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Arkhipov: New Opera Fetes Soviet Cold War Sub Hero

I was 10 in October of 1962 when what would become known as the Cuban Missile Crisis played out: American intelligence detected nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba, a mere 90 miles from Florida. My family lived in Killeen, Texas, the sleepy little town that abutted Ft. Hood, the largest U.S. Army installation in the world. My father, an Army officer, was stationed there. We had arrived from his posting in Munich, Germany, only the month before. Dad and most of the post’s uniformed personnel disappeared for two weeks. From the windows of my fifth-grade classroom at Avenue D Elementary School, I watched train after train roll past carrying heavy armaments to places unknown. Only now, almost 59 years later, am I learning a little-known chapter from the overall story of those 13 days that took us to the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. On October 27th, Vasili Arkhipov was an officer serving on the Soviet submarine B-59 submerged off the coast of Florida. B-59’s arsenal included a nuclear-tipped torpedo. An American ship involved in President Kennedy’s blockade of Cuba detected the presence of the sub and began dropping depth charges. Apparently there are two intentions for deploying depth charges: 1) to destroy a sub and 2) to signal a sub to surface. Who knew, right? Well, Arkhipov knew — even if two other B-59 officers did not. Firing the nuclear torpedo required a consensus among the three. Arkhipov wouldn’t sign off on the move because he sensed that the depth charges were intended to force the sub to surface. In effect, Arkhipov averted all out nuclear war by following his instincts. In a surreal turn of events, this obscure Soviet sub officer is now the subject of a new opera named after him. Arkhipov, from Peter Knell and Stephanie Fleischmann, has its world premiere October 21 and 22 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, California.

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