News Column

The hunt for K-129

May 19, 2014

Cole, William

"What is the latest on our ship proj­ect in the Pacific?" President Gerald Ford asked at a National Security Council meeting on Aug. 10, 1974, a day after he took over from the resigning Richard Nixon.

The question belied the immense significance of what Ford was asking about.

The Central Intelligence Agency two days earlier had culminated six years of planning and engineering by audaciously retrieving a sunken Soviet ballistic missile submarine from a depth of 3 miles nearly 1,800 miles northwest of Hawaii -- while the unknowing but suspicious Soviets watched.

The hope was to secure cryptographic information and an R-21 missile and its nuclear warhead to provide "a much improved base line for estimates of the current and future Soviet strategic threat."

Only a portion of the submarine, with some of its dead crew, was hoisted up through the bottom of the huge recovery ship, the Hughes Glomar Explorer, after the claw arms that scooped up the crumpled vessel malfunctioned.

"Well, sir, as you know, the (recovery) tines were damaged when we picked up the sub," and some of it was dropped and lost, Director of Central Intelligence William Colby told Ford. "However, we have the rest of it inside the recovery ship, and the ship has now steamed away from the area."

A Soviet tug that shadowed the mission had left the area, apparently none the wiser. The Glomar Explorer was then headed to Maui.

"It is very hard to tell what they have, but they have detected some radio­activity," Colby told the president during the conversation, which was recently declassified.

Forty years ago this summer, the CIA mounted Proj­ect Azorian to raise the K-129 submarine from 16,500 feet -- a feat likened to the moon landing in terms of technological achievement.

The intrigue involved was equally impressive, and still astounds as fact worthy of Tom Clancy and Ian Fleming fiction, with attendant theories that rogue Rus­sians might have been trying to nuke Hawaii when the K-129 went down, or that the U.S. Navy submarine Swordfish sank the Soviet sub in a collision.

"Azorian ranks in the forefront of imaginative and bold operations undertaken in the long history of intelligence collection," the CIA said in a report declassified in 2010.

Eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes built the Glomar Explorer, and Pearl Harbor submarines were at the ready to give chase if something went really wrong with the mission.

Cracking open the door a bit more, recently declassified transcripts of high-level government discussions indicate that once the proj­ect was revealed in the press -- and as the United States planned a second recovery effort -- the Soviets were deeply embarrassed they hadn't figured out the mission in the first place, and in the spirit of detente wanted no official U.S. acknowledgement.

"It seems beyond doubt that the Soviets would go to great lengths to frustrate or disrupt a second mission," the CIA said in an April 30, 1975, memo.

The hunt for K-129, including a second recovery plan known as Matador, was soon over.

In retrospect, Proj­ect Azorian "was beyond comprehension when you consider, one, no one had ever lifted anything that large from that depth in history. Secondly, it was done with the Soviets sitting there watching with no idea what was happening," said naval expert and author Norman Polmar.

Polmar and Michael White wrote the 2010 book "Proj­ect Azorian: The CIA and the Raising of the K-129."

Polmar throws in a third incredible element of the mission: the cover story that the Glomar Explorer was collecting "manganese nodules" from the seafloor -- a fiction that spurred further investigation of such mining, he said.

In March 1968 the diesel-electric K-129, with 98 crew, two nuclear-tipped torpedoes and three intercontinental ballistic missiles, was on patrol and heading to the "Hawaii station" with Pearl Harbor, Hickam Air Force Base and Camp Smith as potential targets in the event of war, according to Polmar's book.

Each of the three missiles had 1-megaton warheads with 65 times the destructive power used on Japan, Polmar said.

The submarine never made it.

Why it went down was never definitively answered, but it may have been simply a case of flooding while operating in snorkel mode. The Soviets couldn't find it, but the U.S. military did -- detecting the sounds of its death as it descended, and pinpointing the location.

Polmar believes one of the R-21 missile rocket engines was mistakenly fired, causing a chain reaction that killed the crew.

The U.S. submarine Hali­but subsequently located the sunken sub.

John Craven, chief scientist of the Navy's Polaris-Poseidon submarine missile program and head of the Deep Submergence Systems Proj­ect, had recruited the Halibut for a mission to identify Soviet missile re-entry vehicles, satellite packages and weapons on the seafloor, according to Polmar.

With Craven secretly funding the work, the Hali­but received $70 million in modifications in the Pearl Harbor shipyard in 1965 for the job, he said.

Craven, who lives on Oahu but is in poor health, put forth the possibility that a "rogue" element on the K-129 was launching a ballistic missile at Hawaii when a malfunction doomed the sub.

Another theory put forth was that the K-129 sank in a collision with the U.S. submarine Swordfish.

In any case, in 1968 and 1969 the CIA and Defense Department discussed retrieving the K-129, and in 1970 the recovery was deemed the U.S. Intelligence Board's "highest priority."

Summa Corp., owned by Howard Hughes, was selected for the proj­ect, and Hughes Global Marine built the Glomar Explorer -- ostensibly for deep-ocean mining.

Hughes himself was the sole stockholder, "he is recognized as a pioneering entrepreneur with a wide variety of business interests, he has the necessary financial resources, he habitually operates in secrecy, and his personal eccentricities are such that news media reporting and speculation about his activities frequently range from the truth to utter fiction," states a May 28, 1974, memo to Henry Kissinger, then chairman of the 40 Committee, the National Security Council subcommittee responsible for covert operations.

Officials later said Hughes was eager to become a "front" for the CIA?as protection from government regulatory and investigative agencies.

Lockheed Missiles and Space Co. and Honeywell Inc. also were brought on board for the proj­ect, which some estimate cost as much as $800 million.

The 618-foot Glomar Explorer, with a capture claw nicknamed Clementine extending beneath a "moon pool" on the ship, arrived at the recovery site July 4, 1974.

Piping carried the recovery device down to the K-129, which was broken in two pieces, according to Polmar. The target section was 136 feet long.

"I remember seeing one of the photographs, a sailor, lying on the bottom, just a skeleton, no clothes, no foul weather gear, just a skeleton, with boots on," Polmar's book quotes an engineer who worked on the proj­ect as saying.

Two Soviet navy ships frequented the site, at one point asking the Glomar Explorer what it was up to.

"We are conducting ocean mining tests," came the answer.

The CIA noted a touch of irony in that as a Soviet tug broke off its last close-in surveillance, a portion of the submarine was being hoisted into the Glomar Explorer on Aug. 8, 1974.

"Our cover story had held; the Soviets had been fooled," a crew member noted.

But on the way up some of the grabber claws failed, sending two-thirds of the sub crashing back to the seafloor, according to Polmar.

A section 38 feet long, six crewmen (who were reburied at sea), two crushed nuclear torpedoes and some documents reportedly were recovered.

Evidence of plutonium was found, apparently from the detonation of high explosives on one or both torpedoes without creating a nuclear explosion, the CIA said.

"For cover reasons," the ship sent a message saying that a faulty manganese nodule "collector vehicle" would need to be looked at in Hawaii, the CIA said.

The Glomar Explorer headed to Lahaina Roads off Maui and anchored on Aug. 16, 1974.

The mission crew was relieved that evening by an "exploitation team" to recover, proc­ess and package the intelligence items, according to the CIA.

The Honolulu Advertiser featured a front-page article on the Glomar Explorer and Summa manganese mining venture.

Credit: William Cole

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Source: Honolulu Star-Advertiser (HI)

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