Journey to the Bottom of the (Cold War) Sea and Back
May 27, 2010 2:12 PM   Subscribe

Submarine causalities are tragedies of war that are not always directly associated with combat. Systems failures at sea are often mysterious, with evidence and remains disappearing to all but the deepest diving vehicles. This was no different in the Cold War, with non-combat losses from the US and the Soviet Fleets. In that era of nuclear secrets, both those of nuclear-powered submarines and nuclear weapons, learning about the enemy's technology was paramount. Such an opportunity came to the US with the sinking of K-129, a Golf Class II Soviet submarine that went down with 98 men on board. The recovery took over six year, involved the possible payback of Howard Hughes, a videotaped formal sea burial that was eventually copied and given to then-President Boris Yeltsin, and decades of CIA secrecy.

Part of this story starts with the USS Halibut (SSGN-587), a sub was initially designed as a diesel-electric submarine but completed with nuclear power. The Halibut was the first submarine designed to launch guided (Regulus) missiles, her main deck was high above the waterline to provide a dry "flight deck." After that initial duty, John P. Craven, attached to the U.S. Navy's Special Projects office, turned the craft into the first US high-tech spy sub. With the combination of undersea cameras and the Bayesian search theory proposed by Craven, the USS Scorpion (SSN-589) was found. To this day, the cause of loss is officially a mystery, though there are theories, the most prominent including torpedo malfunctions and electrical failure.

Craven's successful assistance with locating the USS Scorpion and because the USS Halibut was the most advanced spy submarine in the US fleet, the Halibut went in search of a missing Soviet submarine. First tracked by the US via their Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS), K-129 was first assumed to be in trouble by US forces when Soviet submarines rushed to sea, unencoded signals called for "Red Star" to respond, and no reply was heard. If K-129 was indeed lost, the US could reap much knowledge if they retrieved the sub first. Craven pinpointed a location, and the Halibut went searching. The crew thought they were looking for a Soviet missile, but when the telling set of grainy photos were developed, it was clear they had found the Soviet submarine, 16,580 feet at the ocean bottom. The crew returned with 22,000 photos, and the money poured into upgrading the Halibut were seen as money well spent. But the K-129 wasn't in hand yet. That would require more serious retrieval equipment.

The construction of the USNS Glomar Explorer took place in in 1973 and 1974, code-named Project Azorian, though initial news leaks in 1975 called it Project Jennifer. The project was funded by the government under the guise of a Deep Ocean Mining Project, possibly a way for Nixon to pay off Hughes for financial debts owed. Requests for information were met with a comment that the CIA could "neither confirm nor deny" its ties to Howard Hughes' ship, in what would become known as The Glomar Response or the "Glomarization" principle.

Of the documents and findings from Project Azorias, none are as touching as the 14 minute video of the US sea burial ceremony for the six Soviet crew members found in 1974 as part of the retrieval of K-129. This video and a Soviet naval flag that had shrouded the coffins of the half dozen Soviet sailors was given to President Boris Yeltsin of Russia as a symbol of a new era, when the Director of Central Intelligence, Robert Gates, visited Moscow in October 1992, less than a year into Gates' term as Director of the CIA.

Parts of the video were featured in the NOVA Program "Submarines, Secrets and Spies" (transcript) (IMDB) in 2003, and the whole video was made available that same year as part of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. In a 2007 ceremony, copies of the 1974 video and copied documents on the search and recovery were given to the Pacific Navy Museum in Vladivostok, Russia.

Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request finally released three additional documents in early 2010: "Project Azorian: The Story of the Hughes Glomar Explorer," Studies in Intelligence, from Fall 1985 and two excised memorandums of conversation from 1975 following the leaked newspaper stories. Though heavily redacted, the report made many hazy or incorrectly-cited details clear, including points in the timeline for Project Azorian, but the contents of the submarine remain vague. To this day, there are a number of theories for the initial sinking of K-129, including an attempted rogue nuclear strike.

More interesting tidbits:
* The Glomar Response is alive and well, upheld by the Second Circuit US Federal Appeals Court in regards to the DOJ and the NSA and details of Guantanamo Bay, with information how to possibly get more than a Glomar'ed reply.
* The Nova spy submarine documentary, overdubbed in Russian
* Another copy of Blind Man's Bluff on Google Books, in which you can read more on the Cold War era of spy submarines, as told by various people involved with the US actions.
* The Mad Genius from the Bottom of the Sea - ideas an interview from John Piña Craven (previously)
* This post started because of an AskMe question from jjjjjjjijjjjjjj about the 1974 sea burial video
posted by filthy light thief (41 comments total) 106 users marked this as a favorite
Wow, what a post! I'll pass this onto my husband, who was a (US) submariner in the 1990s.
posted by desjardins at 2:19 PM on May 27, 2010

That drawing of the Clementine lifting device looks like a precursor to the mining ship in the new Star Trek movie. Fascinating; great post.

Also, how the heck did Hughes Corp. stay running so long (and getting huge contracts all the while) with their leader in such a state?
posted by Hardcore Poser at 2:22 PM on May 27, 2010

wow, this is some post. Kudos!

(... I hope Charles Stross shows up to add his thoughts)
posted by Auden at 2:25 PM on May 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

If this stuff interests you, check out a book called Blind Man's Bluff. Completely incredible stories galore there about Cold War submarine exploits.
posted by squorch at 2:25 PM on May 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Glomar Explorer was built in the early 1970s at the Philadelphia Navy Yard in plain view. I remember as a kid seeing it being towed out into the Delaware river and of course such a big contract for the shipyard it was well-publicized.

When later I learned of its real purpose I thought it was cheeky of the CIA to make no attempt at all to hide the ship during its construction.
posted by three blind mice at 2:27 PM on May 27, 2010

"Also, how the heck did Hughes Corp. stay running so long (and getting huge contracts all the while) with their leader in such a state?"

How did the US operate for 8 years with Bush in "such a state"...? big things move forward due to momentum, regardless of what the helm is saying/doing.
posted by HuronBob at 2:29 PM on May 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Submarine Causality: A submarine shot me with a torpedo, THEREFORE I blew up in a horrible glorious fireball and sank to the bottom of the ocean with the loss of all hands.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:32 PM on May 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

Fantastic post. Thorough? Yes. I have bought really, really expensive food for use on subs. Dehydrated compressed discs (think hockey puck) of green beans. Dehydrated pork chops in #10 cans. It's bizarre.
posted by fixedgear at 2:32 PM on May 27, 2010

Wow, cool. I read a book on this as a kid. The name Glomar Explorer always stuck with me, as being unfathomably awesome for some reason.
posted by chinston at 2:39 PM on May 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is a really good post. But I think that video of the burial at sea has already been posted here.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 2:43 PM on May 27, 2010

Excellent collection of links! As a guy who really digs submarines, and has an undisclosed radioman friend on an undisclosed boat currently travelling to an undisclosed location, I'll be checking these links out for hours tonight.
posted by chambers at 2:45 PM on May 27, 2010

There were two ships built Glomar Explorer and Glomar Challenger, I believe. I help build on the lateral thrusters that were lowered down from the hull to control ship positioning on station.

We were told the story of deep sea mining/exploration.

Great post! Thanks.
posted by Jumpin Jack Flash at 2:52 PM on May 27, 2010

Jumpin Jack Flash - thanks for the heads up! Here's a wiki page for the Challenger, which makes it sound like the Challenger came before the Explorer, and (probably) had more honest actions.

Crazy Glomar Explorer conspiracy theories: Howard Hughes: UFO technology/Glomar Explorer.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:00 PM on May 27, 2010

Matters are of course complicated by the treaty with Codename BLUE HADES.
posted by Artw at 3:09 PM on May 27, 2010 [5 favorites]

Yeah, I had real fun with that incident :)

Apparently some of the roughnecks involved in bolting together the HMB-1 joked that they were expecting James Bond to turn up at any moment.
posted by cstross at 3:15 PM on May 27, 2010 [5 favorites]

Just wanted to throw a random thing out there. I work with Ken Sewell, who's the author of Red Star Rogue and All Hands Down. It's always fun going to drinking with the guy, because he starts, with prompting, explaining his facts (theories by many other accounts) about how K-129 was a Russian sub that was going to mimic the Chinese Golf class sub and nuke Hawaii, thus allowing the Soviets to have their two main enemies take each other out. Other fun Ken Sewell facts (take them how you will):

He's sure that Project Jennifer was successful and Ken knows guys involved in the operation. Also, the K-129 is now stored somewhere in America or Canada. I forget where he said it was. The CIA was never that open about their failures (See "Legacy of Ashes" for many, many examples), but they were more than open about Project Jennifer failing.

The Scorpion was sunk by a Soviet helo in a eye-for-an-eye, sub-for-a-sub attack since the Soviets thought we sunk the K-129 along with John Walker's help.

I'm sure there are more good Ken stories I've heard, but you know, 1970's Soviet sub designations start to blur together when combined with whiskey (the liquor, not the Soviet guided missile subs).

Great post light thief!
posted by SeanOfTheHillPeople at 3:18 PM on May 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Just to add to the conspiracy...
We built 18 of these large thrusters, 10' in diameter cylinders w/end bells for flow control making them close to 15' in overall diameter and approx. 10' long. The Glomar Explorer only used 6 of these thrusters. Hmmm
posted by Jumpin Jack Flash at 3:18 PM on May 27, 2010 [4 favorites]

The name Glomar Explorer always stuck with me, as being unfathomably awesome for some reason.

Absolutely! What a fantastic cold-war spook name. I remember actually reading about this ship as a kid when it was being built. (I think there was actually an article in either National Geographic or Popular Mechanics about it at the time.) The article talked about how the ship was about to launch an adventure to scoop up some of the thousands of pounds of precious metals littering the deep ocean floor, just there for the taking.

Apparently, they were also scooping up sunken Russian submarines.

One thing that I've always wondered about... Does anyone know more about these "Manganese nodules"? Do they actually exist? Was the whole article just part of the cover operation?
posted by silkyd at 3:18 PM on May 27, 2010

Also, how the heck did Hughes Corp. stay running so long (and getting huge contracts all the while) with their leader in such a state?

The Mormon Mafia. Cover story.
posted by dhartung at 3:25 PM on May 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just wait till you see what the Gulf spill is a cover for!
posted by Artw at 3:34 PM on May 27, 2010 [5 favorites]

I've always wondered if the whole "Law of the Sea" treaty uproar -- which got very excited around that time, after the elaborate news stories discussing how the US was going to start harvesting manganese from the sea floor in international waters before anyone else could reach them -- is just collateral damage from the CIA's choice of a cover story. Or did they think far enough ahead to set that off intentionally as a collateral benefit?


> The Scorpion was sunk by a Soviet helo in a eye-for-an-eye, sub-for-a-sub
> attack since the Soviets thought we sunk the K-129 ....

Just anecdote from the guy, or is there anything else available on this?
posted by hank at 3:59 PM on May 27, 2010

"submarine causalities"... must find a use for this term

that aside... fantastic post!
posted by Hairy Lobster at 3:59 PM on May 27, 2010

Great post, I look forward to making my way through all of this!
posted by dabug at 4:03 PM on May 27, 2010

Just anecdote from the guy, or is there anything else available on this?

Amazon reviewers who claim to have some background knowledge or active role in the retrieval of K-129 say wild speculation.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:07 PM on May 27, 2010

I have: favorited this post here, starred it in google reader, and 'liked' it in Buzz. Please let me know if there's some other way I can express just how awesome this post is.
posted by tarheelcoxn at 4:50 PM on May 27, 2010

What an awesome post! I can't wait to dig through everything. When I worked at the Submarine Base here in San Diego, I met many Sub Vets and heard a lot of amazing stories. One anecdote that's probably mentioned above is that U.S. and Soviet subs often had "friendly" bouts of Cat and Mouse and occasionally grazed or bumped each others boats.
posted by snsranch at 4:50 PM on May 27, 2010

snsranch - there are some interesting anecdotes of that sort (and some that seem a lot more frightening) in Blind Man's Bluff. Really an interesting read, with lots of personal stories woven into a larger picture of Cold War submarine spy games that wasn't released through military-approved channels of communication. It's frightening to think of how much fire power was lurking around the world, waiting for the signal to start a nuclear war. I'd imagine that most people on submarines armed with nukes would be content to play cat-and-mouse games of tag than actually try to torpedo another sub that might be loaded with nukes.
posted by filthy light thief at 5:11 PM on May 27, 2010

Excellent post. I have not had the time to go all the way through. But I will with time. Thank you for the links, filthy light thief.
posted by chemoboy at 5:19 PM on May 27, 2010

And that, ladies and gentleman, is how to craft a post. Unreal. Thanks so much. Flagged as fantastic.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 5:47 PM on May 27, 2010

Absolutely fascinating. Submarine movies interest me and my husband and I can't wait for him to see what you have put together here.
posted by Calzephyr at 9:17 PM on May 27, 2010

Great post! Lots of depth.
posted by ambient2 at 9:52 PM on May 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I see what you did there
posted by Jumpin Jack Flash at 10:00 PM on May 27, 2010

Great post! Blind Man's Bluff really drove home the incredible dedication and intelligence--not to mention cojones--of the men involved in Cold War submarine espionage.
posted by whuppy at 11:19 PM on May 27, 2010

Also, hello Charlie! I loved reading The Jennifer Morgue's opening scene already knowing about the real-life exploits of the Glomar Explorer. Kudos on getting it so right.
posted by whuppy at 11:27 PM on May 27, 2010

Fantastic post and a great subject. I always thought that dying in a submarine deep beneath the sea would be a singularly terrible way to go.
posted by dazed_one at 12:32 AM on May 28, 2010

I found this interesting submarine story on the web.

You need to be forewarned that the guy is a bit off center and has lots of tin-foil-hat articles. But sometimes that can be fun.
posted by eye of newt at 12:38 AM on May 28, 2010

Regarding the Ken Sewell stories about the K-129 being a rogue sub that was going to nuke Hawaii, the K-129 being successfully raised, and the Scorpion being sunk, all I have to go on is what Ken's said (I haven’t read his books). Personally, most of it sounds farfetched and I take many things he's written and said with a large amount of skepticism, but he is an ex-sub guy, has lots of contacts out there, and does have a base that backs him up. That said, part of what makes learning about the "silent service" so interesting is that everything is invisible to civilians and everything is cloaked behind the state secrets apparatus of the US and Soviet Union. Thus, it’s the perfect area for conspiracy theories that can’t be disproven and also the perfect area for cover stories that mask the actual historic facts.
posted by SeanOfTheHillPeople at 8:29 AM on May 28, 2010

Great post, thanks.
posted by ahimsakid at 8:47 AM on May 28, 2010

Aha! I've found a reference to George T. "Tommy" Cox's album "Take Her Deep." He has more music, including a newer album entitled "Where’s My Crew."
posted by filthy light thief at 9:18 AM on May 28, 2010

Obligatory musical interlude: One of our Submarines is Missing (Thomas Dolby - live) (SLYT, of course)
posted by cstross at 2:49 AM on May 29, 2010

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