The day after Memorial Day, a day in which this nation honors recently departed Medal of Honor recipients amongst the millions more Americans who fell in battle or have passed on since serving, I thought to take a more worldly perspective.
My Memorial Day post related to the fact that the holiday coincided with the 72nd anniversary of the deaths of more than 2,000 sailors aboard the battleship Bismarck. But rather than simply convey another story how “war is hell,” perhaps it is appropriate to remember and honor those that that selflessly lived the Talmud inscription at Yad Vashem: “whoever saves one life, it is as if he saved an entire universe.”
From Saving Thousands…
There are 24,356 Gentiles recognized as Righteous Among Nations, an honor bestowed by the state of Israel in gratitude to non-Jews that risked life and limb to rescue would-be victims of the Holocaust. Best known is probably Oskar Schindler, immortalized by Liam Neeson’s performance in 1993’s Schindler’s List. But his was not the most remarkable story.
Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat stationed in Kaunas, Lithuania wrote thousands of transit visas to Jewish refugees during the summer and fall of 1940. Upon the closure of the Japanese consulate that September, Chiune and and wife Yukiko tossed blank visas out the window and turned over the consular stamp to a refugee as the Sugiharas’ train departed the Kaunas rail station. The man himself described his actions, credited with saving at minimum 6,000 lives, this way:
You want to know about my motivation, don’t you? Well. It is the kind of sentiments anyone would have when he actually sees refugees face to face, begging with tears in their eyes. He just cannot help but sympathize with them. Among the refugees were the elderly and women. They were so desperate that they went so far as to kiss my shoes, Yes, I actually witnessed such scenes with my own eyes. Also, I felt at that time, that the Japanese government did not have any uniform opinion in Tokyo. Some Japanese military leaders were just scared because of the pressure from the Nazis; while other officials in the Home Ministry were simply ambivalent.
People in Tokyo were not united. I felt it silly to deal with them. So, I made up my mind not to wait for their reply. I knew that somebody would surely complain about me in the future. But, I myself thought this would be the right thing to do. There is nothing wrong in saving many people’s lives….The spirit of humanity, philanthropy…neighborly friendship…with this spirit, I ventured to do what I did, confronting this most difficult situation—and because of this reason, I went ahead with redoubled courage.
Nor were the Sugiharas the only husband and wife to save so many. Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz and his wife Trudi issued 8,000 protection letters, permitting tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews to emigrate to Palestine in addition to setting up 76 safe houses (declared Swiss territory where thousands more were protected) in Budapest. Lutz later assisted Raoul Wallenberg, the famed Swedish diplomat whose actions are credited for saving the lives of the 100,000 Jews still living in Budapest after the war’s conclusion. Wallenberg was arrested in 1945 by Soviet occupation authorities, never to be seen again. Nothing good came from the Soviet Union, right? Well, except the 186 Russians honored as Righteous Among Nations…
…To Saving Billions…
All those living today owe their lives to the actions of two individual Soviet military officers.
Captain Vasili Arkhipov of the Soviet Navy was heavily involved with two well-known world events. On July 4, 1961, Arkhipov was serving as deputy commander (similar to the XO in U.S. Navy parlance) of the submarine K-19 when a major reactor casualty risked full meltdown. The incident was Hollywoodized (with significant dramatic and historical license) in 2002’s K-19: The Widowmaker. The K-19’s XO was played by none other than Liam Neeson.
Less known is his role as deputy commander aboard the submarine B-59 in October 1962. Captain Arkhipov also served a flotilla commander, thus he carried equal or greater sway than B-59’s CO, Captain Valentin Savistsky. Under depth charge assault from a U.S. Navy destroyer squadron centered around the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Randolph, Savistsky believed the Cuban Missile Crisis had turned to World War III and attempted to launch a nuclear torpedo at Randolph, an action certain to start the nuclear salvos. Thankfully, Arkhipov balked at this, insisting the submarine surface instead.
Arkhipov’s widow Olga (Vasili died of radiation poisoning in 1998) declared “he knew it was madness to fire the nuclear torpedo.” Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive in 2002, was more blunt–“The lesson from this is that a guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world.”
…To Again Saving The Entire World
The B-59 incident wasn’t the last time a Soviet military officer prevented nuclear hellfire. Vasili Arkhipov’s life and the lives of everyone he spared were put into the hands of another Soviet officer 21 years later:
It was just past midnight as Stanislav Petrov settled into the commander’s chair inside the secret bunker at Serpukhov-15, the installation where the Soviet Union monitored its early-warning satellites over the United States.
Then the alarms went off. On the panel in front him was a red pulsating button. One word flashed: “Start.”
It was Sept. 26, 1983, and Petrov was playing a principal role in one of the most harrowing incidents of the nuclear age, a false alarm signaling a U.S. missile attack.
As Petrov described it in an interview, one of the Soviet satellites sent a signal to the bunker that a nuclear missile attack was underway. The warning system’s computer, weighing the signal against static, concluded that a missile had been launched from a base in the United States.
The responsibility fell to Petrov, then a 44-year-old lieutenant colonel, to make a decision: Was it for real?
Petrov was situated at a critical point in the chain of command, overseeing a staff that monitored incoming signals from the satellites. He reported to superiors at warning-system headquarters; they, in turn, reported to the general staff, which would consult with Soviet leader Yuri Andropov on the possibility of launching a retaliatory attack.
Petrov’s role was to evaluate the incoming data. At first, the satellite reported that one missile had been launched – then another, and another. Soon, the system was “roaring,” he recalled – five Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles had been launched, it reported.
Despite the electronic evidence, Petrov decided – and advised the others – that the satellite alert was a false alarm, a call that may have averted a nuclear holocaust.
On the night of the crisis, Petrov had little time to think. When the alarms went off, he recalled, “for 15 seconds, we were in a state of shock. We needed to understand, what’s next?”
Usually, Petrov said, one report of a lone rocket launch did not immediately go up the chain to the general staff and the electronic command system there, known as Krokus. But in this case, the reports of a missile salvo were coming so quickly that an alert had already gone to general staff headquarters automatically, even before he could judge if they were genuine. A determination by the general staff was critical because, at the time, the nuclear “suitcase” that gives a Soviet leader a remote-control role in such decisions was still under development.
In the end, less than five minutes after the alert began, Petrov decided the launch reports must be false. He recalled making the tense decision under enormous stress – electronic maps and consoles were flashing as he held a phone in one hand and juggled an intercom in the other, trying to take in all the information at once. Another officer at the early-warning facility was shouting into the phone to him to remain calm and do his job.
“I had a funny feeling in my gut,” Petrov said. “I didn’t want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it.”
Petrov’s decision was based partly on a guess, he recalled. He had been told many times that a nuclear attack would be massive – an onslaught designed to overwhelm Soviet defenses at a single stroke. But the monitors showed only five missiles. “When people start a war, they don’t start it with only five missiles,” he remembered thinking at the time. “You can do little damage with just five missiles.”
Another factor, he said, was that Soviet ground-based radar installations – which search for missiles rising above the horizon – showed no evidence of an attack. The ground radar units were controlled from a different command center, and because they cannot see beyond the horizon, they would not spot incoming missiles until some minutes after the satellites had.
Naturally, there weren’t five ICBMs in flight on September 26, 1983. There was an unforeseen issue with the detection equipment:
Later it was discovered that the false alarms had been created by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds and the satellites’ Molniya orbits.
Stanislav Petrov was forcibly retired after the missile incident, living on a meager pension for decades. Today, he has and continues to receive worldwide recognition for saving the lives of all who live today, most recently the International Peace Prize last February. The unassuming Petrov for years was dismissive of the importance of his decision. In response to Russian reporter Oksana Tsenner’s inquiring if Petrov ever discussed the missile event with friends and family:
Of course not. It is an event that happened long ago, as I say, I’ve completely forgotten about it; they have just reminded me, and I was not even thinking about it.
But his rationale today for making the decision he made on September 26, 1983 is chilling when he answers another question from Tsenner:
[Tsenner]: What would have happened if you acted differently on the night of September 26?
[Petrov]: Well, with all these missiles being thrown in all directions, the country that attacks first will die 27 minutes later.
To Those That Save The World
Humanity has a need for heroes. In the United States, we rightly hold Medal of Honor recipients in the highest esteem. We hold them up as marvelous role models of self-sacrifice. But we must transcend this.
Vasili Arkhipov and Stanislav Petrov probably would prefer not being put on a pedestal, but the humbleness of these two Soviet military officers only makes elevating their actions twice-over saving humanity from extinction all the more important. The events on the submarine B-59 and in the Serpukhov-15 bunker were hidden by embarrassed Soviet officials for decades. Now we must acknowledge these two men are the elite two–the two that literally saved the entire world. Shame on us if we ever put anyone else into the situations these men faced in 1962 and 1983.