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Wednesday, August 13, 2014


It was 1974, 40 years ago, when the USA pulled off the greatest Cold War spy feat ever:


Imagine standing atop the Empire State Building with an 8-foot-wide grappling hook on a 1-inch-diameter steel rope. Your task is to lower the hook to the street below, snag a compact car full of gold, and lift the car back to the top of the building. On top of that, the job has to be done without anyone noticing. That, essentially, describes what the CIA did in Project AZORIAN, a highly secret six-year effort to retrieve a sunken Soviet submarine from the Pacific Ocean floor during the Cold War.

It was only a few years after the peak (Cuban missile crisis) of the Cold War, 1968, that the K-129, imploded and sank 1560 nautical miles northwest of Hawaii at a depth of 16,500 feet.  After a comprehensive search by the Soviet Union in the general area, they abandoned any hope of finding the submarine.  In the meantime, the underwater acoustic data of the U.S. showed a reasonable probability of identifying the site and lifting the submarine, armed with nuclear warheads and cipher machines.  We had expertise, having lost at sea and finding  Thresher (1963) and Scorpion (1968), and a hydrogen bomb off Spain in 1966.  Three H-Bombs actually fell on land near Palomares and 2 square kilometers are still in question due to plutonium contamination. H-Bombs have also "fallen" in Georgia, Washington and North Carolina, but that is a story for another day.

President Richard Nixon, President Gerald Ford and Howard Hughes signed off on the clandestine mission to recover the K-129.  The Hughes people invented a cover story:  build a 619 feet long salvage ship to mine for strategic minerals.  Large for its time, but...
A Soviet ship was constantly nearby the search at all times.  How the Explorer was able to accomplish what it did was amazing.  What did they find?  Not much, actually, but they did recover six bodies.  The true value was that the Soviets had no idea what was salvaged, so they had to take precautions about coding and such.  To quote from the CIA:

Director of Central Intelligence William E. Colby personally appealed to those who had learned about AZORIAN not to disclose the project. For a while they cooperated, but on February 18, 1975 the Los Angeles Times published an account that made connections between the robbery, Hughes, CIA, and the recovery operation. After that, investigative reporter Jack Anderson broke the story on national television, asserting that Navy experts had told him the sunken submarine contained no real secrets and that the project was a waste of taxpayers' money. Journalists flooded into the Long Beach area where the Glomar was preparing for its second mission.  The Nixon Administration neither confirmed nor denied any of the stories in circulation, but by late June, the Soviets were aware of the Glomar's covert mission and had assigned a ship to monitor and guard the recovery site. With Glomar’s cover blown, the White House canceled further recovery operations.

Just like a movie, thieves broke into Summa Corporation (owned by Hughes) in June 1974 and stole  documents tying Howard Hughes to the CIA and Glomar Explorer.  Guess where the Los Angeles Times got their scoop?

In part, the life and times of John Pina Craven, colleague at the University of Hawaii and sometime golf partner, depicted in Blind Man's Bluff, by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew in 1998, provided interesting details on all the above.  You can also read his book, The Silent War (2002).

Back in the 1970's when I worked for the U.S. Senate, I was personally linked with Lockheed and the Glomar Explorer, for Connie Welling, who headed Ocean Mining, kept visiting with me to pass the Deep Seabed Hard Mineral Resource Act.  Senator Spark Matsunaga was the Senate leader on this legislation.  There was this rumor about their intent to mine for strategic metals, for they had just placed into operations that same Glomar Explorer.  In time, the bill passed, then back at the University Hawaii, I hired Charles Morgan, who was a research associate on that ship, and we subsequently gained Department of Interior status as the Marine Minerals Technology Center.

History of the USNS Hughes Glomar Explorer:

  • Built in 1973-1974 for $350 million ($1.67 billion today).
  • Recovered 38 feet of the K-129
  • Operation made public by the Los Angeles Times in February 1975--no comment from the Feds, creating new term, glomarization:  government neither confirms nor denies.  Here is the New York Times front page on 19 March 1975:
  • Mothballed at Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet in 1976.
  • Lockheed's Ocean Mining Company activated the ship for deep sea mineral harvesting in 1978.
  • $180 million retro-fitting into a deep sea drilling ship in 1998.
  • Now owned by Transocean Inc. (yes, that company implicated in the Gulf oil disaster with British Petroleum), and supposedly drilling for oil in the Bay of Bengal (India) carrying a Vanuatu flag:

Why haven't they made a movie about this exciting thriller?  Well, Rotten Tomatoes actually has added Azorian to their list.  Audiences have rated this film at 100.  Subtitled The Raising of the K-129, you can purchase a $23 DVD from Amazon.  Better yet, as an Amazon Premier member, I just saw it free at home on my TV set.



Jim Baird said...

Pat the Glomar Explorer looks like the makings of a good OTEC platform to me. My interest in OTEC originated in the early 80s as an energy source for extracting the minerals dissolved in the ocean. The confluence of Dr. No and the knowledge that perhaps as many as 10 million tons of gold may be dissolved in the ocean intrigued me.


Hey Jim, like me, you're a dreamer. I once, with a key technologist from NOAA, attempted to work out an agreement with Russian scientists, to search for "Treasures of the Sea." They had the deep sea equipment, and we had the knowledge of where ships sank. I even spent some time in Seville poring through historical maps.

Dissolved gold is also something many have looked into, and the technology to extract this element remains far too expensive.