Military History blog

The sinking of the Soviet submarine K-129 and details of the Azorian Project

When in 1968 the Soviet submarine K-129 sank in the Pacific Ocean, the Americans first decided to photograph and then extract its wreck. This operation, called Project Azorian, is now referred to by the American intelligence service as one of the two or three most valuable and bold spy operations during the Cold War.

The second half of the 20th Century is referred to as the Cold War, a period in which two powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, raced im military arms development and in an intelligence war. Both of these countries owned and developed nuclear weapons which were supposed to have been a force for them and to ensure that one of the parties had a victory in the war of destruction, which, according to many, was supposed to take place quickly.

One of the most powerful weapons available at that time was submarines equipped with ballistic missiles, which, operating close to the sea border, could theoretically – in case of a potential conflict – blast entire cities or military facilities from the surface of the Earth. These ships were strategically important and both the USSR and the USA were racing technologically for dominance of the oceans.

One of such ships was the Soviet K-129 submarine, which was launched in 1959 and was powered by diesel engines and armed with 3 ballistic missiles with a range of over 1000 km. In 1967 the ship carried out two patrols of the Pacific Ocean. The last of them, the third one, was to take place at the beginning of 1968 and ended with the K-129 sailing to the banks of Hawaii, where Pearl Harbor, the American Navy base, was located. The command of the Soviet fleet ordered Pear Harbor to be within the range of the three warheads that the ship was carrying there.

K-129 – Soviet ship equipped with ballistic missiles, designed according to project 629A (Golf-II according to NATO code)
Photo: CIA

The captain of the K-129 was Vladimir Kobzar, who was then named one of the best officers of the Soviet Navy. The captain took the ship to sea on February 24,1968, taking off from the base on Kamchatka. The messages he sent at the beginning of the patrol described the beginning of the mission as calm and trouble-free. However, on March 8th, when the Soviet ship was located 2700 km from Hawaii, the K-129 was shaken by an explosion which broke a 3-metre hole in the midst of the submarine, and immediately sent the pride of the USSR navy to the bottom of the ocean. 98 of the trapped sailors had no chance to survive. They didn’t even manage to send an SOS signal. The hull settled at a depth of approx. 5000 m.

It was the largest catastrophe in the history of the Soviet Navy (the Kursk tragedy occurred after the collapse of the Soviet Union) – in one moment the entire crew of the warship and the nuclear weapons with which it was armed were lost. The sinking of the K-129 is also one of the four unexplained disappearances of the Cold War submarines: the other three are also the French Minerve, the Israeli INS Dakar and the American USS Scorpion.

When the Soviets realized that contact  with the K-129 had been lost, an exploration team was immediately sent to the North Pacific. The action ended in a fiasco; the ship was not found, and the American units circulating nearby aroused suspicions of Soviet commanders. The search team was cancelled on 28 April 1968, the families of the missing seafarers were compensated and it would seem that this was the end of the history of the K-129.

US nuclear-powered submarine USS Halibut
Photo: U.S Navy

Nothing could be more wrong. The Pacific seabed-bottomed submarine equipped with ballistic missiles attracted the attention of Americans who wanted to know as much as possible about the secrets of the Soviets, and decided to find and photograph the wreck. The operation had to be carried out in absolute secrecy, because the K-129 was lying on the bottom of international waters. However, US President Lyndon Johnson decided that it was worth taking risks.

A problem immediately arose – the K-129 was at a depth of about 5,000 m, while American submarines could descend only to a maximum depth of 600 m. A special system of undersea cameras was developed and installed on the nuclear submarine USS Halibut. The unit came to Hawaii in the greatest secret, from where she was supposed to go to search for the K-129, and her seamen (except captain, chief officer and intelligence officer) were not informed about the purpose of the expedition throughout the entire operation – their oath of secrecy continues to this day. The exploration project was financed by secret bank accounts with a total of $70 million.

The USS Halibut was in immersion after leaving Pearl Harbor. It had an area with a radius of 8km; such a large area combined with the depth of the Soviet ship (5,000 m) made the task very difficult for the Americans. The method of searching, i. e. shooting the bottom, forced Halibut to swim back and forth while the suspended photographic device floated 6m above the bottom. The pictures were taken immediately on the ship. Interestingly enough, the photographers didn’t know what to look for.

Two US presidents: Richard Nixon (left), Lyndon Johnson (right)
Source: Lyndon Baines Johnson Library

The mission of the Americans was not only difficult, but also dangerous. For two weeks, a Soviet vessel was circulating over the Halibut, dropping its sonar cargoes, probably searching for the K-129, while the Captain of the Halibut, Charles Moore hid the ship under the layer of cold water, while the warmer layer was hiding under a layer of cold water and the warmer layer reflected sonar sounds. Thus, detection by Russians was avoided and the bold intelligence mission remained a secret.

On August 20,1968, President Johnson’s risk paid off – the USS Halibut, which was circulating in the Pacific Ocean, came across the wreck of the K-129. The Soviet submarine was then photographed for three weeks, taking over 32,000 photos, which for the Americans turned out to be absolutely priceless. It is still not entirely clear what exactly was captured, but after the sailors returned to Pearl Harbor, the briefcase with photographs of the K-129 came straight into the hands of the President through the hands of an Intelligence officer.

Ship Glomar Explorer, which attempted to raise K-129
Photo: U.S. Government

This very successful interviewing action is still not the end of the K-129 history, and in January 1969 Richard Nixon became U. S. President, who as soon as he saw the photographs of the Soviet wreck, wanted more. Nixon realized that what was still in the Soviet ship (including cipher books and ballistic missiles) could have been invaluable to the United States, especially due to the Cold War arms race and the Intelligence War. The operation called Project Azorian started.

Under cover of an expedition to use precious ore lying on the bottom of the ocean, over the K-129 wreck a mining ship Glomar Explorer was sent. It had an inside swimming pool in which it was planned to put the Soviet submarine after its excavation. The whole operation was, of course, a state secret this time too. On July 11,1974, the Glomar Explorer anchored over the K-129 and started the construction of an underwater scaffolding connecting the ship with the Clementine rescue vehicle, which was located above the wreck. The release of the platform lasted for 2 days, and when the steel ticks grabbed the K-129, the colossal lift started.

According to later American testimony, 1500 meters above the bottom there was a catastrophe – part of the grabs burst and 2/3 of the wreck fell back to the bottom. The rest of the submarine was delivered to the United States. It is not entirely clear what exactly has been achieved, but one may suspect that apart from ballistic missiles, these were Soviet cipher books. It is known that in the excavated part of the K-129, remnants of 6 Soviet sailors were discovered, which according to maritime tradition were buried in the sea. Homeland burials were filmed in order to show them to the world at the end of the Cold War.

A year later, unknown perpetrators plundered Howard Hughes’ studio, a billionaire who worked with the CIA and the Azorian’s project, and the materials were placed into the media. As we can guess, after their disclosure the Russians become extremely angry.

The official documents concerning both operations are still secret (in 2010, some of them were shown to the public), but the photographing and partial extraction of the Soviet ship is considered one of the two or three greatest successes of the American Cold War Intelligence.

Recording of the funeral of six K-129 Sailors from a part of the wreck extracted by Americans:

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