The extent of U.S. undersea Cold War casualties has always been well-known. The USS Thresher (SSN-593) was lost east of Cape Cod on 10 April 1963, and all 129 men on board went down with her. And the USS Scorpion (SSN-589) sank in the mid-Atlantic southwest of the Azores in 1968 with all 99 men on board. Only recently, however, as a result of the demise of the Soviet system, my own interviews, the research of retired Navy Captain Peter Huchthausen ( K-19 [Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 2002]), and the book by authors Gary Weir and Walter Boyne ( Rising Tide [New York: Basic Books, 2003]), does anyone have a fairly accurate account of Soviet submarine disasters. The U.S. numbers, although extremely heartbreaking, pale in comparison to the grim litany of Soviet misfortune.
Soviet Cold War Submarine Accidents with Known Fatalities
- Whiskey-class S-117 sank 15 December 1952 in the Tatar Straits in the Sea of Japan. All 47 crewmen perished.
- Quebec-class M-256 sank in the Baltic Sea on 26 September 1956. A raging fire started in the closed-cycle diesel compartment and swept throughout the boat, destroying her structural integrity. Sources vary, but between 35 and 40 crewmen died, including the captain.
- Quebec-class ( M-200 ) Komsomolets collided on 21 November 1956 with a Soviet destroyer, experienced a fire ignited by liquid oxygen, and exploded and sank near Tallinn, Estonia. A total of 28 crewmen died, and only 7 were saved. The M-200 had participated in the attempt to rescue the victims of the M-256 tragedy two months earlier. The Quebec-class boats were so fire-prone, they were known as "cigarette lighters" by Soviet Navy personnel.
- Whiskey twin-cylinder-class S-80 sank with her crew of 68 men on 27 January 1961 in the Barents Sea because of flooding from a snorkel or hatch failure. When she was raised and salvaged in July 1969, emergency oxygen still was on board the boat. All food had been consumed, and crewmen who were still on board had died of carbon dioxide poisoning.
- Hotel-class K-19 suffered a reactor cooling failure on 4 July 1961. This now has been well documented by a book and movie of the same name. Eight sailors died of radiation exposure while repairing the main coolant piping to prevent reactor meltdown. The entire reactor compartment was cut out of the submarine and replaced with two new reactors, and the sub returned to service in 1964. Subsequently, the boat narrowly survived a collision with the USS Gato (SSN-615) in 1969, only to suffer a more serious fate on 24 February 1972, when another 28 lives were lost in a hydraulic fire that erupted in compartment 9. This accident occurred 600 nautical miles northeast of Newfoundland. The submarine was then towed back to port by the cruiser Vice Admiral Drozd with 12 crewmen trapped in compartment 12 for the entire three-week voyage home. They all survived in the dark on canned food and water that condensed on the hull. The K-19 was patched again and returned to service. She again suffered fires in 1976 and 1988, before her decommissioning in 1991. Her nicknames, " Hiroshima " and " widowmaker ," clearly were well deserved.
- Foxtrot-class B-37 suffered a massive explosion while at the pier in her home port on 11 January 1962, most likely owing to hydrogen gas accumulation that ignited when electrical systems were brought on line. The torpedoes in the bow section then exploded, killing 132 people; 59 were B-37 crewmen, 19 were crewmen from adjacent submarines, and 54 more were on shore. The force of the blast propelled the vessel's anchor 1.2 miles from the dock.
- In the Leninsky Komsomolsk , the first of the November class K-3 and the first Soviet nuclear-powered submarine, the hydraulic system in compartment 1 (forward torpedo space) caught fire on 8 September 1967 under the Arctic. Some 39 sailors died from fire and suffocation because of the carbon dioxide extinguishing system in compartment 2. Luckily, the fire died out before the torpedoes—some nuclear-tipped—ignited. Heroic action by one of the officers, who kept the hatch to the afflicted compartment closed, saved the boat. But his heroism also ensured his death and those of everyone in the compartment.
- Golf II-class K-129 was lost 8 March 1968, approximately 750 miles north of Hawaii in the northern Pacific with all 98 hands. Many Russians still contend that the trailing USS Swordfish (SSN-579) rammed the K-129 . The U.S. version is that hydrogen from the batteries or a torpedo exploded and sank the boat. The SOSUS (sound surveillance system) gave the United States the precise location of the K-129 hulk, and in 1974 part of her was raised by the CIA's Project Jennifer, which used Howard Hughes's Glomar Explorer.
- November Mod-class K-27 , with a prototype liquid metal-cooled reactor, experienced a nuclear accident. The incident was reported to be on 24 May 1968; ten crewmen died and others suffered radiation exposure.
- November-class K-8 sank under tow while returning from exercise Okean 70 on 12 April 1970. An internal fire in compartments 8 and 9 asphyxiated 13 men. The captain had transferred 43 of his men to a Bulgarian cargo ship but was ordered by Moscow to send the men back on board to try to save the boat. While being towed in heavy seas, the towline snapped and water began to pour in, forcing a second effort to abandon ship; 22 crewmen, including the captain, went down with the sub. Ten years earlier, the K-8 had suffered a steam generator leak, forcing an emergency surfacing in the Arctic with both reactors shut down. Although no crewmen died, 42 received radiation doses equal to those from the Chernobyl disaster and suffered serious health consequences afterward.
- Echo II-class K-108 collided with the USS Tautog (SSN-639) in June 1970 off the Kamchatka Peninsula. Some Soviet veterans insist the boat sank and the incident was kept secret, but Russian authorities today contend it returned safely to port in Petropavlovsk with no fatalities.
- Echo II-class K-56 collided with the Soviet research vessel Academic Berg on 14 June 1973; 27 crewmen and a shipyard specialist were killed.
- Echo II-class K-47 suffered a fire in compartment 8 on 26 September 1976 in the Barents Sea. Eight crewmen died.
- Delta I-class K-171 experienced a fire on 1 October 1976 in the missile compartment, killing three officers attempting to fight the fire.
- Whiskey-class S-178 suffered an explosion and fire following a nighttime collision with a Soviet refrigerated fishing trawler (RFS-13) on 21 October 1978. The sub sank in less than ten seconds into the Pacific Ocean near Vladivostok. The death toll was 32, but 22 survived on the bottom for two days in 115 feet of water in the pitch-dark hull. Divers and two rescue submarines provided heroic rescue efforts.
- Echo I-class K-222 suffered a reactor fire on 21 August 1980 about 90 nautical miles east of Okinawa. Nine crewmen suffocated in the fire-suppression system. The submarine was towed to Vladivostok.
- Charlie I-class K-429 flooded and sank in 150 feet of water on 23 June 1983 in Sarannaya Bay off the Kamchatka Peninsula. The daring work of the captain and divers saved 104 of the 109 crewmen, most of whom had to make a free ascent to the surface from a torpedo tube or escape hatch. The boat was salvaged and returned to active service. Later in the same year, on 13 September, the K-429 sank at the pier at her home base, killing 16 of the 90 men on board. The captain was tried and imprisoned as a result of the second sinking. The boat was raised again and leased to India, where she was renamed Chakra .
- Echo II-class K-131 experienced a fire in compartment 8 on 18 June 1984 while returning to base on the Kola Peninsula; 13 crewmen died.
- Golf II-class boat suffered electrical overload leading to a fire in the Sea of Japan, 18 September 1984, after snagging a Japanese fishing net cable. The boat made it to Vladivostok under her own power; 13 crewmen died.
- Echo II-class K-431 suffered a massive reactor explosion while refueling at Chasma Bay near Vladivostok on 10 August 1985, vaporizing ten men instantly. (This was reported previously as a Victor I .)
- Yankee I-class Navaga ( K-219 ) suffered a ballistic-missile explosion because of water interacting with missile liquid propellant (nitrogen tetroxide) 600 nautical miles east of Bermuda on 3 October 1986. The boat sank three days later with four men killed, mostly from the toxic fumes caused by fuel-water interaction. This was the second missile fire accident on this boat. The captain was charged with crimes against the state, but Mikhail Gorbachev ordered the charges dropped. This same ballistic-missile submarine had suffered a previous missile fuel leak and fire in silo 15 on 31 August 1973. One sailor was killed fighting the fire. The damaged silo was sealed permanently, and the boat returned to active service only to suffer a similar but more serious incident 13 years later.
- Mike-class prototype Komsomolets ( K-278 ) sank on 7 April 1989, 112 nautical miles off the Norwegian coast. An on-board fire that started in compartment 7 burned out of control; the fire at one point burned so hot that seawater around the boat began to boil. Four men died from the fire and 38 died of exposure and hypothermia in the icy water after being forced to abandon the boat. Six officers, including the captain, went down with the K-278 . One of these men died at his post while trying to restore electrical power and force air into ballast tanks to keep the boat afloat. Five others, including the captain, attempted to enter the sub's escape capsule, but he and two officers succumbed to fumes before they could reach the pod. The rescue pod failed to operate properly and would not release from the rapidly sinking hull. As the Komsomolets hit the ocean floor the pod finally released and shot to the surface. At the surface, the differential pressure killed one of the survivors when the hatch was opened, and only one man survived the harrowing ascent. This was the second so-named sub to perish.
- Echo II-class K-192 suffered a nuclear accident off Bear Island in the Barents Sea on 26 June 1989. A leak in the primary coolant caused radioactive water to be pumped into the sea. Casualties are unknown.
Post-Cold War Russian Submarine Accidents
- Oscar II-class Kursk ( K-141 ) sank 12 August 2000 in the Barents Sea because of a volatile hydrogen peroxide-fueled torpedo explosion. All 118 crewmen on board perished; 29 survived for approximately 49 hours on the bottom in 650 feet of water.
- November-class K-159 sank under tow to be scrapped on 15 September 2003; nine crewmen on board perished.
As indicated by this long list, 758 crewmen have died in 50 years of Soviet/Russian Cold War submarine operations. In some incidents, casualty numbers remain unknown. Not counting the Kursk and the most recent sinking in September 2003, 24 accidents have occurred on 22 submarines. Amazingly, this list is missing the dangerous collisions and known close calls between Soviet and U.S. submarines in the Cold War "cat-and-mouse" game. Apparently, none of these collisions added to this tragic list of fatalities.
During the Cold War, Soviet submarines made more than 2,000 deployments around the world. Those submariners who did not return from the sea left loved ones ashore, and many of them have had to find other means of support. In a society where once adequate pensions no longer provide a living wage, the parents of these accident victims are also very much at risk. The death benefit originally provided by the Soviet government was only 250 rubles, now less than $10. The Russian government cannot and in many cases will not provide for the victims' widows and children.
To make up for this deficit, Vice Admiral Chernov in retirement founded a charitable organization to help the families. Originally founded in St. Petersburg 12 years ago solely for the widows and orphans of his former command, the Komsomolets , the "Society Dedicated to the Memory of Komsomolets Nuclear Submarine" now serves the dependent survivors of all submarine fatalities. The admiral firmly believes that helping these people is a high priority and a public duty that should be fulfilled by the Russian government. The organization has a web site at www.submarines-sos.org , which raises money to help these family members meet their education, health, and living expenses.
The administration of the organization consists solely of Vice Admiral Chernov and his assistant, retired submariner Captain 1st Rank Simeon Kogan, and two clerical employees. Admiral Chernov and Captain Kogan receive no salaries for their hard work, and the two staffers together earn less than $210 per month. They at least have been provided free office space from the Russian Navy in a section of a crumbling old naval torpedo factory. The admiral stated that they do not have to worry about paying for utilities, since the heat rarely works.
In 2004, the organization had registered 46 parents, 37 widows, and 25 school-age children and university students for assistance, down slightly from 120 two years ago. It also helped two sailors who were handicapped permanently as a result of one of the accidents. They receive material support for the costs of school and higher education, medical attention, and other unforeseen circumstances. Between 1993 and 2001, the group has been able to distribute only slightly more than $29,000. According to Admiral Chernov, the organization requires the equivalent of about $2,500 a month to meet its basic requirements. But it has never come close to that figure. Last November, the organization once more asked the Russian government for help, but to no avail. Now, it is refusing to add any new cases, no matter how needy.
What makes this financial plight all the more poignant is the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin's government has generously compensated families of the recent Kursk tragedy. A combination of bad press and the need to fulfill the expectations of a newly enfranchised electorate forced him to remunerate each of the grieving families. Each has received close to $32,000 (a very large sum in today's Russia). In addition, each family received a free house in the Russian town of their choice. No similar attempt has been made to compensate the families of earlier submarine tragedies. When President Putin ordered this unusually generous sum, the number of people applying for assistance from the Komsomolets organization grew dramatically. It was difficult for the organization to get through this period, because the Kursk was from a unit the admiral once commanded, and he had to turn down requests for money from Kursk families. A commonly held belief in Russia is that all of the families of Soviet-era submarine victims have been compensated equally. But this is not true.
More than four years after the Kursk accident, one of the admiral's key missions is to remind the Russian people, the government, and now the international community, that 21 major accidents and disasters on board submarines at sea, in which more than 560 men died, preceded the Kursk disaster. Parents, widows, and children in need of assistance had to be compensated by a combination of government and private assistance, as well as contributions from individual citizens. Earlier families of those who died fulfilling their military duties were condemned to receiving a pittance.
The country to which these men gave their oath of service no longer exists, and many family members are helpless when facing the new reality of life in post-communist Russia. Pensions, allowances, and benefits are so small that these people consistently hover near the poverty line. The costs of medical treatment and medicines are rising, the subsidy for urban transportation has been eliminated, private utility companies charge more, and education costs continue to increase. As a result, the standard of living for nearly everyone has continued to decline.
Admiral Chernov contends that within the Russian government, and even within the Russian Navy, people are working at cross-purposes and are not presenting a united front. At present, the organization is trying to take care of its charges with an annual budget that is not sufficient to provide even a marginal increase in quality of life.
Author's Note: I hope veterans of the sea services, both in the United States and worldwide, will assist this organization in the good work it is doing. Donations and inquiries can be sent to the following address: Obschestvo pamiati agomnoi podvodnoi lodki VMF Komsomolec, Russia, 190103 St. Petersburg 12 Krasnoarmeyskaia str. 36-1. The bank routing and account number for donations is: S.W.I.F.T. CODE: ICSPRU2P INDUSTRY & CONSTRUCTION BANK PLS 38 NEVSKY AVE. 191011 ST. PETERSBURG Branch: Construction Branch, Account Number: 40703840672005000043 (U.S. dollars). Account Legal Name: Obschestvo pamiati atomnoi podvodnoi lodki VMF "Komsomolec."
Commander Young is the author, with Nate Braden, of the new Naval Institute Press book, The Last Sentry: The True Story that Inspired The Hunt for Red October . He is an instructor in political science at the University of Colorado and spent his 24 years in the U.S. Navy split between flying P-3s and academic pursuits.