By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 13, 2002 12:00 AM
HAVANA, Oct. 12 -- There was pandemonium on the Soviet B-59 submarine. A U.S. destroyer was lobbing depth charges into the water as a warning: Surface or you will be attacked. The explosions pounded the sub's hull like blasts from a sledgehammer. Oxygen was running out. Crewmen were fainting.
Tensions were extreme: It was Oct. 27, 1962, the height of the Cuban missile crisis.
Officers on the Soviet were screaming for the captain to sink the U.S. ship. What the Americans did not know nearly blew up the world: The Soviet sub, and three others in the waters off Cuba, each carried one torpedo tipped with a nuclear warhead.
Vadim Orlov, a crewman on the Soviet sub, recounted the little-known story here this weekend during a conference marking the 40th anniversary of the missile crisis.
Historians have long noted that the United States and the Soviet Union came within a whisper of nuclear war during the 13-day standoff, after the United States discovered that Moscow had secretly installed nuclear missiles in Cuba.
The account, from Orlov and J.W. Peterson, a crewman from the U.S. destroyer, made it clear that the Cold War enemies came far closer than anyone ever realized to stumbling into a nuclear holocaust.
Former defense secretary Robert S. McNamara said that a nuclear attack on a U.S. ship could easily have escalated into a full-scale nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Orlov, who described the episode in a book published earlier this year, said that came within one word of happening: The sub was authorized to fire its nuclear torpedo with the approval of three officers aboard; two wanted to shoot, the third said no.
"A guy named Arkhipov saved the world," said Thomas S. Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, a research group at George Washington University that organized this week's conference with the Cuban government, and arranged the declassification of thousands of new documents that the participants are reviewing.
It has been a weekend of casual talk about nuclear annihilation. The conference, in a sprawling hotel on the outskirts of Havana, brought together men from a generation that nearly destroyed a world still getting the feel of its nuclear muscles.
The participants have come here, they said, to learn more about an episode that changed their lives in ways that still make them shudder. They said they have come to make sure it does not happen again, and to offer lessons for today's crises, most notably President Bush's deliberations about whether to strike Iraq.
President Fidel Castro of Cuba sat on one side of the room in a stiff blue suit, his famous black beard gone thunderstorm gray, his signature cigars long since given up. He still spoke in rambling circles he could not seem to close in less than an hour. He was still a master entertainer, funny and excitable.
Gray-haired former Russian generals sat along one flank of the conference table. They had not lost the Soviet gift for cement-thick oratory, giving long speeches about throw-weights and tonnages. Across from them, surviving members of President John F. Kennedy's administration were lined up like a living page from a history book. McNamara sat in a blue and white polo shirt. Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. looked out through thick glasses, wearing his trademark bow tie, addressing his old adversaries with sharp logic and perfect diction.
Ethel Kennedy, widow of Robert F. Kennedy, sat behind McNamara with fine posture and fashion, a living reminder of other prices paid during a tumultuous era.
Kennedy speechwriter Theodore C. Sorensen was remarkably youthful and trim in a black polo shirt. Fellow Kennedy aide Richard Goodwin, his hair wild and curly, sat alongside him and told Castro a story about meeting Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the legendary revolutionary, at a party in Uruguay in August 1961.
Castro laughed as Goodwin spoke of sitting cross-legged on the floor talking to Guevara about hemispheric tensions. He said Guevara gave him a mahogany box filled with Cuban cigars, which Goodwin delivered to President Kennedy. He said Kennedy immediately grabbed one and lit it up. Then, in an echo of the CIA's attempts to kill Castro with poisoned cigars, Kennedy joked that he probably ought to have made Goodwin test a cigar first, just in case.
William Ecker, 78, a retired U.S. Navy captain, was a pilot who flew low-level sorties in an F-8 fighter jet to photograph Soviet missile installations in Cuba. His close-up pictures taken on Oct. 23, proved beyond doubt the existence of the missiles. On Sunday, the conference participants were scheduled to tour the remains of the site that Ecker photographed.
"It's not just a conference of remembrance, it's also a conference of reconciliation," Sorensen said. "And that is a pretty good message to a world on the verge of war."
Also sitting on the American side of the conference table was Dino Brugioni, a former CIA analyst who interpreted the first U-2 spy plane photos that showed missiles in Cuba. Brugioni, now 80, has insistently challenged the Russian participants on their version of events.
Russian participants said they never intended to fire the nuclear missiles that were positioned on Cuban soil, and that they were careful to keep the warheads and the missiles in separate locations. But Brugioni pointed to spy-plane photographs, declassified by the National Security Archive, that showed trucks loaded with warheads parked next to the missiles on their launch pads.
In an interview, Brugioni recalled the events of Saturday, Oct. 27, 1962, when events seemed to be spinning out of control.
On that day, new surveillance photos showed that the missile sites were now fully operational. He said the missiles could be fueled and launched on six to eight hours' notice. A U.S. U-2 spy plane had been shot down over Cuba. On the other side of the world, another U-2 strayed into Soviet airspace and Soviet MiG fighter jets scrambled to intercept it, adding to already white-hot tensions. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had not been seen in three days, adding to speculation that he had been overthrown by hard-liners.
Brugioni's said his boss at the CIA returned from briefing Kennedy on the new spy-plane photos. "How did it go?" Brugioni said he asked. "Not good at all," Brugioni said he replied. "The president is very concerned."
"I called my wife and I said, 'If you get another call from me, put the kids in the car and head for Missouri,' " said Brugioni, who brought his 22-year-old grandson to the conference. "October 27 is a day I'll never forget. The planet could have been destroyed."