In the Wake of a Sunken Soviet Submarine

American Detection

The sounds of the dying submarine were detected by a U.S. Air Force sensor system in the Pacific that was intended to identify nuclear detonations. The Navy’s extensive Sound Surveillance System did not detect those sounds. Subsequently the U.S. Navy, knowing the approximate location of the K-129 wreckage, sent the nuclear-propelled submarine Halibut (SSN-587) to locate the Soviet submarine’s precise resting place and photograph her condition. The Halibut , completed in 1960 as a Regulus cruise-missile submarine (SSGN-587), had recently been converted to a special-mission craft. She towed a sensor vehicle that eventually located and photographed the wreckage.

Despite the Soviets’ intensive search in spring 1968, the regime had no knowledge of where or why the K-129 had been lost. Over the next five and a half years, the U.S. intelligence community—with the CIA in the lead—developed history’s most complex ocean-engineering system to lift a submarine from a depth of 16,400 feet. Previously, the deepest submarine salvage had been the recovery of the USS Squalus (SS-192) from a depth of 245 feet.

In addition, the K-129 salvage effort would be undertaken with the Soviets watching: Shortly after the lift ship Hughes Glomar Explorer arrived on station on 4 July 1974, a Soviet surveillance ship appeared. As the lift effort got under way, that ship, and her helicopter and a subsequent naval tug, kept close watch on the U.S. operation—which used the cover of seafloor mining for manganese nodules, an operation ostensibly sponsored by the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes.

The watchers saw no indication that the massive lift ship was engaged in anything other than seafloor mining. And just as the section of the K-129 that was salvaged was secretly brought into the enclosed moon pool of the Glomar Explorer , the Soviet tug sailed off. 2

Spy versus Spy

Ironically, a hint had earlier been given that such an operation would take place. Someone—whose identity is still not publicly known—dropped a note at the Soviet embassy in Washington saying an effort would be made to salvage a Soviet submarine. While the note was not specific, the Soviet Navy’s leadership did consider the K-129 . But mid-Pacific depths were believed to be far beyond any possible salvage effort, especially a clandestine operation.

By December 1974—less than five months after the partially successful effort—the Soviets knew of the attempt. How did they learn of it? Some believed that John A. Walker, a Navy warrant officer who spied for the Soviets from the late 1960s until his arrest in 1985, provided information. But Walker’s assignments in the early 1970s would not have given him, or his protégé Chief Radioman Jerry Whitworth, access to the operation. There is a slight possibility that the crypto information they provided to the Soviets permitted access to some communications related to Project Azorian.

More likely, though, the Soviets learned of the project through rumors originating in the Los Angeles Police Department. A break-in at the Howard Hughes–owned Summa Corporation in June 1974, shortly before the Glomar Explorer sailed on the Azorian mission, led to the belief that burglars had taken papers mentioning the secret project. The CIA and FBI quickly became involved, as did the Los Angeles police, with the latter being told to negotiate with the burglars and use for bait $1 million in federal funds.

Soon reporters for the Los Angeles Times learned of the salvage effort, from either the FBI or their police contacts. On 8 January 1975, the newspaper published a page one-story by Jerry Cohen and William Farr about the operation and plans to return to the site. The Soviet intelligence apparatus, with operatives working from the consulate in Los Angeles, may have learned about the clandestine salvage effort even before the journalists.

William Colby, Director of Central Intelligence, prevailed upon the Los Angeles Times to move the article to page 18 the following day. Although the story disappeared—for a while—from the pages of that newspaper, other journalists were searching out their contacts for information. Articles began appearing around the world, inundated with errors and revealing few facts about the project. Colby continued to squash stories by knowledgeable journalists who had good Washington contacts, among them Pulitzer Prize–winning Seymour Hersh of The New York Times .

Hersh and others cooperated with the CIA head, but journalist-muckraker Jack Anderson did not. On 18 March, he revealed much of the story—with reasonable accuracy—on his national radio show. The following day Hersh’s account was published on page one of The New York Times . More stories followed. (Hersh told of a Times reporter who had learned some details as early as 1973, when the Glomar Explorer was conducting trials in the Atlantic, but his research stopped after a request from Colby.)

Presidential Involvement

The stories continued to appear. On 29 March 1975, the Soviet ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin, sent a lengthy note to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger calling attention to the press reports and declaring: “It goes without saying that we cannot be indifferent to any operation of raising any parts and property of the submarine belonging to the USSR.”

His demand for an explanation brought an oral response from Kissinger—after discussions with President Gerald Ford:

The United States has issued no official comment on the matters related to the vessel Glomar Explorer . It is the policy of this government not to confirm, deny or otherwise comment on alleged intelligence activities. This is a practice followed by all governments, including the USSR. Regardless of press speculation, there will be no official position on this matter.

In March 1975 Project Matador—the CIA plan to return to the site of the K-129 with the Glomar Explorer to attempt recovering additional sections of the submarine—was canceled. There was no official comment for another 15 years, until the end of the Cold War.

The Russians continued to seek answers to the mystery and the American success—or lack of it—in salvaging the submarine. The work of a humanitarian commission created early in the post–Cold-War era by President George H. W. Bush and President Boris Yeltsin—the U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on Prisoners of War/Missing in Action—provided a venue for Russian inquiries. The commission’s charter declared, in a White House statement dated 20 March 1992:

The United States and Russia have established a joint commission to investigate unresolved cases of Prisoners of War and Missing in Action dating from the Second World War, including the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. The creation of this commission underscores the commitment of both the United States and Russia to work together in a spirit of friendship to uncover the fate of missing servicemen on both sides. This effort symbolizes the determination of the Administration to resolve outstanding issues from the Cold War period and is another step in developing our new cooperative relationship with Russia.

Former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union Malcolm Toon and retired Colonel-General Dmitri Volkogonov, a senior Yeltsin adviser, were named chairmen of the commission. A. Denis Clift, then chief of staff of the Defense Intelligence Agency, was appointed as one of the U.S. presidential commissioners. (A member of the National Security Council Staff with President Richard Nixon for the summit talks with Premier Leonid Brezhnev in June-July 1974, Clift was the senior NSC staff member for the Soviet Union when the Azorian story broke in 1975. He had served as editor of the Naval Institute’s Proceedings from 1963 to 1966.)

After its first plenary session in Moscow in late March 1992, the commission established four standing working groups to pursue the different dimensions of its charter—World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Cold War, including reconnaissance flights and other losses. From the outset, Clift served as U.S. chair of the Cold War group, from which the Russians asked for information on the loss of the K-129 .

In October 1992, then-Director of Central Intelligence Robert Gates met with President Yeltsin, discussed the K-129 loss, and provided Yeltsin with a video of the U.S. burial at sea of remains of several Soviet crew members recovered from the submarine’s forward section. This information did not satisfy Russian members of the commission, who continued to press for more.

Cold War Ends, Distrust Continues

The Russians believed then, and many still do today, that the United States had raised the entire K-129 . In the Russian analysis of Project Azorian, if part of the K-129 had broken away during the undersea recovery, as U.S. officials stated, they believed the violent stress would have destroyed the undersea piping and recovery rig. Thus the entire project would have failed; they believed that it would have been impossible to recover only part of the lost Soviet sub.

In another gesture marking the end of the Cold War, Director of Central Intelligence James Woolsey authorized Ambassador Toon to present the bell salvaged from the K-129 to the Russian government. The handover, on 30 August 1993, took place in Moscow. Clift was with Toon for the handover ceremony, at the elegant Moscow townhouse residence of General Vyacheslav Trubnikov, deputy to the chief of the SVR, the Russian successor to the state security-intelligence agency KGB. He recalls that Trubnikov thanked Toon, saying how much the return of the bell would mean to the crew’s family. Trubnikov also noted that there was now a memorial to the K-129 , and that the bell would become part of it. However, neither I nor my Russian contacts have been able to determine the current location of the bell.

Also, the revelation that the bell had been recovered led some to conclude that the amidships section of the submarine, with its remaining (third) missile and possibly crypto material, had also been recovered. (In fact, the bell had probably been stowed in the forward—recovered—compartment when the submarine had gone to sea.)

In May 1994, the Cold War working group presented the Russian side of the commission with a photo of a K-129 crew member that had been discovered during a search of the sub’s forward section. The Russians were appreciative.

Throughout these exchanges, the Russians expressed doubts about how the K-129 had been lost. Early on a conspiracy theory had developed that the USS Swordfish (SSN-579) had rammed the K-129 when allegedly trailing the Soviet craft. But at the time, the U.S. submarine had been several hundreds miles away, on station off the Soviet port of Vladivostok.

In April 1995, Clift presented his Russian counterparts a copy of the Swordfish ’s deck log for the period in question. In keeping with U.S. Navy practice, the log’s entries were sparse. The Russians continued to express their doubts, with some officials claiming that the photos of the K-129 wreckage, which they had not seen, and damage to the Swordfish sail structure, which was not evident in photos taken at the time, proved that the K-129 had been sunk in a collision with the U.S. submarine.

These continuing doubts, this Russian mistrust, were particularly disturbing to the U.S. co-chairman. Ambassador Toon was a diplomat of absolute principle and integrity. In his opening remarks at the commission’s first plenary session, he had recalled his World War II Navy service as a motor torpedo boat skipper in the Pacific, and in discussing the commission’s role, he had emphasized that “it performs a great humanitarian service to families who may finally obtain an authoritative account of the fate of their loved ones.”

Ambassador Toon wanted to be absolutely sure of the facts, and he wanted to lay the K-129 issue to rest. At his request, Clift arranged a detailed briefing for him in Washington by the most senior U.S. experts on the submarine’s discovery, the recovery attempt, what had been recovered, and what the U.S. government still held. Toon had the facts he needed, and at the next plenary session of the commission, in Moscow, he delivered a precise statement:

• I have met with our most authoritative officials and experts at the highest levels of my government on the subject of the loss of the Soviet Golf-class submarine in 1968.

• I can state that the U.S. had nothing to do with the loss of the submarine.

• Further, we do not know why the submarine was lost.

• I have been asked, if this is the case, how did the U.S. locate the submarine on the bottom of the Pacific?

• The answer, first, is that the Soviet search and rescue efforts tipped U.S. armed forces off to the fact that something had happened in the Pacific.

• This then allowed us to review data from our sensors in the Pacific after the fact. That review of data led us to identify the location of the submarine.

• We do not possess the [Soviet] submarine’s log.

• We have turned over to the Russian side all humanitarian items and information relating to this loss. There is nothing further I can add. The U.S. side has completed its contribution to this aspect of the work of our Joint Commission.

And yet many in Russia—officials and civilians—continue to believe the K-129 was sunk in a collision with a U.S. submarine, and some also believe that far more than the forward 38 feet was recovered. Their convictions have been abetted by grossly inaccurate accounts in articles and books written by Americans, some of whom served in U.S. submarines, albeit not in Project Azorian. But the Russians—like Americans—feast on conspiracy stories.

1. RADM Edward D. Sheafer Jr., USN (Ret.), discussion with author, 13 September 2010. Sheafer was Director of Naval Intelligence from August 1991 to September 1994.

2. Michael White’s film Azorian: The Raising of the K-129 presents a graphic account of the salvage; see .


Mr. Polmar, a columnist for Proceedings and Naval History magazines, is the author of several books, including the Naval Institute’s Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet and, with coauthor Michael White, the newly published Project Azorian: The CIA and the Raising of the K-129 .


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