Sunday, November 11, 2012

Amelia Earhart, Meet Vasili Arkhipov

One thing I think all of us who work on the Earhart mystery regret – not only us Nikumaroro hypothesizers, but, I think everyone regardless of “theoretical” persuasion – is that we've missed opportunities to interview people involved in the 1937 events before they passed on to the Big Mystery in the sky.  Another is our failure to copy pertinent documents before somebody tossed them or lost them or put them away where they can’t be found. We are forever shaking our heads and saying “if only…..”

Which brings me to the mystery of Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov. Arkhipov is described by some sources as first officer aboard the D-59, a Soviet submarine that was escorting cargo ships bound for Cuba in late October 1962; other sources say that he was actually in command of the four-sub squadron of which D-59 was a part. The ships the subs were escorting carried missiles for the launchers that Jack Kennedy had just revealed to the world. What Kennedy and his advisors didn’t know was that the D-59 carried a nuclear torpedo. On October 27 – just after Soviet gunners had shot down a U.S. U-2 spy plane over Cuba and another U-2 had wandered into Soviet airspace over Siberia – the U.S.S. Randolph’s destroyers, tasked to enforce the blockade of Cuba, began dropping depth charges to bring the U-59 to the surface for identification. Having been out of communication with his home base for several days, the U-59’s skipper, Valentin Savitsky, had no way of knowing that war had not broken out. He prepared to launch his nuclear torpedo at the Randolph.

Soviet rules of engagement required that to launch a nuclear weapon without direction from home, Captain Savitsky had to have the concurrence of the sub’s political officer and, in this case, Arkhipov. Arkhipov said “nyet.” With batteries running low, the D-59 surfaced, learned the score, and headed for home -- where its officers are said to have received less than a hero's welcome.

Had Arkhipov said “da,” presumably the Randolph would have been vaporized and World War III would have been off and running. It’s for this reason that a recent BBC documentary about Arkhipov calls him “the man who saved the world” (

So what’s the mystery? The mystery, I think – a much more important one than that of “what happened to Amelia Earhart” – is, what made Arkhipov say no? What equipped him to reject the logic that Savitsky and the D-59’s political officer not unreasonably employed? What allowed him to overcome the respect for the captain’s decision that must have been part of his training? From what wellspring of wisdom did his calm, reasoned judgment call spring? What went through his head leading up to his “nyet?” There must be important lessons to be learned from Arkhipov’s story; lessons that ought to be studied in the world’s war colleges, military academies, and intelligence services.

When Arkhipov made his call, I was a 20-year old Seaman aboard U.S.S. Terrell County, in the far western Pacific. We deployed and spent a lot of time at battle stations, but none of us enlisted types had much idea why, and the events of the Missile Crisis have remained rather fuzzy for me. I only recently learned about Arkhipov, and was frankly amazed. Has nobody studied this guy’s history and psychology? Has no one written a book? An opera? Not in English, it seems, and my Ukrainian TIGHAR colleague Leonid Sagolovsky has checked Russian sources and tells me he’s not been much celebrated there either.

Arkhipov saved the world 25 years after Earhart disappeared. We’ve lost most of the people associated with Earhart’s life and loss, but there must still be lots of people alive and lucid who were associated with Arkhipov, with his training, with the D-59, and with his career on other ships (He was badly irradiated while foiling a reactor breach as XO on the K-19 in 1961, but survived until 1998, rising to the rank of vice admiral). His wife and daughter are still alive, and perhaps there are grandchildren to whom he told stories.  There must be extensive relevant archives somewhere in the former Soviet Union. Somebody with top-notch credentials as an historian, with access to Russian sources, with good control of the Russian language, ought to be seeking a great big fat grant to research Arkhipov’s life and mind, and give us access to whatever it was that gave him the wisdom and courage to save us all, while memories and archives are still accessible.

We who try to follow Earhart across the wilderness of time know how important it is to ferret out documentation before it disappears, and to record recollections before they stop being recollected or become hopelessly distorted. I don’t know anyone with the credentials and contacts to learn more about Arkhipov, but I devoutly hope that someone is working on it. The rest of us, I suppose, ought to be lobbying our governments to make January 30 – Arkhipov’s birthday – an international day for grateful reflection.