The Soviet Golf Class Nuclear Missile submarine K129
The Soviet Golf Class Nuclear Missile submarine K129
In 1968 there began one of the most amazing stories in the annals of the Cold War and of the US Navy then the CIA. The end result will possibly never be known and is still shrouded in uncertainty and mystery. This is what happened.
The Soviet Golf Class Nuclear Missile submarine, the K129, one of the very latest of Soviet submarines, was on patrol, not far from Hawaii. She had been picked up by the American SOSUS warning net long before and was being tracked and listened to on shore. The K129 crept nearer and nearer towards Hawaii, alarming American officials. She was armed with nuclear missiles and could possibly strike at any time. Suddenly something went horribly wrong. K129 had failed to transmit at a defined time!
The Soviet Navy ran a search and rescue operation but had no idea where the K129 was - the Americans knew almost exactly where she was and soon a plot was being hatched to actually raise her from the seabed. Halibut arrived in Pearl Harbour on 11 April 1968. The 68th Anniversary of the US Navy's first submarine. As the sailors celebrated Submarine's Birthday, an amazing detective story was unfolding. Dozens of Soviet warships had poured into the Pacific, moving slowly, banging away at the ocean floor with active sonar. Obviously looking for something. It dawned on the US that they had lost a submarine. Sitting, on station, off Vladivostok, the USS Barb (SSN 596) when the frantic search began. Barb's Commander had never seen anything like it. Four or five Soviet submarines rushed out to sea and began beating the ocean floor with active sonar. The subs were diving, coming back to the surface, and diving again. They made no effort to avoid detection, no efforts to hide. The airwaves were full of their cries, shattering the air around Vladivistok, in uncoded signals. "Charlie Victor Red Star Come in" "Red Star, come in" repeated and repeated. Barb received a message "Stay on Station". As USS Barb and US surveillance aircraft listened, it soon became clear that the Soviets had no idea where their submarine was. The fact that the Soviets used encoded "burst" transmissions meant nothing to the US. They noted that every time a submarine passed given points in the Pacific, coded bursts were fired to receivers in the USSR. A burst typically was sent when the submarines hit a deep sea marker just outside Kamchatka, another sent as they crossed the International Dateline, another marked their arrival on station. Every time the submarines sent these bursts, they were broadcasting to the Americans "We are Here!".
Searching through recordings, the Office of Underwater Warfare found what they wanted almost immediately - a Golf II Class submarine had left port on 24 February 1968. The sub had transmitted as usual until it hit the midcourse. Then the transmissions ceased. There was no message as it passed the 180 degrees, International Dateline. Nothing to say it had left deep water, nothing at all. Bradley, of the Underwater Warfare Office rushed the news to the US Navy; the Soviets had lost a sub, a three missile sub and that the Soviets were looking in the wrong place! What if the US could find the sub first? It was a goldmine of code books, missile keys and information on Soviet technology. Bradley also disclosed that he had the means to find this sub - the USS Halibut.
USS Halibut sporting her distinctive "Bat Cave" - Here shown closed ( The Bat Cave opened up, resembling Batman's mask, to fire a Regulus Missile - later adapted to hold surveillance equipment)
Halibuts Commanders Moore & Cook were rushed to Washington. Rear Admiral Beshany, Deputy Chief of Submarine Ops was waiting for them. With him was Albert Beutler, the supervisor of Halibuts clandestine espionage work. After a breifing it was announced that the Halibut was going to find it! They all then went to see the Secretary of the Navy, Paul Nitze. Halibut had been having problems with her equipment used mainly for finding soviet missile pieces in the ocean. But this was a submarine - a lot larger, easier to find! It took only a few hours for the US to decide to go ahead with the mission. The next step was contacting The SOSUS chief, Captain Joseph Kelly. His staff ran through a series of SOSUS records; all they found was a tiny "blip" - a little rise that indicated a single loud "pop". It was right in the region that Bradley decided the K129 had gone down. They reasoned that if the Golf had flooded before reaching the depths she would have reached the bottom without imploding due to the enormous pressure - the SOSUS signals supported this thought. They needed to know what a sinking diesel sub would sound like going down with hatches open, filling with ocean water, pressures equalizing long before the boat reached crush depth. The US Navy found an old diesel sub, one that had survived countless attacks in WW2 - now she was to be the sacrificial lamb. The sub died silently, which was as expected. Triangulating their data from other hydrophonic equipment that recorded the "pop" they determined that the most likely position was at 40 degrees lat and 180 degrees longitude. This put her about 1700 miles northwest of Hawaii, more than 3 miles down! Beshany, not convinced, however gave the nod, and Halibut was sent out to the spot.
The Soviet Navy learnt that a US submarine had pulled into Yokosuka with a damaged sail and periscope shortly after the K129 was "missing". This was the USS Swordfish (USN-579). Years later the Captain of the Swordfish, when he found out about this story, says that he had hit a chunk of ice in the Sea of Japan, miles from where the K129 had gone down. The folk on the quayside had not noticed the damaged periscope - all eyes were on Mount Fuji which looked particularly brilliant that day. Soviet Intelligence obviously had eyes not on a mountain! Halibut sailed on July 15th. Aboard, in the "bat cave" were Naval "spooks", intelligence gatherers, who knew nothing of their mission.
USS Halibut fires Regulus Missile from the "bat cave"
The USS Halibut, an old, unreliable submarine had been rescued from the scrap heap and re-equipped with delicate, expensive intelligence devices. Halibut deployed her trailing sonar gear, the "fish". Day and night, the Halibut trawled back and forth. In the "bat cave" tired, strained eyes trawled over miles of recordings - looking for "something" that should not be there! Every six days or so, the fish was rewound aboard to replace the still film. This went on for weeks. Then the "haze" was disrupted!!
The ships photographer burst out of the darkroom suddenly aware that he was not looking for a missile!! Certain he had found their target! It was a perfect image of a submarines "sail", or conning tower. The photographer was shaking so much, the Captain thought on the verge of collapse. The fish was sent down again, down to the spot captured on the film, down to where the sub lay, as "if parked there" 16580 feet down on the sea bed. Sonar and cameras ate every detail around. Just behind the Golf's conning tower there was a 10 foot hole. It pointed to a surface explosion; possibly a hydrogen build up from the charging of the batteries. The remainder of the sub looking virtually intact. Two missile silo lids had been blown off. In the first twisted pipes. In the second the warhead had completely vanished. The third was intact. Then the camera found something else - a complete skeleton of a sailor, lying alongside the submarine. One of his legs was broken. He had fallen 3 miles to the sea bed. The skeleton was of a young boy, he was wearing foul weather gear, so had to have been on deck when the explosion occurred. Something else was in the image - tiny carnivorous worms wriggled around the body they had already eaten. Nobody who saw those images ever forgot them and nobody on shore when they were brought home could either. After weeks of searching the K129 was located. The Navy went to President Nixon and said that it may be possible to glean some information from this. The Halibut had taken 20,000 photographs, still secret to this day. The images were rushed to the then new Director of Naval Intelligence who had taken the post whilst Halibut was at sea. This was the man who had been Naval Intelligence's Director of Collection! He had, years earlier, stolen a Soviet Mig fighter! During the Vietnam war he "obtained" a Soviet surface to air missile. He took possession of a Soviet missile in Indonesia and an engine from a Soviet plane crash near Berlin. Now he was going to "steal" a complete submarine he thought! He compared Halibuts feat as a "helicopter hovering at 17000 feet with a small camera at the end of a line taking pictures in dense fog". Finally President Johnson got to see these images and was "so impressed Naval Intelligence congratulated themselves for months".
In Jan 1969, Nixon was sworn in as President, and Henry Kissinger became National Security Advisor. Kissinger showed the images to Nixon who was fascinated. News of this "fascination" reached the ears of the CIA. The CIA demanded that they take over from the Navy and argued with Nixon to this purpose. Richard Helms, Director of the CIA, began to engineer a take over of the whole project. He did this CIA style - need I say more? The infighting and backstabbing is not, however, for this page.
The CIA won and their first idea was to send mini subs to grab a warhead and the safe containing the codes. Also required were the submarines "burst" transmitters to enable the US to decode everything intercepted. They already knew every nut and bolt on these "old" Golf II subs from surveillance images. They thought they could blast open a small doorway and just go in. Eventually, the CIA decided that they were going to pinch the "whole damn sub". Craven and Bradley were dumbstruck - "the thing will be as brittle as a sandcastle, hitting bottom at 100 knots or more, accelerating at 70 feet per second" Touch it hard enough and it will disintegrate". Bradley was right but the CIA held the "real power" in Washington usually getting what it wanted. However the Chief of Naval Operations, Thomas Moorer loved big, bold, technological projects and was captivated by the CIA plan. Nixon awarded the USS Halibut the Presidential Unit Citation; the highest submarine award possible.
Nixon approved the plan and Defence Secretary Melvin Laird commissioned Howard Hughes to help. Codenamed "Project Jennifer". His answer was the Glomar Explorer, 2 years in the building, with which it was planned to lower a giant grab 5km to the seabed and pick up the submarine, raise it to the surface, and hide it within the confines of a huge water filled hold known on board as the moon pool. The floor of the moon pool opened directly into the sea.
Two crews manned the Glomar Explorer, the oil derrick men on the decks, and hidden within the ship, CIA operatives, who would actually operate the grab. In 1974 everything was in place to begin the operation. Something went wrong when a building belonging to the now totally deranged Howard Hughes was broken into by 4 masked men who stole, not only money, but classified documents. One of these documents detailed the entire operation! The Soviets actually did find out about this when a note was pushed through the door of the Soviet Embassy in Washington. This was relayed back to Moscow who did not really believe it, the technology was way beyond their capabilities. It was decided to go ahead with the mission although the Americans knew about the compromise.
Nevertheless, The Glomar Explorer set sail and, using elaborate thrusters, stationed herself above the K129. The oil men started to piece together the masses of piping, which went down into the centre of the ship. Here the CIA attached the grab to the pipes, opened the doors, and the whole thing began to head for the sea bed. 3 days later, they arrived over the sub.
The giant grab clinched the main part of the submarine and, dropping counter weights, began the long haul to the surface. At one stage, part of the grab fractured and sheared away. This snapped off part of the submarine, and a nuclear missile was released to fall harmlessly to the seabed. The submarine was raised up into the bowels of the ship, the doors closed and the ship returned to its port at Long Beach, California. Eye witnesses, in the dead of night, claimed that scores of lorries drove to the ship and left, loaded, going separate ways. Nothing is known about what happened to whatever it was they brought up.
The story leaked and the press were hounding Washington. The CIA Boss at the time admitted to a Congressional Hearing they had brought up pieces of the submarine, including 6 bodies, which were given a videoed Soviet Naval Burial. The film of this burial was later given to Russian President Boris Yeltzin after the Cold War had ended as a gesture, by the CIA director, of reconciliation. Yeltzin cried when he saw the video. At the time of the press leak Moscow made no comment to the newspaper stories and, behind the scenes, asked the then President, Gerald Ford, to hush it from their side and the Russians would do the same. Ford readily agreed. Russia publicly announced that as all their submarines were in port, they could not have lost one. They made no further comment and nothing else was heard from either side on the matter.