How Secret Subs Nearly Caused a Nuclear War During the Cuban Missile Crisis

U.S. soldiers gear up an anti-aircraft missile for launch during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Bettmann/Getty Images
U.S. soldiers gear up an anti-aircraft missile for launch during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Bettmann/Getty Images

Sure, you might be familiar with the few well-known situations when the world stared down the nose of a warhead designed to obliterate entire nations, like the Cuban missile crisis. But most of us would likely sleep better at night assured that there haven't been too many times when the world was on the brink of complete nuclear meltdown.

Sorry, but you might be in for a long night: Tracy and Holly are dishing out some nuclear near-nightmares in a recent episode of Stuff You Missed in History Class. In it, they discuss just three of the several times that we've been one gentle button-push away from utter annihilation.


Let's dive into one such incident. And dive we must, because this close call comes from a surreptitious Soviet submarine.

It's October 1962, and the aforementioned Cuban missile crisis is in full swing. U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Union Premier Nikita Khrushchev are in a standoff over Soviet nuclear missiles being installed in Cuba. The world is holding its breath, hoping that the Soviets aren't going to fire the missiles at the United States, and the Soviets are crossing their fingers for the U.S. not to launch its Turkey-based arsenal at the USSR.

But what's less-known is that the Soviets had also sent to Cuba a fleet of four submarines with nuclear-tipped torpedoes that were nosing around the waters. The commanders of the crafts were directed to use the nuclear weapons if the Americans attacked. And this is where things start heating up — literally.

The subs were diesel and battery powered, and they needed to surface occasionally to recharge. But they were also taxed by the much warmer weather and water in Cuba, and the crew faced failing air conditioning, unbearable temperatures and food and water shortages. Even worse, the crew had lost contact with Moscow, and thus was getting information only from a civilian radio broadcast out of Florida.

The broadcast, naturally, detailed the horrible and tense standoff in Cuba. So, the Soviet commanders could be forgiven for being a little bit spooked when American forces spotted the subs and began firing signaling charges — not knowing, of course, they were sending blasts toward nuclear weapon-armed crafts.

Unsure if the blasts were an attack or causing harm, one of the ship's captains ordered the torpedo to be armed and ready as a response to the perceived attack — and perhaps the stress of the situation. (Actually, it's still unknown whether the U.S. was truly trying to signal the crafts to surface or just harassing them.) Luckily, another commander talked the captain down, and the Soviets surfaced before escaping to Soviet waters.

Want to hear more about this close call and other nuclear near-misses (or hits, as the case may be)? Click the podcast player in this article, or listen to the episode of Stuff You Missed in History Class here.