Published December 22, 2018
Updated May 30, 2019

Real-Life Hero Vasili Arkhipov

Vasili Arkhipov Portrait

Wikimedia CommonsVasili Arkhipov, 1960.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Vasili Arkhipov made a decision that historians would later come to believe single-handedly prevented World War III.

Arkhipov was one of three commanders aboard Soviet submarine B-59 on Oct. 27, 1962, when it received an order from Soviet leadership to stop in the Caribbean — just short of the American blockade that surrounded Cuba. The sub would serve as backup for a secret arms drop off on the island.

To hide its location from the Americans, the sub stayed deep — but not deep enough.

The U.S. Navy detected the Soviet vessel and began dropping non-lethal depth charges in order to spook the commanders and force the sub to the surface for identification. What the Americans didn’t know was that the B-59 was heavily armed – aboard the sub was a nuclear missile as strong as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Soviet B 59

Wikimedia CommonsSoviet submarine B-59 in the Caribbean near Cuba. Oct. 28, 1962.

When the B-59 dove, it lost communication with the surface; it had no way to communicate with Moscow for orders. Shaken by the American depth charges (depth charges they assumed were attacks) and unable to contact anyone above, two of the sub’s commanders made the choice to fire the onboard missile.

To launch the torpedo, however, all three commanders on the sub needed to approve the decision. Enter Vasili Arkhipov.

The sub’s third commander had managed to remain level-headed throughout the depth charges’ reverberations. He suspected that they were not attacks but simply a ploy to lure the B-59 to the surface.

He was correct. After waiting as long as fuel and oxygen reserves would allow, the sub broke the surface to find itself amidst U.S. warships — but no all-out warfare. It beat a hasty retreat home, leaving the Americans none the wiser about the nuclear attack they had narrowly avoided thanks to the real-life hero Vasili Arkhipov.

Katie Serena
A former staff writer at All That's Interesting, Katie Serena has also published work in Salon.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Serena, Katie. "Eight Real-Life Heroes Who Literally Saved The World." AllThatsInteresting.com, December 22, 2018, https://allthatsinteresting.com/real-life-heroes. Accessed May 18, 2024.