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A Homeland Security Saga 3 Miles below the Pacific Ocean

One of the main reasons AMU’s Homeland Security degree programs are so popular with students is their desire to serve their country in an important function. Another reason is the growing career opportunities in national defense and intelligence.

I learned of a once highly classified case of homeland security as a young intelligence agency recruit during orientation. It stands out as indicative of the lengths – and depths – the U.S. will go to protect the nation and stay technologically ahead of its enemies.

In March 1958, the Soviet Union began construction of a nuclear missile-equipped submarine, the K-129. On February 25, 1968, armed with three nuclear ballistic missiles, the K-129 set sail from its base in Siberia on a routine combat patrol near Hawaii. 

It’s long been believed that an onboard explosion caused the sub to sink about 1500 nautical miles northwest of Hawaii, along with its 98-member crew and its three nuclear missiles. K-129 came to rest some three miles down in the Pacific Ocean.

There Had Been No Salvage of a Submarine below 1,000 Feet at That Time

There had been no salvage of a submarine below 1,000 feet at that time, Josh Dean told National Public Radio. Dean is the author of “The Taking of K-129.” Also, according to U.S. intelligence, the Soviets did not know the precise location of their sub. Even if they did, the Russians had no way to retrieve it. So the Kremlin had no choice but to leave the sub where it was as an undersea mausoleum. 

But the U.S. did know the location. According to the Maritime Executive, “the U.S. Air Force had captured sonic recordings of an explosion that took place on March 8, 1968. Subsequently, it was able to localize the latitude and longitude of the Soviet submarine, and the U.S. Navy conducted a deep-sea reconnaissance mission that took over 20,000 photographs of the sunken Soviet K-129 submarine.”

The idea of retrieving the Soviet sub with its nuclear missiles, technology and, perhaps best of all, its super-secret Soviet military codes was too tempting to ignore during the height of the Cold War.

But the U.S. faced three seemingly unsolvable problems: How to create a device to retrieve the sub so deep in international waters, keep the Soviets in the dark, and finally how to pay for such an expensive operation.

Project Azorian Was Probably the Greatest Feat of Naval Engineering’

Dean labeled what became code-named Project Azorian, “probably the greatest feat of naval engineering. And on top of that, you had to do it in secret because it’s not like a giant ship parked in the middle of the Pacific — where giant ships aren’t normally parked — isn’t going to arouse suspicion.”

Project Azorian took six years, cost an estimated $800 million, and became what Dean called “the largest and most daring covert operation in CIA history.”

To give the story legitimacy and some financial backing, the U.S. called on Howard Hughes, the world famous self-made billionaire whose family had been in the mining business. Hughes had a hand in Hollywood film-making, aircraft manufacturing and piloting, and mining operations. Perhaps he was most famous for building  the “Spruce Goose,” an enormous all-wooden aircraft that flew only once, on a one-mile flight. He also owned Hughes Global Marine Systems.

Hughes had been living in complete seclusion in Las Vegas since 1950, but he signed on to what the American Society of Mechanical Engineers called “the 20th century’s greatest marine engineering feat.”

As Dean explained, “Working with Global Marine Systems, the country’s foremost maker of exotic, deep-sea drilling vessels, the CIA commissioned the most expensive ship ever built and told the world that it belonged to the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, who would use the mammoth ship to mine rare minerals from the ocean floor.” Like all good covert intelligence operations, there was an element of truth in the cover story.

The Glomar Explorer Was Too Big to Transit the Old Panama Canal

Built at an East Coast shipyard, the Glomar Explorer was 618 feet long with a 115-foot beam. That made it too large to transit the old Panama Canal, so it had to travel around Cape Horn to reach the site of the sunken sub. The Glomar Explorer finally reached its destination on July 4, 1974, but inclement weather delayed the salvage operation for several days.

The Hughes-built Glomar Explorer was outfitted with interlocking metal tubes that, when connected, created an arm long enough to reach the sub. At the end of linking tubes was a mammoth claw-lock device that would envelope the sub and pull it to the surface.

To preclude any leaking of the story, CIA Director William Colby personally called on major political and government leaders and the top news media of the day, including the three television networks and the nation’s leading newspapers — The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times. Even some of the country’s best respected columnists were called upon. All agreed not to publish the story. 

According to an account in The Washington Post, “on March 18, syndicated columnist Jack Anderson broke the story on his radio show. Anderson subsequently told Post Executive Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee that … it would get out in a couple of days anyway.”

Anderson claimed the CIA was trying to suppress the story “not because the operation was a secret, but because it was a $350 million failure.” Anderson aired the story on the Mutual Radio Network at 9 p.m. and a second time just after 9:30. The three main newspapers immediately followed suit.

As the Sub Was Being Raised, Two-Thirds of the Vessel Broke Off

On August 4, 1974, as the sub was being raised, at about 6,700 feet the crew noticed that two-thirds of the vessel had broken off and only about 38 feet of the sub remained in the claw. On August 8, the same day that Richard Nixon resigned as President, the Glomar Explorer team retrieved the portion of the sub that was in the claw. 

Our instructors did not go into detail of course about precisely what was recovered.

 But, according to Military Wikia, “This lost section is said to have held many of the most sought items, including the code book and nuclear missiles. It was subsequently reported two nuclear-tipped torpedoes and some cryptographic machines were recovered, along with the bodies of six Soviet submariners, who were given a formal burial at sea.

Our instructors gave us one other “fact” about the intelligence coup: According to them, following the retrieval of the partial sub, the Glomar Explorer headed home for refitting before returning to make another attempt at recovering the rest of the sub. But by then the Soviets had discovered the true nature of the U.S. intelligence operation and permanently stationed a Soviet vessel over the sub’s remaining two-thirds, thwarting any second U.S. salvage attempt.

Later accounts of the clandestine operation that I’ve read make no mention of a Soviet ship guarding the remainder of the sub.

Military Wikia says when the Glomar Explorer ended its military career in 1997 it headed to drydock Cascade General Shipyard in Portland, Oregon, for conversion into a dynamically positioned deepwater drillship. “In this reincarnation, the vessel was capable of drilling in depths up to 11,500 feet (3,500 meters). At the time, this was 2,000 feet (610 meters) deeper than any existing rig. It was the largest, most complex project the yard had ever undertaken.”

“The conversion, completed in 1998, marked the beginning of a 30-year lease from the U.S. Navy to Global Marine Drilling for a fee of $1 million per year.”

David E. Hubler brings a variety of government, journalism and teaching experience to his position as a Quality Assurance Editor. David’s professional background includes serving as a senior editor at CIA and the Voice of America. He has also been a managing editor for several business-to-business and business-to-government publishing companies.

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