In the early morning hours of March 11 and 12, 1968, hydrophones detected two underwater explosions at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. They were able to determine the origin and cause: about two thousand kilometers southeast of the tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula, a submarine had just suffered a terrible disaster
It was a Soviet ship called K-129. It had left its base in Petropavlosk to undertake a routine patrol. It wasn’t a particularly modern submarine model, but it was loaded with three one-megaton nuclear missiles, each capable of destroying a city.
The Soviet Admiralty immediately dispatched rescue ships to the area where they suspected the sinking, a move that alerted Western intelligence agencies. But the salvage operation was unsuccessful: the ocean in the area was almost 5,000 meters deep. After two months of unsuccessful attempts, the search was called off. The K-129, along with its crew of 83, was considered lost because the circumstances of its destruction were inconclusive.
The incident intrigued the US Navy enough to investigate what happened. Six months later, the USS Halibut was dispatched to the area to locate and photograph the debris that should have been found at the position marked by the hydrophones.
The Halibut – formerly a nuclear-powered missile submarine – had been adapted to conduct “special operations” – a cautious way of saying “espionage”. The missile launch pad had been removed and augmented with equipment no other submarine had: precision satellite targeting systems, state-of-the-art sonar, a Univac computer, and a couple of cable-controlled scout pods. The pods were nicknamed “the fish” – each weighed two tons and cost five million dollars.
Image of the American submarine “Halibut”, circa 1965US Navy
For two months, the Halibut explored the area where the explosion was spotted, towing a “fish” in search of the remains of K-129. It wasn’t an easy operation. The robot only had to fly a few meters above the sea floor, which required a tow rope several kilometers long.
The submarine was forced to maintain an extremely precise course and speed lest its payload sink. In complete darkness, the “fish” only had the pulses sent by its sonar to the Halibut’s controllers to avoid obstacles. It also carried some cameras and searchlights for better visibility, but the beam only illuminated a limited area of the ground. In this small rectangle of light, one expected that the remains of the shipwreck would eventually appear.
The team took tens of thousands of photos of the seabed. Most were miserable, showing at most a few clueless looking fish. But in the end the effort was worth it: one of the pictures showed part of the conning tower of a submarine.
A mosaic of several photos was put together to achieve an overall view. It was K-129, divided into two parts: the nose section was about a hundred feet long. The stern with the propulsion system had landed a few tens of meters away. The part of the tower where the three vertical rocket tubes should have been was damaged. A tube had disappeared, perhaps due to an explosion; the second seemed empty, but the third still had a seal protecting the rocket. Inside the fuselage, scrambled transmitters and code books likely remained intact.
The CIA and Nixon
US Navy commanders discussed the possibility of opening a hole through which a robot could enter and possibly recover some items, but the idea was soon abandoned. The potential loot did not justify the cost and complexity of the operation. After all, the K-129 was an old submarine. In the three years since its sinking, much of its equipment – particularly its missiles – had become obsolete. But when the CIA learned of the discovery, its specialists devised a much more daring plan: to recover the submarine’s entire bow section, contents, missiles, and torpedoes. The idea reached the ears of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Nixon. Both were ecstatic and began an operation reminiscent of a spy novel.
The CIA commissioned the construction of a giant ship to serve as a platform to lift the submarine to the surface. At 180 meters long, it was longer than a destroyer; Its superstructure was crowned by a tower resembling that of oil drillers. Propellers were fitted at the bow and stern to allow for adjustments when anchoring.
The Hughes Glomar Explorer, the boat used by the CIA to recover K-129.U.S. government
The project has been classified as top secret. Since the construction of such a strange ship would not go unnoticed, a ruse was needed to hide its true mission. The CIA found someone they’d branded a trustworthy patriot to do the job: Howard Hughes, the paranoid millionaire who lived in seclusion on the top floor of the Desert Inn in Las Vegas.
Hughes agreed to start a shell company dedicated to mineral exploration on the sea floor. The ship would even bear his name: the Hughes Glomar Explorer. Officially, it was nothing more than a platform to collect manganese nodules from the bottom of the Pacific.
At the same time, the CIA hired Lockheed Aircraft – a company with considerable experience in top-secret projects such as building spy planes – to build a giant claw capable of grabbing the submarine and bringing it to the surface. The device would then be taken to the Glomar Explorer in a submersible for installation without fear of prying eyes. The entire claw structure could tilt to compensate for fluctuations. The system was inspired by the drill bits used in oil prospecting, although no previous attempt had been made to work at a depth of 5,000 metres.
After almost four years of preparation, the Glomar Explorer was ready to start work in the summer of 1974. But just as the mission was about to begin, the Glomar Explorer was spotted by a Soviet research vessel. Despite the fact that their ship was covered with antennas, American officials explained that they were simply conducting underwater mining tests. The Soviet captain believed the story and even wished them luck before departing.
More than five hundred sections of pipe had to be assembled to bring the claw to the sea floor. At six minutes per section — not counting the inevitable setbacks — the operation took weeks. When the thousand meters were reached, a new visitor appeared: a Russian deep-sea tugboat, equally fascinated by the strange ship. But here, too, the explanations were convincing. Even if the Soviets had used divers, all they would have seen was a long tube that sank to the depths of the water and carried out a completely benign mining operation.
Finally, the catch mechanism was placed precisely on the submarine. The claw closed its jaws around the sub’s hull. Hydraulic pistons lifted it off the ground without loading the long lift tube. Video and sonar cameras made it possible to follow the entire process from a height of five kilometers.
The slow ascent began. To reduce the load, the legs and butts were left on the seabed. It would take more than two days of effort as the ship creaked under the combined weight of the submarine and lift tube. But suddenly, after two kilometers, part of the fastening nails gave way. The submarine’s hull, already severely weakened by years of water damage, broke in two. The larger part sank again into the depths and took the rocket shaft with it. Upon hitting the ground, it shattered into hundreds of unrecoverable pieces. Only a relatively small piece remained in the jaws and was hoisted on board.
An inspection of the sub’s interior found a few torpedoes but no communications equipment or code books. At least that’s the official CIA version.
The remains of six crew members were also found. A burial was held on board the Glomar Explorer, in accordance with Russian and American tradition, before the bodies were returned to sea. The ceremony was filmed by agency staff and years later handed over to Russian authorities. The film about the rest of the operation remains classified.
The recovery of K-129 was successful despite its failures from a technical point of view. It was also conducted in the strictest secrecy…or would have been had it not leaked to the press in March 1975. Since then, there have been many attempts to uncover details about the operation, known by the codenames “Azorian” or “Project Jennifer”. Over the years, half a dozen books have been written based on interviews with those who oversaw the submarine’s salvage. The CIA also published a very generic version… albeit with censored paragraphs.