Secrets of the Dead: The Man Who Saved the World

Air date: 10/23/2012

THIRTEEN marks the 50th Anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis with “Secrets of the Dead: The Man Who Saved the World” airing Tuesday, October 23 at 9 pm on PBS

The little-known story of how close to nuclear destruction the world really was during those dark October days and how the heroism of one man saved us all

Fifty years ago, in October 1962, the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war. On October 22, 1962, after reviewing photographic evidence, President John F. Kennedy informed the world that the Soviet Union was building secret missile bases in Cuba, just 90 miles off the shores of Florida.  For the next 13 days, the world held its breath as the Soviet Union and the United States confronted each other about missiles stationed in Cuba.  While politicians sought a resolution to the standoff, no one was aware of the events taking place inside the Soviet submarine B-59 in the waters off the coast of Florida.

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Secrets of the Dead chronicles how the actions of one man, during arguably the most dangerous moment of the Cold War, averted nuclear war.

The Man Who Saved the World, premiering Tuesday, October 23 at 9 pm ET on PBS (check local listings), tells the unsung story of Soviet naval officer Vasili Arkhipov, the Brigade Chief of Staff on submarine B-59, who refused to fire a nuclear missile and saved the world from World War III and nuclear disaster.

For decades, Arkhipov’s story was hidden, only emerging in recent years.  The events depicted in The Man Who Saved the World unfolded over four hours on October 27, 1962, when fear over the Cuban Missile Crisis was at its highest.  It combines dramatizations – set in a claustrophobic submarine running out of air – with eyewitness accounts and expert testimony to reveal the terrifying events happening beneath the waves.

Four Soviet submarines were sent on a mission known only to a handful of Communist party officials.  Their destination was a mystery to be revealed once they were at sea. Under their orders, each submarine was to travel 7,000 miles from a top secret naval base in the Arctic Circle across the Atlantic to be permanently stationed in Mariel, Cuba where they would serve as the vanguard of a Soviet force a mere 90 miles from mainland America.

The commander of each submarine had permission to act without direct orders from Moscow if they believed they were under threat. Each of the four subs was carrying what the Soviets called a ‘special weapon’, a single nuclear torpedo, comparable in strength to the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The torpedo could only be fired if the submarine captain and political officer were in agreement.  Each had one half of a key which, when joined, unlocked the firing mechanism.

Ryurik Ketov, who is interviewed in The Man Who Saved the World, commanded one of the four subs.  “I had a written order that I could release it,” says Ketov.  “And if there was an order to fire the torpedo I would do it without a second thought.  For the first time in life a commander of a submarine had a nuclear weapon and had the authority to fire the missile at his command.”

However, aboard the B-59, three men—not two—needed to be in agreement. As commander of the entire submarine fleet, Arkhipov had the power to veto firing the missile and was one of the only men who knew about the mission in advance.  Fifty years later, The Man Who Saved the World recounts Arkhipov’s courageous story and how, with a single act, he stopped the destruction of life as we know it.

Secrets of the Dead: The Man Who Saved the World is a Bedlam Production for THIRTEEN in association with WNET and Channel 1 Russia. Executive producer for WNET is Steve Burns.  Coordinating producer is Stephanie Carter. For 50 years, THIRTEEN has been making the most of the rich resources and passionate people of New York and the world, reaching millions of people with on-air and online programming that celebrates arts and culture, offers insightful commentary on the news of the day, explores the worlds of science and nature, and invites students of all ages to have fun while learning.

These programs are among the full-length episodes available for viewing on Secrets of the Dead Online (  Along with the extensive online video catalog, the series web site provides resources for educators with lesson plans for middle school and high school teachers.

Secrets of the Dead has received 10 CINE Golden Eagle Awards and six Emmy nominations, among numerous other awards.


About WNET
In 2012, WNET is celebrating the 50th Anniversary of THIRTEEN, New York’s flagship public media provider. As the parent company of THIRTEEN and WLIW21 and operator of NJTV, WNET brings quality arts, education and public affairs programming to over 5 million viewers each week. WNET produces and presents such acclaimed PBS series as Nature, Great Performances, American Masters, Need to Know, Charlie Rose and a range of documentaries, children’s programs, and local news and cultural offerings available on air and online. Pioneers in educational programming, WNET has created such groundbreaking series as Get the Math, Oh Noah!  and Cyberchase and provides tools for educators that bring compelling content to life in the classroom and at home. WNET highlights the tri-state’s unique culture and diverse communities through NYC-ARTS, Reel 13, NJ Today and the new online newsmagazine MetroFocus.



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B-59 surfaced helicopter flying above - National Security Archive

Photograph of Soviet submarine B-59. Photo credit: U.S. Navy Photographers

Gary Slaugher, Andy Bradick 3

Photo of Gary Slaughter (l) and Andy Bradick (r), USS Cony officers involved in forcing B-59 to surface during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Photo credit: Kian McKellar


Ketov, Captain of B-4. Photo credit: Courtesy of Bedlam Productions


Mikhailov, Commander of Steering on board B-59. Photo credit: Courtesy of Bedlam Productions


Photograph of Task Group Alpha. Photo credit: U.S. Navy Photographers

Vasili Arkhipov and wife Olga Arkhipov - personal archive

Vasili Arkhipov and wife Olga Arkhipova. Collection of photos of Brigade Chief of Staff on B-59 Vasili Arkhipov, 'The Man Who Saved the World', from the personal archive of his widow Olga Arkhipova. Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov was a Soviet naval officer, who, during the Cuban Missile Crisis prevented the launch of a nuclear torpedo and therefore a possible nuclear war. Photo credit: M. Yarovskaya, A. Labunskaya


Re-enactment of radio operator aboard Soviet submarine B-59 listening to Miami radio about the United States blockade of Cuba. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Bedlam Productions


Re-enactment, after averting nuclear disaster, the hero watches as crew members disembark from the Soviet submarine B-59. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Bedlam Productions


Re-enactment of Soviet B-59 captain informing the crew of their mission. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Bedlam Productions


Dramatized scene of B-59 commanding officer informing his crew about the mission. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Bedlam Productions


Re-enactment of the tense moment aboard Soviet submarine B-59 when the hero refuses to give the captain permission to fire the nuclear missile. Credit: Courtesy of Bedlam Productions


Dramatized scene of Soviet submarine B-59 crew meeting in the map room. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Bedlam Productions