Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005 and before that a regular correspondent for the paper. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in major newspapers. He is the author of Fruits of Fatima — Century of Signs and Wonders. He holds a graduate degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
On Sept. 1, 1983, flying from Anchorage to Seoul, a Korean Air Lines Boeing 747 with 269 people on board strayed off its planned route and flew over an island that violated Soviet air space. Quickly, a Russian fighter plane shot down.
The outrageous action prompted five Western European countries including Great Britain and Germany to okay accepting United States medium-range missiles beginning in November of that year.
With their military advantage rapidly shrinking, the Soviets were readying for war.
Then 205 days later, On March 25, 1984, St. John Paul II consecrated the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. He invited all the bishops in the world to join him for this ceremony closing the Holy Year of Redemption. He did the consecration at St. Peter’s in Rome as he knelt before the statue of Our Lady of Fatima brought there from Fatima.
Less than two months later in 1984, on May 13, the 67th anniversary of the first apparition of Fatima, catastrophe hit the Russia fleet at the Severomorsk naval base located near Finland on the Barents Sea.
A fire, believed caused by a cigarette, turned catastrophic. Like a spark in a huge fireworks factory, it triggered the explosion of a huge stockpile of missiles.
Of 900 anti-aircraft missiles, 580 were destroyed. Of 400 surface-to-surface missiles able to carry nuclear warheads, 320 were obliterated. Upwards of 300 military personnel died.
It devastated the Soviet Union’s Northern Fleet.
Years later, Sr. Lucia wrote: “Everyone knows perfectly well that we went through one of the most critical moments in human history, when the great, mutually hostile powers planned a nuclear war that would have destroyed the world, if not the whole world, then the greater part of it. And what would have remained? What chances of survival? And who could have dissuaded those arrogant people, surrounded by their war plans…? Who, if not God.”
Grzegorz Gorny and Janusz Rosikon record this in Fatima Mysteries.
The following year, 1985, during an apparition in her convent, Sr. Lucia would reveal that Our Lady told her if that consecration had not been made by John Paul II, there would have been a nuclear war. Because of the consecration this didn’t happen. There was an undeniable link between it and the major destruction of weapons of the Soviet’s Northern Fleet.
Sr. Lucia would later tell this to Cardinals Antony Padiyara of India and Ricardo Vidal of the Philippines when they visited her in her convent.
A Preview in 1983?
A year earlier, there was also a major near-miss of nuclear war between Russia and the United States. Surely Our Lady of Fatima must have had a hand in preventing this horrendous possibility in 1983 because the year before, on May 13, 1982, in Fatima, John Paul II also made that Act of Entrustment of the world but it didn’t completely fulfill the requests of Our Lady because it wasn’t done in union with all the bishops in the world. He intended to do it that way, but the letters informing the bishops were sent too late. They result? They were unable to join him that time.
This event appeared to reflect what happened in 1942 during World War II. On Oct. 31 that year, Venerable Pius XII consecrated the world and Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary as Our Lady of Fatima had requested. But the consecration wasn’t done in union with all the bishops of the world either. It was a critical time in the war as the enemy was making major advances. Yet Sr. Lucia would say Our Lord showed his “delight” even though the consecration was incomplete and promised an end soon to the war. Shortly after, the tide turned as the Allies began to win key battles.
Similarly, John Paul II’s 1982 entrustment, even without all the bishops of the world, must have had the same effect when we consider what could have happened during that 1983 event to follow.
The Russian Connection Event
Back to the 1983 event after the entrustment a year earlier. As God used Cyrus to help the Israelites as Isaiah recounted, could it not be possible Our Lady also averted a nuclear war using a single officer in the Soviet Air Defense Forces?
His name — Stanislav Petrov.
In the early morning hours on Sept. 26, 1983, Petrov was at his post in a secret command center outside Moscow. As the duty officer, the 44-year-old Lieutenant Colonel had the job of watching the computer that monitored the Soviets early warning system linked to satellites over the United States on the lookout for missile launches.
It was 25 days after the Soviets shot down the Korean passenger plane. Earlier, President Ronald Reagan had condemned the Soviets as an “evil empire.” Short range missiles were being placed in Europe. The Cold War was at the boiling point.
Everyone was on edge-of-the-seat alert. Petrov was at his post. Unexpectedly, less than an hour after midnight, the alarms sounded.
“The siren howled, but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word ‘launch’ on it,” he would tell an interviewer years later. The system insisted the alert was reliable and the United States had launched an ICBM missile.
“A minute later the siren went off again,” Petrov said. “The second missile was launched. Then the third, and the fourth, and the fifth. Computers changed their alerts from ‘launch’ to ‘missile strike.’”
The system was calling for the Soviet protocol — retaliate.
“There was no rule about how long we were allowed to think before we reported a strike,” Petrov eventually told the BBC. “But we knew that every second of procrastination took away valuable time; that the Soviet Union's military and political leadership needed to be informed without delay. All I had to do was to reach for the phone; to raise the direct line to our top commanders — but I couldn't move. I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan.”
All the data was telling him there was a nuclear missile attack on the way. In less than 30 minutes the missiles would reach their target and explode. His duty was to report any attack warnings to his superiors for Soviet leaders to decide about retaliating with their own missiles.
Petrov's role was the critical middleman.
But something — could it have been someone? — held him back from reaching for that phone immediately.
Instead, he delayed his response. Shortly, it didn’t seem sound to him that the United States with their hundreds of missiles should launch only five ICBM’s to start a nuclear war.
“I had a funny feeling in my gut,” he would say. As his delaying stretched out, Soviet ground radar systems reported they were not picking up anything. Despite their report, the protocol response from him was to be based on the computer information.
Then another thought came to Petrov. He knew this early warning computer system was new and he had some misgivings about it. Once the missiles were detected, the information had to go through up to 29 security levels and Petrov wasn’t certain that was possible so quickly.
Still not fully sure whether the computer alarm information was correct or wrong, he had to make an agonizing decision. As duty officer, he reached for the phone to the Soviet army's headquarters. He reported the early warning system — Malfunctioned. A false alarm.
“Twenty-three minutes later I realized that nothing had happened,” he said during a 2013 interview. “If there had been a real strike, then I would already know about it. It was such a relief.”
Looking back at that harrowing time, he felt his civilian education had helped him make the decision. All the other officers who could have been on duty at that critical moment were professional soldiers trained by the military and would have immediately followed instructions and protocol to the letter to report incoming missiles. Why was he the only one who would have hesitated on duty at this critical moment? Was it heaven’s choice?
Although Petrov’s decision helped prevent a nuclear war, and although his superior officers first praised him for his action, they reprimanded him for not recording everything to the letter in his log book at the time.
A year later he retired from the military, worked as an engineer at a defense-related institute, then retired on a pittance of a pension to life in a small town outside Moscow to care for his sickly wife. Fifteen years after he made the decision that stopped the potential nuclear war, what he did finally became known publicly when the retied commander of the Russian defense system revealed the story. Recognition came from outside Russia. In 2006 he was brought to New York for an award from the Association of World Citizens and in 2013 given the Dresden peace prize.
But on May 19, 2017 when he died at age 77 from pneumonia in his small town, nobody knew until four months later when a foreign journalist started inquiring about him.
There is one piece of the story that has rarely been mentioned. And it surely seems to reflect indirectly on what Sr. Lucia said she was told in 1985.
We know the Soviets were atheists. Of course that included the military. But we have to wonder if that applied to Stanislav Petrov when we look at what he said in 2004 during an interview with Christian Science Monitor. He affirmed, “I wish I could say there is no chance of [an accidental nuclear launch today]. But when we deal with space — when we [play] God — who knows what will be the next surprise?”
Our Lady of Fatima had the answer and directions. It’s up to mankind to stop playing God and follow them.