On July 4, 1974, the Hughes Glomar Explorer, a deep-sea drillship vessel, dropped anchor in the Pacific Ocean. Its stated purpose was to mine the sea floor for manganese nodules. However, that was just a cover. Its real purpose was far more ambitious…nothing less than the salvage of a lost Soviet nuclear submarine known as K-129.
Disaster Strikes the K-129
Six years earlier, on March 8, 1968, the Soviet submarine K-129 sank in deep waters 1,560 nautical miles northwest of Oahu. 98 crewmen perished in the process. The loss wasn’t realized until the K-129 missed its second consecutive radio check-in during mid-March. About a week later, the Soviet Union launched a gigantic search and rescue effort to find the lost submarine.
The effort failed. However, it was noticed by U.S. intelligence who guessed the mission’s true nature. After checking archived acoustic records, the U.S. Navy discovered an unexplained event had occurred on March 8, 1968. After triangulating the signals, the Navy generated a search grid and initiated Operation Sand Dollar to find and photograph the Soviet sub. The U.S. submarine USS Halibut was sent to the vicinity and after just three weeks of searching, managed to locate the wreck at 16,500 feet below sea level.
The K-129 represented an exciting opportunity. It was believed to contain Soviet nuclear missile technology as well as cryptographic machines and a code book. As such, the United States decided to secretly recover the wreckage. Tasked with this responsibility, the CIA formulated Project Azorian in 1970.
Project Azorian & the Hughes Glomar Explorer: Salvage of the Lost Nuclear Submarine?
The CIA hired Global Marine Development to build a deepwater drillship vessel. The famous industrialist Howard Hughes lent his name to the project and claimed that the ship’s purpose was to mine for manganese nodules. On June 20, 1974, the newly-christened Hughes Glomar Explorer set sail from Long Beach, California. It was equipped with a large mechanical claw dubbed Clementine by the crew. The plan was simple, at least on paper. The claw would deploy to the ocean floor, wrap around part of the submarine, and then lift that part into the Hughes Glomar Explorer’s hold.
The salvage effort began on July 4, 1974 and lasted for over a month. Since the whole process took place underwater, it proved impossible for the Soviets to detect. The details of Project Azorian remain classified to this day so it’s uncertain what exactly was recovered from the wreckage. Officially, the operation was a failure (you can see one of the heavily redacted files here). Supposedly, Clementine broke down during the salvage, forcing the Hughes Glomar Explorer to abandon two-thirds of the K-129. But since the CIA is known for being extra secretive, many researchers have questioned the official account. Thus, there is speculation that Project Azorian was a major intelligence coup, leading to the capture of Soviet submarine technology, nuclear torpedoes, code books, and other items.
What caused the K-129 to Sink?
But how did the K-129 sink in the first place? The Soviet Navy believed that the sub simply sank too low and failed to handle the situation due to mechanical or crew failure. Other theories include the lead-acid batteries exploding while being recharged or an accidental missile detonation. A more controversial theory (and one privately believed by many Soviet officers) is that the sub sank after an accidental collision with the USS Swordfish.
But the most controversial theory by far was put forth by Kenneth Sewell in Red Star Rogue: The Untold Story of a Soviet Submarine’s Nuclear Strike Attempt on the U.S. Sewell postulated that the K-129 was captured by Soviet hard-liners. They planned to launch a nuclear missile on Pearl Harbor that would appear to have been fired by a Chinese submarine. The purpose was to bring about war between the U.S. and China. However, a fail safe device caused the missile to explode instead.
Sewell’s theory was bolstered by Dr. John Crane’s The Silent War: The Cold War Battle Beneath the Sea. According to Crane, the real purpose of Project Azorian was not to recover the submarine but to find out why it sank in a part of the sea where it shouldn’t have been in the first place.
Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis
Until the CIA releases more information, the true intent of K-129 as well as the strategic success of Project Azorian remain matters of speculation. However, from at least one vantage point, the Hughes Glomar Explorer had a tremendous impact. Prior to that time, the deepest successful salvage of a submarine was at 245 feet. At 16,500 feet, Project Azorian shattered that record and in the process set a new one that, as far as I know, continues to remain to this day.