Captain O’Connell is a frequent contributor to The Submarine Review
This is a story about a sinking that didn’t take place, but very well might have if circumstances had changed.
In early June 1974 I had recently reported to ComSubPac staff and relieved the Assistant Chief of Staff for Operations, Plans and Intelligence(N3), having come from a posting as Chief Staff Officer at Submarine Group Seven.I was familiar with submarine special operations conducted by both commands, having taken part in eight such operations from 1956 through 1967, including two while in command of USS SPINAX (SS 489) during 1966 and 1967.However, as the new N3 I found myself admitted into a new security compartment, dealing with covert deep water recovery operations.
In March 1968 a Soviet Golf-class ballistic missile submarine was approaching its assigned patrol station roughly 1,000 n.miles northwest of Pearl Harbor.K-129 carried three liquid-propellant R-21 ballistic missiles (NATO designation SS-N-5 Serb), with a range of about 755 n.miles. K-129 was assigned to the Hawaii Station, not quite in range of the primary targets of Pearl Harbor naval base, Hickam Air Force base, and CINCPAC headquarters at Camp H.M. Smith, but close enough to readily move into range if international tensions called for a higher degree of readiness. Her missiles could be launched submerged as deep as 165 feet and while traveling as fast as 4 knots.The circular error probable of the R-21 is listed as 2.8 Km (1.7 miles), but a 1 megaton warhead would make up for some inaccuracy.
About midnight on 11 March 1968 the K-129 suffered a fatal accident.The after two R-21 ballistic missiles ignited their liquid-fuel motors in sequence in their launch tubes in the after end of the sail with the tube muzzle doors shut, while the submarine was at periscope depth.The rockets exhaust burned through the bottom of the launch tubes and into the submarine pressure hull and killed all hands.The submarine sank.
The acoustic events involved were detected by a U.S. Navy cable ship, USNS ALBERT J. MEYER(T-ARC 6), then conducting acoustic research in the eastern Pacific Ocean, and by a series of hydrophones operated by the Air Force Technical Applications Center. AFTAC’s data led to pin pointing the events at40 degrees 6 minutes North, longitude 179 degrees 57 minutes East, plus or minus two miles.Soviet communications activity and observations of searches being conducted in the vicinity of Petropavlovsk led the U.S. Navy to the conclusion that a Soviet submarine had gone missing.
These events led to detailed discussions in Washington be-tween the Navy and the CIA.The lost submarine was identified as a Golf-class SSB, with R-21 ballistic missiles and a pair of type 53-58 nuclear warhead torpedoes. In addition, the lost submarine undoubtedly had highly classified cryptographic material aboard.
Following her career as a guided missile submarine USS HALIBUT(SSN 587) had been converted into a covert deep-search platform, employing fish(towed sensor vehicles) from her former Regulus missile hangar to search the ocean bottom for intelligence targets.After extensive search operations in August 1968 Halibut was successful, and brought back pictures of K-129 lying on the bottom in two pieces in 16,800 feet of water but otherwise relatively intact.The forward, larger section included the first missile tube, with presumably an intact R-21 missile in it.
The next step was to commit a large amount of money to fund a deep water recovery operation.Unlike HALIBUT’s operations that were concealed beneath the ocean surface, a recovery vessel would have to operate in plain sight. The United States was aware that the Soviet Union did not know the location of the sunken K-129 and had no inkling of U.S. knowledge, but undoubtedly would be sensitive to recovery operations in the general vicinity. Therefore the true purpose was hidden in a cover story about mining the deep ocean for manganese nodules using a special ship funded by Howard Hughes, the famous eccentric millionaire. On 4 July 1974 the Glomar Explorer began operations in the vicinity of the K-129.
Admiral Mickey Wisner was Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet.Very few people in his fleet knew anything about the true purpose of Glomar Explorer.In fact ComSubPac’s own Chief of Staff, Captain Logan Malone, was not yet read into the program. Wisner specifically forbade any contingency planning for what might happen in the event that the Soviets became aware of Glomar Explorer’s mission.
Rear Admiral Frank McMullen was Commander Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet.He called me upto his office and gave me very specific instructions.We (ComSubPac) would have a 594-class SSN on alert and ready to sail on a moment’s notice.She would be loaded for bear, that is a heavy load of anti-ship torpedoes instead of the usual mix of anti-submarine and anti-ship torpedoes that were called for in the applicable ComSubPac standing operations order. Nothing was to be committed to writing. In the event that the Soviets became aware of the Glomar Explorer’s true mission, and seized her, ComSubPac would have a fast SSN available to speed to the scene. Whether the SSN’s potential targets would be Soviet ships or the Glomar Explorer wasn’t discussed. Sinking a Soviet ship might be construed as an act of war, but sinking an American registry ship would be a different kettle of fish. In any event, ComSubPac would be ready to respond to national tasking in an emergency.
I called Commander Submarine Squadron 1, Captain Roy Wight, a close friend, up to my office.I told him that ComSubPac needed a 594-class SSN on alert all summer long, with a heavy load of anti-shipping torpedoes for an unspecified mission under ComSubPac operational control.I told him that it was a top secret, compartmented matter, and that he knew as much as he would probably ever know about the subject.Looking at the 594 SSN schedules, it was apparent that at least two 594s would have to be designated to assure that one was ready to sail while the other one might be in an upkeep status.It helped that I held an additional hat as Commander Submarine Group, Hawaiian Area, and could direct local submarine movements.The two 594s were designated, and their COs told as little as possible.We then all sat back and held our breaths.
The Glomar Explorer was only partially successful in retrieving part of the forward K-129 hull.An accident took place that fractured a lifting claw and while the forward section was on its way up to Glomar Explorer’s moon pool, the after part of the hull fell back onto the ocean floor and shattered into many pieces.The unfired R-21 rocket was lost along with any cryptographic material.About 7 August 1974 Glomar Explorer left the wreck site, never to return.Although Soviet surveillance vessels had operated close aboard Glomar Explorer during her search and lift operations, they never had a clue about what she was actually doing, until 7 February, 1975 when a Los Angeles Times front-page story exposed her operations to the world.
I was very happy that we had no occasion to use anti-ship torpedoes against Glomar Explorer.A fellow submariner, good friend and fellow staff mate, Captain Fred Terrell, was embarked in her.He was the officer who read the Soviet Navy burial service over the remains recovered from the forward section of K-129.