The second half of the twentieth century is referred to as the Cold War, a period in which two powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, were leading an arms race and an intelligence war with each other. Both of these countries owned and developed the nuclear weapons that determined their strength and were intended to ensure victory for one side in a war of destruction that many thought would happen quickly.
One of the most powerful weapons of the battlefield at that time were submarines equipped with ballistic missiles, which, operating close to the enemy’s sea border, could theoretically – in case of potential conflict – wipe out entire cities or military objects. These vessels were of strategic importance and both the USSR and the USA were engaged in a technological race for dominance in the oceans.
One such ship was the Soviet K-129 launched in 1959, powered by a diesel engine and armed with 3 ballistic missiles with a range of over 1000 km. In 1967 the ship carried out two on patrols in the Pacific Ocean. The last one, the third one, was to take place at the beginning of 1968 and end with the K-129 reaching the shores of Hawaii, where Pearl Harbor, the base of the American Navy, is located. The command of the Soviet fleet ordered the Pear Harbor to be within range of the three warheads that the vessel was carrying there.
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 submarine to sea on February 24,1968, taking off from the base on Kamchatka. The reports he sent at the start of the patrol described the beginning of the mission as calm and trouble-free. However, on March 8th, when the the K-129 was located 2700 km from Hawaii, she was shaken by an explosion that ripped a 3-meter hole in the midship, and immediately sent the pride of the Soviet Navy to the bottom of the ocean. The 98 sailors trapped in the submarine had no chance of survival; they did not even manage to send the SOS signal. The wreck settled at a depth of about 5000 metres.
It was the largest catastrophe in the history of the Soviet Navy (the Kursk tragedy occurred after the collapse of the Soviet Union). In an instant the entire crew of the submarine and the nuclear weapons with which she was armed, were lost. The sinking of K-129 is also one of four unexplained disappearances of Cold War submarines: also the French Minerve, the Israeli INS Dakar and the American USS Scorpion.
When the Soviets realized that contact with K-129 had been lost, a search group was immediately sent to the North Pacific. The action ended in failure; the vessel was not found, additionally the American units sailing nearby aroused suspicion among the Soviet commanders. The search team was not cancelled until April 28, 1968. The families of the missing crew were paid compensation and it would seem that this is the end of the history of the K-129.
Nothing could be more wrong. Lying on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, a 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 K-129 was lying on the bottom of international waters. The President of the USA Lyndon Johnson decided that it was worth the risk.
Immediately a problem arose – K-129 was lying at a depth of about 5000 m, while American submarines could descend at a maximum depth of 600 m. A special system of undersea cameras was developed and mounted on the USS Halibut nuclear submarine. The American vessel arrived in the greatest secrecy in Hawaii, from where she was supposed to go in search of K-129. Her crew (apart from the captain, first officer and intelligence officer) were not informed about the purpose of the expedition throughout the operation – their oath of secrecy continues to this day. The search project was financed from secret bank accounts with $70 million.
After leaving Pearl Harbor, USS Halibut was constantly submerged. She had an area to explore with a radius of 8km; such a large area combined with the depth at which the Soviet submarine settled (5000m) made the task very difficult for the Americans. The way of searching, i.e. photographing the seabed forced USS Halibut to swim back and forth, while the photographic device hanging from her was swimming 6m above the seabed. The photographs were developed immediately on the submarine. What is interesting, the photographers did not know what to look for on them.
The mission of the Americans was not only difficult, but also dangerous. For two weeks, a Soviet warship was circulating over Halibut, using sonar and probably searching for K-129. The Captain of USS Halibut, Charles Moore hid the submarine under the layer of cold water, while the higher, warmer layer reflected the 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 – USS Halibut 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 submarine 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.
This extremely successful intelligence operation is still not the end of the K-129 story. In January 1969 Richard Nixon became President of the USA, and as soon as he saw photos of the Soviet wreck, he wanted more. Nixon realized that what was still in the Soviet submarine (including cipher books, ballistic missiles) could be priceless for the United States, especially because of the Cold War arms race and the intelligence war. The operation code-named Azorian (sometimes mistakenly called “Project Jennifer”) began.
The mining vessel Glomar Explorer was sent over the wreck of K-129. It had a swimming pool inside, in which it was planned to place the Soviet submarine after her excavation. The whole operation, of course, was a national secret this time too. On July 11, 1974, the Glomar Explorer anchored above the K-129 and the construction of an underwater scaffolding connecting the submarine with the Clementine rescue vehicle, which was located above the wreck, began. Lowering the platform lasted 2 days and when the K-129 was grabbed, lifting the wreck from the seabed began.
According to American reports, 1500 meters above the seabed, there was a catastrophe – a mechanical failure in the grapple caused most of the wreck to fall down to the bottom of the ocean. The rest of the submarine was delivered to the United States. It is not entirely clear what exactly was extracted, but one can suspect that apart from the ballistic missiles, these were Soviet cipher books. It is known that in the recovered part of K-129 the remains of 6 Soviet submariners were discovered. They were buried in the sea according to the sea tradition. The burial was filmed in order to show it to the world in case of the end of the Cold War.
A year later, unknown criminals plundered the studio of Howard Hughes, a billionaire who cooperated with the CIA, and materials of the Azorian project got into the media. As you can guess, after their exposure the Russians were furious.
The official documents concerning both operations are still classified (some of them were shown to the public in 2010), but the photographing and partial extraction of the Soviet submarine is considered to be one of the greatest successes of American intelligence during the Cold War.