Tales from the Nuclear Age:

Copyright © 2010 by Charles Glassmire


Jun. 4, 2010


Colonel Petrov had to make a decision. The USSR’s Oka [Eye] satellite system was alerting his command bunker that a nuclear missile attack on the Soviet Union was in progress. It was 12:15 a.m. on the night of Sept. 23rd 1983, and his bunker warning system was showing a single nuclear tipped missile launch from an American silo! It was mapping inbound on a trajectory to impact Soviet territory. He knew his decision could incite a massive nuclear counter attack ordered by his superiors. The Soviet policy was clearly expressed as a protocol called “Launch on Warning”.

He held the alert telephone in his hand, but he hesitated. He had only a few minutes to decide. It was only one missile launch, hardly a massive attack. Could it be an error by the satellite system? The optical telescope mounted on satellite No. 5 did not show an inbound missile. The system was only a few years old and sometimes gave false information, especially at dusk over the U.S. The Soviet General’s told him and his staff to “ignore” the system errors for now. Was this one of those times? If he failed to report an inbound missile it would be a violation of all his standing orders. The fate of millions rested on his decision. The duty officer’s voice from the phone loudly demanded to know what was happening.

His hand trembled as he slowly raised the telephone to his lips.

“I am reporting to you a false alarm indication. No missile launch.”

“Received – false alarm no missile launch,” repeated the Duty Officer.

Petrov heaved a great sigh of relief, even though it was still not clear what was happening. He did not choose to report his uncertainty, and curiously the Duty Officer did not ask for any more information. It was almost as if the system was trying hard not to recognize the inherent problems. But unknown to Petrov, there was more to come.

He took the floor microphone and announced to the upset floor crews that he had determined this was not a valid sighting. He ordered them to begin checking the system quickly. They in turn relaxed and returned to their consoles. All bent busily over their data displays and turned to the task of determining why the “false” alert, and what data could be giving the erroneous indications.

Petrov had written much of the code behind the alert system and he began to examine some routines he suspected of causing a problem. He filled his screen with computer language as two more minutes passed by.

Then, once again, the alert board signaled a (second) missile launch in big red letters! A second launch! He muttered aloud in disbelief! How could this be? Then, in quick succession, signals arrived for a third, a fourth and a fifth missile launch from America!

Another siren wailed. Now the red letters on the alert board incremented the alert status to a very high level and said


Again he spoke to the dark room – the optical telescope still could see no inbound missiles. Soviet radar could not look over the horizon to see any incoming targets, but is was about time to see the first “launch” if it was real and coming into line-of-sight radar view. There was no radar sighting.

Pandemonium on the Command Center floor. The system was now forwarding automatic warning alerts to higher levels of Soviet missile command. Crew members were shouting to each other. He ordered them to silence. Once again, with a sheer act of will he told the Duty Officer this was a false alert. No incoming missiles! With a shaking hand he replaced the receiver into its cradle. His message was now sent up the chain to all levels of the military command structure.

It was a gut level decision which saved the lives of millions of unknowing citizens of both countries who were calmly going about their daily lives. Little did they know the world had just averted a massive nuclear war! A later investigation was to show the alarm was not a computer error. It was instead caused by an unusual alignment of sunlight below the horizon over the U.S., reflecting from a high layer of cloud ice crystals, when aligned with the Molniya satellite Infra-red sensors at a certain position in its orbit. The condition was remedied by reference to a geostationary satellite so as never again to recur.

All details of this incident were classified Top Secret in the files of the Soviet Union. It was not until Colonel General Yury Votintsev, then the commander of the Soviet Air Defense Missile Defense Units published his memoirs in the 1990’s, (after demise of the USSR,) that the incident became known to the West. He was the first to receive Petrov’s report of the incident, and Petrov was grilled intensely about his role, actions and decisions. The General concluded that Petrov’s “correct actions were duly noted”. Petrov says he was even promised a monetary reward. Then he was later reprimanded for improper filing of his paperwork. He received no reward. His superiors were embarrassed by the incident and the bugs the incident had uncovered in the system. If he had been rewarded the scientist designers and high level Generals responsible would have been punished. He was subsequently removed to a less sensitive position in the Soviet Defense System.

Colonel Petrov subsequently yielded to the strain and suffered a nervous breakdown. He then took early retirement from the Army and took his pension to live quietly with his wife in the small town of Fryazino, Russia.

In 2004 the Association of World Citizens (in San Francisco) awarded Petrov its World Citizen Award, a trophy and $1,000US, “in recognition of the part he played in averting a catastrophe….”

In January of 2006, Petrov visited the United States and was honored at a meeting of the United Nations in New York City. There he was presented with a second special World Citizen Award. The following day Walter Cronkite interviewed him in his office at CBS. The interview and details of Petrov’s remarkable achievement are recorded in a documentary film entitled “The Red Button…”.

Petrov has said he doesn’t consider himself a hero of any kind. In the film he says

“All that happened didn’t matter to me—it was my job. I was simply doing my job, and I was the right person at the right time, that’s all. My late wife for 10 years knew nothing about it. ‘So what did you do?’ she asked me. I did nothing.”

So Colonel Petrov fades quietly into his retirement years living in a small town deep inside Russia. He could be known as an aging Army pensioner living out his late years in solitude, or perhaps he could be known as “The Man Who Saved the World”.

And so it happened in just another strange Tale from the Nuclear Age…

(to be continued…)


4 Responses to “Aftermath”

  1. Charlotte Says:

    Absolutely fascinating! I had heard of this event before, but your writing style made it impossible to stop reading! Can’t wait to read more of your blog! 🙂

    • Charles Glassmire Says:

      Thank you Charlotte for the kind words about the blog. I wish you well in your trials of life and hope you will keep reading.


      • Charlotte Says:

        I’ve read the rest of your blog now; I found it so interesting! 🙂 Will you start writing again do you think?

      • Charles Glassmire Says:


        Thank you for the kind words. Happy you enjoy the blog. I am pretty jammed up at the moment (teaching several places) but I hope to finish another one soon.

        Tell your friends!

        Charles G

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