Updated: Featured at H&I Fires at Castle Argghhh! There have been so many stories regarding K-129 that you could fill a stadium with the theories, ideas and probabilities. From rogue KGB operatives attempting to fire ballistic missiles on Hawaii, to a boat to boat collision with another submarine, the mystery surrounding K-129 is not simply one of why did the sub go down, but also of how much of the sub came back up? Toss in the multiple theories and it can quickly become a question of how many boats were involved, and the politics that involved them. How did I get in to this? A former ground pounder writing on Naval History? My father was Navy, and got me interested in history years ago. I once built models of the USS Monitor and the USS Merrimack/CSS Virginia and I visited Hampton Rhodes harbor area quite frequently while living in the Portsmouth area, intrigued by the history there. I am no naval expert. So just maybe, this writing will be something enjoyable to many who might not know the story of K-129, or heard of her recovery. This is one right out of a novel by Clive Cussler or Tom Clancy. Let us first begin with the setting. It begins in the year 1968. The Cold War was alive and thriving. Nuclear weapons were the threat, meanwhile the Vietnam war, rock and roll and communism were all the talk. While the much publicized southeast Asian ground war has been covered time and again, and by no means do i take away from those men and women, there was a war of another sort being fought as well. This one under the guise of aggression without violence, and it took place quietly, supposedly without either country ever firing a shot. But is that true? Beneath the waves of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, nuclear capable submarines sometimes referred to as “boomers” (as I understand the parlance anyway, readers may correct me as they see fit) and fast attack submariners waged a teeth grinding, white knuckle peaceful war of aggression as can be waged. Peaceful, if you consider playing what amounts to underwater chicken with a 7,000 ton underwater vessel, where your survival if a collision occurred were about that of a deer running across a rifle range in the middle of hunting season that the NRA was attending. Submarine drivers attempted to force each other to blow tanks and surface in a whale like ballet of metal beasts, maneuvering sometimes mere feet from each other to force the other driver to break first. Fast attack drivers would track an opposing submarine for weeks, where as Boomers would “run silent, run deep” taking as much advantage of their ability to be as quiet as possible to avoid detection by the fast attack submariners. A high tech game of cat and mouse, except the mouse had nuclear ballistic missiles capable of turning the entire east coast of either the Soviet Union or the United States in to a giant parking lot. In this state of affairs comes the players in this grand game.
First the K-129 She was a diesel powered submarine, one of six strategic ballistic missile submarines that were attached to the 15th Submarine Squadron based at Rybachiy Naval Base, Kamchatka. She was commanded by Captain First Rank V.I. Kobzar, and her hull number was 722 on her final deployment.(1) On board she carried nuclear ballistic tipped missiles, and nuclear tipped torpedo’s. While diesel powered submarines were slowly being phased out by both Navies of the time, K-129 was a reliable platform for the Soviets to utilize and test their nuclear capability on. Captain Kobzar was not a newcomer to soviet submarine operations. In 1967 he had won The Order of the Red Star for personal courage. (2) Unfortunately the exact circumstances of his award are classified, even to this day. Kobzar was a by the book Captain, whom had never deviated from Soviet naval protocol in his tenure. He had served in almost every capacity on board Soviet submarines and had worked his way to the top, and widely considered one of the most experienced naval veterans the Soviets had in their Post-World War II Navy. In short, he was capable and competent. He had commanded the K-129 since 1964, and was aware of her quirks, frailties and problems. He was 38 years of age. On the 24 of February in 1968 the K-129 departed on a routine patrol. Her route consisted of the Pacific ocean, and past the 180th meridian. She was to stay in regular radio contacted at specified times , as was common in submarine operations, until she reached her patrol area. It was at this time, before reaching her patrol area that something went drastically wrong. At beginning of March, the K-129 missed her radio check in. She missed a second check in shortly thereafter. At that point the Soviet Navy grew extremely worried. On the third week of March the Soviet navy officially declared the K-129 missing and launched a air and sea search and rescue operation searching for her. This is where speculation and fact inter mingle and the theories begin. It is known that the Soviets searched high and low for the Submarine and were unsuccessful. They made no effort to hide their search efforts of the time. it is also known that it took the the American Intelligence community with the aid of SOSUS less than 3 days to locate the submarines position. I have tried to separate theories from fact from here on for the reader. Even the theories have fact woven in, for every good lie is told with a grain of truth. Theory 1: Witness to this was none other than the USS Barb, a fast attack submarine.
The USS Barb was sitting on station outside Vladivostok harbor, performing her anti submarine operations of tracking boomers. (3) 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 Vladivostok, in un-encoded 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. Fact 1:
As the Soviet search declined, a decision was made. The USS Halibut was on station at Pearl Harbor. A former guided missile submarine, she had been converted in to a special operations platform, and loaded with electronic equipment and staffed regularly by the NSA among others. While at Pearl Harbor her missile contingent had been removed and her ‘bat cave” reloaded with an astonishing array of search equipment. She was attached to the Deep Sea Submergence Group in 1966, which specialized in special operations, deep sea search and recovery. (4) A struck of luck indeed for the US Navy and the American Intelligence communities. Halibut was dispatched to search for the K-129 in a operation called Operation: Sand Dollar. By all reports she was successful, and even took numerous pictures of the wreckage, over 22,000 (7). Those photo’s however have been declared classified. (5) Fact 2: In February 2010, the CIA officially recognized and admitted the fact that they staged a salvage operation on the wreckage of the K-129. (6) The document the CIA published is hefty, over 50 pages, but the data gathered there and at the National Security Archive is simply amazing.
The American Intelligence community, with support from the US Navy and then President Richard Nixon commissioned the building of what was a state of the art deep sea vessel of the era, The USNS Howard Hughes Glomar Explorer now simply called the USNS Glomar Explorer. They also developed something never considered, the Hughes Mining Barge, also called the HMB-1, a submersible dry dock over 300 feet long, almost 30 feet tall, and 100 feet wide.
Both vessel and barge were designed, built and constructed with the sole purpose of salvaging the K-129, an operation called Project: Azorian, improperly called Project: Jennifer by the media years later. The hardware, and the extent of the salvage to this day are not known, but what is known is that in 1992 now Defense Secretary Robert Gates released the following footage to the Soviet Union. It is a video of 6 Soviet Sailors being given burial at sea by American authorities. The sailors, were seamen from the Soviet K-129! Fact 3: Obviously the construction of such vessels takes time. It was not until 1974 that Project: Azorian was set upon. It as not until 1974 that the task was under taken, and it is without a doubt an engineering success. Many will debate whether the information gathered of a security and nuclear nature was worth the immense cost of the project (over $1.5 Billion dollars in today’s currency), however the mechanics created, the contributions made, and the sheer audacity of the project itself puts the project beyond a mere price tag in my eyes. Consider this: In 1985 Robert Ballard made history with the finding og the RMS Titanic. The Titanic lay at a depth of approximately 12.450 feet. The ship itself is well known for its large size, at over 882 feet in length. The finding and exploration of the Titanic was considered both a historical and engineering marvel at the time. The K-129 salvage, by comparison, took place a full decade before Ballard’s. The K-129 lie in over 16,600 feet of water (7). The size of the boat would make it more difficult, measuring a mere 328 feet. Tom Dougherty of The Sub-Committee a periodical written for submariners, placed in a excellent perspective (7).
“If we built a model of [the K129] to 1/350ths scale, it would be some 11.25 inches in length. A scale model of the Glomar Explorer would be 21.2 inches in length at this scale. The lift pipe would be a thin tube 0.04 inches in diameter. Finally, we would need to suspend the Glomar Explorer model over 47 feet, almost five stories, above the [K-129] model, connecting the two by that 0.04 inch tube.”
All of this 10 years before Robert Ballard’s famed expedition. Now that we know a salvage operation did indeed take place, we enter the realm of questions and the almost fantastical. What did we precisely salvage? Parts of the sub? The entire sub? What were the technological gains? How long did it take? And finally the most entertaining question, of course, “What really happened to the K-129?” Theory 2: It is regarded that the K-129 sank on or around March 8th to March 11th, 1968 around 1,600 miles off the coat of Hawaii.
On March 17th, the USS Swordfish arrived in Yokosuka harbor, Japan for emergency repairs. The USS Swordfish was a nuclear powered, fast attack submarine. one of the many submarines tasked with hunting Soviet “boomers’ as we related earlier. The distance between Hawaii and Japan is only 3,900 miles. The K-129 is half that distance between. It has been speculated that while attempting to force the K-129 to surface, in anti-submarine tactics we related earlier, the two subs impacted, resulting in the sinking of the K-129. Factors that point to this include, the damage to the USS Swordfish, the rapidity that American Intelligence found the wreckage, and the time allotted for travel to Japan, instead of Pearl Harbor. Furthermore Japanese officials in May of 1968, contacted the US Navy regarding the possibility of nuclear contamination of Yokosuka harbor, stemming from the time the USS Swordfish spent in harbor, leading one to believe that the damage was more than simply a “bent periscope”. They denied further entry to the harbor by US Naval vessels until safety could be guaranteed. To further exacerbate this theory we have even more events Theory 2a:
The USS Scorpion, was a Skipjack class of submarine, a nuclear attack submarine and one of the fastest boats built. She also has the ominous history as being one of only two US Navy nuclear submarines lost at sea. On May 21, 1968 she reported her position as approximately 50 miles south of the Azores Islands. 6 days later she was reported late to Norfolk, Virginia and missing. She was never heard from again. However it is interesting to note that the US Navy began a search a full three days before the USS Scorpion was officially announced as missing. (8) This has led to speculation that the Navy knew that the Scorpion had been sunk, and due to geographic placement of the Scorpion in her mission, the recent collision report possibility with the USS Swordfish and the K-129, that the USS Scorpion was sunk in retaliation of the perceived attack on the K-129 by the USS Swordfish. Multiple pieces of acoustic data were gathered leading to a range of thoughts, that either the Scorpion imploded due to the massive depth, or that she fired one of her own torpedo’s…and hit herself! To add more fuel to this fire, when Robert Ballard approached the US Navy to seek the Titanic, he was granted permission provided he perform something for them…search for the USS Scorpion. (9) Even more interesting is Retired United States Navy Captain Peter Huchthausen, former naval attaché in Moscow, had a brief conversation in 1987 with Admiral Peter Navojtsev told him,
“Captain, you are very young and inexperienced, but you will learn that there were some matters that both nations have agreed to not discuss, and one of these is the reasons we lost K-129.” (10)
He also interviewed Admiral Victor Dygalo, who stated that the true history of K-129 has not been revealed because of the informal agreement between the two countries’ senior naval commands. The purpose of that secrecy, he alleged, is to stop any further research into the losses of USS Scorpion (SSN-589) and K-129. (10) Theory 3: Most disturbing of all the theories presented however is that of a rogue submarine. The K-129 was discovered approximately (please note it’s location is approximate because it’s exact secret is still classified by the CIA) over 600 miles from it’s designated patrol route by the Soviet Union. This is one of the many reasons that the Soviet Search and rescue effort was unsuccessful. Because of the nature of K-129′s mission, it’s Captains secret past and it’s location to Hawaii, combined with the incident to the USS Swordfish it proposed that perhaps the K-129 had gone rogue. That perhaps the K-129 had attempted to launch ballistic missiles at the island’s of Hawaii, either via a hijacked crew, or by pre-planned determination somewhere within the Soviet hierarchy.(2) Summary So what really happened out there in those dark Pacific ocean nights? Was it a case of high pressure Navy and political pressure? Did the USS Swordfish ram the K-129, and the Soviets sink the USS Scorpion in retaliation? Was the situation defused by the political powers of the time?
The incident has spurred not only hundred of followers but even it’s own urban slang such as “Glomar response” One must consider the multiple issues facing both countries at the time. The US from February 1968 until June completed several successful nuclear weapons testing in Nevada, including a one megaton warhead device. The Soviet Union meanwhile was dealing with the Prague Spring uprising that had started at the beginning of the year. In January of 1968 North Korea, who was backed by the Soviets in the Korean War, captured and seized the only American warship, that to this day, is held prisoner of war the USS Pueblo. The USS Pueblo was a intelligence gathering ship, posted off the coast of North Korea to monitor both North Korea and the Soviet Union. It’s been almost 40 years, the Soviet Union is defunct, Nixon is dead, the Cold War is over, if it ever was really cold at all. Much has changed in those passed years. But the hands of time reach long and deep , deeper than the Pacific, as does the mystery of the K-129
- 1: Wikiepedia (2010) Soviet Submarine K-129
- 2: Sewell, Kenneth (2005) Red Star Rogue: The Untold Story of a Soviet Submarine’s Nuclear Strike Simon & Schuster
- 3: Kemble, Mike (2009) The Amazing Story of the K129
- 4: Flynn, Gary (2008) USS Halibut SSGN-587
- 5: Regulus Missile (2002) The Cruise of the USS Halibut: The most decorated submarine of the Cold War
- 6: Woodward, Calvin (2010) Gone fishing: The secret hunt for a sunken Soviet sub
- 7: Dougherty, Tom (2002) Raising the K-129: A Tale of the Cold War The Sub-Comittee Reports
- 8: Offley, Ed (2007) Scorpion Down, pages 247-248. Basic Books
- 9: Roach, John (2008) Titanic was found during Secret Cold War Navy Mission National Geographic June 2nd 2008
- 10: Offley, Ed (2008) Scorpion Down: Sunk by the Soviets, Buried by the Pentagon (Paperback – Mar 24, 2008)