Tales from the Cold War

Dmitry Zubkov, who commanded a Soviet submarine during the Cold War, speaks Thursday during a memorial service in Groton for the crew of the Russian submarine Kursk, which exploded and sank in the Barents Sea on Aug. 12, 2000. All 118 men aboard perished.
Dmitry Zubkov, who commanded a Soviet submarine during the Cold War, speaks Thursday during a memorial service in Groton for the crew of the Russian submarine Kursk, which exploded and sank in the Barents Sea on Aug. 12, 2000. All 118 men aboard perished. Tim Cook/The Day Buy Photo

Groton - Thirty years ago, Thomas Fargo and Dmitry Zubkov traveled in some of the same waters on ballistic-missile submarines tasked with similar Cold War missions.

"I wouldn't talk specifics," a smiling Fargo said Friday, "but if you look at the Soviet Union and the United States and draw range arcs, you can figure out where you have to be, to be in range."

Fargo was referring to the range of the nuclear missiles that the submarine he was assigned to, the USS George Washington Carver (SSBN 656), carried on board. Early versions had a range of about 1,500 nautical miles, with later replacement missiles extending the range by up to 1,000 additional nautical miles.

Zubkov also had a set of nuclear missiles aboard the submarine he commanded, the Soviet Navy's K-475, Delta-I type.

These two submarine officers were on opposite sides during the Cold War, but they met at a reunion of the Carver's crew this week in Groton to share sea stories from that era.

A retired captain, Zubkov said he was positive he had never met Fargo before - even under the ocean's surface.

"Never," he said. "I am sure we were undetected and I wasn't tracked. I know it for sure."

The Carver served as a deterrent force, as did Zubkov's submarine. Political leaders on both sides knew that if they were the first to strike, one of their adversary's ballistic-missile submarines was close enough to hit back.

"We have no doubt to push button and all missiles in several seconds could be near to the United States territory," Zubkov said in broken English.

"You had these weapons available - in a heartbeat," said Fargo, snapping his fingers.

But neither submarine was ever given that order - something both men are thankful for today.

"It's the last thing anyone in the world wanted to happen," Fargo said. "But the essence of deterrence is knowing that the capability is real and present and ready."

Fargo made five patrols on the Carver from 1979 to 1982 as the engineer. He went on to command the USS Salt Lake City (SSN 716) and later the U.S. Pacific Fleet and the U.S. Pacific Command before retiring as an admiral in 2005.

Zubkov commanded the K-475 from 1972 to 1980 and retired from the Navy in 1992 with 17 submarine patrols to his credit. He said his eight years in command during the Cold War were the best years of his life, since it was a time to "realize yourself as a man."

A common opinion here, he said, is that the United States won the Cold War.

"We commanding officers in Russia say we didn't lose it," Zubkov said. "It would be shameful to me to think we lost the Cold War. The Cold War at any moment could finish in a hot war. That would be a disaster for all mankind."

Zubkov is right in most respects, Fargo said, since one of the principal goals was to ensure that the conflict did not escalate into a nuclear confrontation.

"And it didn't," he said. "I'm sure his comments reflect the pride and professionalism they view in their operations. But I do believe the strength of our military during that period of time, as represented foremost by the Submarine Force, and the ability to operate in the Atlantic and the Pacific, was one of the key factors in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the essential demise of the Soviet Union."

Both men said they had the utmost respect for the submariners on the other side.

"They are professionals, as we are," Zubkov said.

"We knew if we didn't perform at our best, they might have the upper hand," Fargo said, adding that both groups believed "very properly that they were performing a mission that was absolutely essential to the security of their nation."

Fargo said he would love to talk about his past experiences with Soviet submarines.

"But I'm not going to," he said with a laugh.

He did say that after the hostilities ended, he went with his boss to meet with the commander of Russia's Northern Fleet. The commander's assistant, a submariner, asked Fargo which submarine he had led.

"Salt Lake City," Fargo said then.

The Russian submariner replied, "I knew we had met before."

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