4 May 2023 — Hiding in Plain Sight: How the CIA Tried to Retrieve a Soviet Sub


Fifty-five years ago, the Soviet Golf II-class submarine K-129, carrying three SS-N-4 nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, was lost with its entire crew not long after departing the Kamchatka Peninsula headed for a patrol assignment northeast of Hawaii. For two months Soviet ships hunted for the missing sub, but they eventually gave up the search as hopeless. The United States noted the unusual behavior of Russian vessels breaking away from their previous locations and tracing search patterns along submarine patrol routes. The Americans turned to the recordings produced by their network of underwater microphones in the Pacific, and were able to identify the sound of an underwater implosion, and an approximate location of that implosion. Armed with that information, the US Navy launched Operation Sand Dollar, sending the intelligence-gathering submarine USS Halibut to learn more about what the Soviets had lost. Halibut located the wreck site where K-129, broken into three pieces, lay on the ocean floor.

The downed sub held the potential to reveal plenty of information on Soviet technology, its nuclear weapons, and its encryption methods, if the US were only able to get its hands on it. But even the pieces of K-129 were big, they were heavy… and they were resting at a depth of nearly 17,000 feet. And being caught recovering a Soviet military vessel risked causing an international incident, so if the US were to even try to recover a piece of the sub, it would have to be done in secret. The CIA took up the challenge, establishing the task force for what would be called Project Azorian on 1 July 1969. The result was a remarkable feat of engineering, as well as a spy tale worthy of the silver screen.

submarine Halibut

The submarine USS Halibut was dispatched to photograph the wreck site of submarine K-129. Photo: PD.

After considering multiple methods, including producing a gas at the sea bottom to lift the sub section, the team chose to use a “drill string”—a “string” of connecting pipes—to lower what was, in very simplified terms, a giant claw to lift the section to the surface. The CIA chose Sun Shipbuilding and Drydock Company of Chester, PA, to build a mining ship. Since this mining ship concealed a lot of hidden surprises, a cover story was needed to explain why the ship’s construction was veiled in secrecy. The CIA made an agreement with eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, known for his ambitious projects and his aversion to publicity. On 4 November 1972, Hughes’s company Global Marine Development Inc. celebrated the launch of the ship, the Hughes Glomar Explorer. The 600-foot mining ship was said to be destined for mining manganese nodules from the ocean floor.

While HGE was a functioning mining ship, her interior contained unusual features such as a “moon pool”—a drydock with two retractable gates for a floor. Objects could enter the moon pool from underneath the ship and be concealed inside it, the entire process hidden from view.

Hughes Glomar Explorer

Hughes Glomar Explorer. Photo: PD.

The HGE had to get from the East Coast to the West Coast to prepare for deployment to the location of the wrecked sub. Too large (116-foot beam) to transit the Panama Canal, it would have to transit the Strait of Magellan. The plan was for the ship to take on mail, supplies, and seven technicians in Valparaiso, Chile. However, the team in Chile was in for a surprise. It is here that the CIA report gets a little breathless:

At approximately 0600 on 11 September [1973], the Americans were awakened by noise outside the hotel. It was evident the revolution had started, as there were soldiers, tanks, armored cars, and other military vehicles all over the city. The hotel was surrounded, communications cut off, and guests confined to the hotel for the next two or three days. As attested to in his trip report—which reads like a Hollywood script—Tom Williams, the [Global Marine] personnel representative, encountered much intrigue and suspense in getting the seven technicians, supplies, and parts loaded on the HGE in the midst of the revolution. Nevertheless, in spite of a curfew, lack of communications, and the general confusion, Williams did a magnificent job of getting to the right people in the new government so that at approximately noon on 13 September, all persons and supplies were allowed aboard the HGE, and the ship was cleared to leave Valparaiso. The HGE weighed anchor at about 1500 and sailed for Long Beach. The presence of a covert U.S. intelligence ship in a Chilean port during the military coup was a bizarre coincidence quite unrelated to the rumors that “the CIA had 200 agents in Chile for the sole purpose of ousting Allende.”

HAER photograph of the Sea Shadow (IX-529), an experimental stealth ship while being scrapped in the Hughes Mining Barge (HMB-1) on Treasure Island, California, November, 2012. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Once on the West Coast, the process began to convert HGE from a somewhat unusual mining vessel to a secret sub retrieval ship disguised as a mining vessel. Special gear was installed for decontaminating, cleaning, and handling recovered items from the sub; a darkroom was constructed to process photographs used to record intelligence material, and there was a special facility for drying documents. Perhaps most remarkable was the claw mechanism, which the team would call “Clementine.” The claw was manufactured inside a submersible barge—essentially a 320-foot box. The barge, still concealing Clementine inside, was floated out and submerged. Then the HGE was maneuvered to a location over the submerged HMB-1. The retractable gates of the moon pool opened, to load the claw mechanism up into the HGE onboard. Onlookers only saw the HMB-1 submerge and later return to the surface.

The team made its way to the location of the Soviet sub in late July, and—under the watchful eye of Soviet ships and sometimes even a helicopter—lowered the drill string and claw to the ocean floor. On 4 August, after securing one of the submarine sections in Clementine’s grasp, several of the claw’s “fingers” broke off, and the larger portion of the sub piece it was grasping was lost. When the remaining piece was lifted up into the ship, the remains of six Soviet sailors were discovered inside; they were given a burial at sea in conformance with Soviet traditions. This ceremony was filmed, and that film would eventually be presented to the Soviet Union.

Title card Burial at Sea September 4 1974

The remains of six Soviet sailors were discovered in the retrieved portion of submarine K-129. They were given a respectful burial at sea; this video recording of that ceremony was later presented to the Soviet government.

Frustrated, the CIA formulated a plan to have Clementine repaired and try again, in what would have been named Operation Matador, but thanks to a June break-in at an office owned by Howard Hughes, enough information about the project was leaked to compromise the cover story. When asked about the project, the CIA responded that it “could neither confirm nor deny” the existence of Project Azorian, and this famous phrase has earned the name “the Glomar response.” There remains a bit of mystery still around the expedition; some online accounts speculate on what exactly was recovered from the sea bottom, and what the CIA learned from the materials it gathered.

HGE was mothballed by the US Navy in 1976; she was later renamed Glomar Explorer and was leased out for use in a deep-sea mining operation, then converted to be used as a drill ship under the name GSF Explorer. She was scrapped in 2015.

Extra Credit

Project Azorian: The Secret US Mission to Recover a Soviet Submarine

Hughes Glomar Explorer (CIA Spy Ship)

Azorian: the Raising of the K-129

Project Azorian: The Story of the Hughes Glomar Explorer

Sea History Today is written by Shelley Reid, NMHS senior staff writer. Past issues can be read online by clicking here.

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