Nuclear Friday: And the Sea Gave up the Dead which were in It

Today’s title comes from Revelation 20:13. John of Patmos, the author of Revelation, lived on an island and traveled widely. He understood sailors and the dangers they face. John knew that sailors needed special reassurance concerning the hope of the resurrection. But this post isn’t about 1st century nautical culture, it’s about a funeral in 1974.

The Soviet submarine K-129 was not very advanced by the standards of the late sixties. It was launched in 1960 as part of a late 50’s crash program to match the large gap they had with US submarine capabilities. This wasn’t just a matter of prestige. Khrushchev had used Sputnik and the Soviet lead in the Space Race to imply that the USSR had a large ICBM force. While they did have effective ICBM’s a few years before the US, they didn’t have very many. It was a bluff. So the USSR built a sizable fleet of small diesel-electric submarines carrying three ballistic missiles each as deterrent for the time when the US would eventually find out  there wasn’t much of a “missile gap”.

Sometime in 1967 or 1968 K-129 was fitted with a new type of missile. I don’t know for certain when, but it had them on its final cruise in 1968. The Soviet navy lost contact with K-129 in early March, 1968.No one knows what happened. The official explanation in Russia today is snorkel failure coupled with crew error. Many Russians believe that K-129 collided with the USS Swordfish, which had been shadowing Soviet submarines that winter and spring. Leaking missile doors, exploding electric batteries, and even mutiny have also been proposed as causes of the sinking. Whatever the cause, the Soviet Navy was unable to locate the lost submarine, and they searched for weeks.


The US Navy observed this frantic search and had an idea that there was a lost submarine. They had SOSUS, a network of underwater microphones for monitoring missile tests. The recordings from March 8 had a very strange sound on them, quite likely the sound of a submarine imploding as it descended below its maximum safe diving depth. They were able to get a good fix on the location.

The Navy sent USS Halibut, a spy submarine equipped with a towed submersible that could withstand extreme depths. They found K-129 and took pictures in August 1968. The crew of Halibut received a unit citation award from President Johnson. This would not be their last unit citation, but that’s a story for another Nuclear Friday.

Project Azorian:

Pictures are great, but how about going out into the middle of the ocean and simply lifting K-129 from three miles off the ocean floor. This was simply the most ambitious act of piracy ever attempted. No one knew the exact capacities of K-129’s R-12 (NATO code name “Serb”) missiles. The Serb missiles were the main target of Project Azorian. Photos from the Halibut showed K-129 had broken apart between the missile containing sail section and the stern. The plan was to lift the bow and sail section from the ocean floor. The plan was hatched in early 1972 and scheduled for late summer 1974.

How could a ship of such unprecedented capabilities be built quickly. The Navy couldn’t do it because Naval appropriations would have been part of the public Congressional Record. But maybe the CIA with its unrecorded “black budget” could fund the recovery effort. The CIA agreed, and took over the mission, renaming it Project Azorian,

The CIA commissioned Global Marine to build the recovery ship. But they needed a cover story. People would notice such an unusual ship. It would be bigger than a oil drilling ship, with a much larger “moon pool”, a central chamber with access to the sea. The possibility of mining minerals off the ocean floor was much discussed in the early seventies. The cover story was that the new ship was designed to dredge manganese nodules from the deep ocean floor. But who would fund this? The CIA contacted Howard Hughes and asked if he would lend his name to project and allow his companies to channel CIA funds. Hughes agreed, and thus the Hughes Glomar Explorer launched in 1974 and sailed around the Horn to Catalina to take on the “Clementine” recovery device build by Lockheed.

I could go on at length about the technical aspects of Azorian, but I will just provide a very good link about that shortly. I’ll just say that they grabbed the sail and bow sections with Clementine and then parts of Clementine broke and the sail and part of the bow were lost. Glomar Explorer was under Soviet observation most of the time it was on site. The USSR Navy threatened Explorer with communications intelligence ship that took closeups. That ship left and an oceangoing tugboat showed up. Either ship would have been within their rights to board and search Explorer if they could be sure of its mission. The tug came close when Explorer had a piece of K-129 very close to its moon pool. The tug left, and no Soviet ships were seen after that.

So what did they get? The sail and part of the bow were lost, but they recovered the front of the bow and some nuclear armed torpedoes. They also found six bodies.

Sailors look out for their own. The recovered bodies were given burial at sea with full honors. This video is about the most creepy and most reassuring thing I have ever seen:

Skip to about 5:10 to get to the talking part, or just watch both national anthems. Seriously, this is the most amazing funeral I have ever seen. Such respect. They even explain that the sailors have to be placed into a steel vault rather than being buried in the traditional weighted shroud because of the minor radiation risk. They recite Revelation 20:13 in both English and Russian.


This PBS Nova/BBC Horizon documentary will give you the whole story about Project Azorian. It focuses mostly on the engineering aspects. I am sure the civilian crew didn’t really take apart the nuclear torpedoes. They must have had at least a few CIA archivists at the recovery site. This video is well worth watching. This whole video is heavily censored, there is no mention of ANY effort directly by the CIA.






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