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Project Azoria – recovery of the sunken Soviet submarine K-129

Ian Harvey

Project Azorian, also known as Jennifer by the press after its own Top Security Compartment, was the code name for a project of the U.S Central Intelligence Agency, also recognized as the CIA. This project was for the 1974 recovery of the sunken Soviet submarine K-129 from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean floor.

They used the ship Hughes Glomar Explorer, which was built for this mission. The sinking in 1968 of K-129 happened around 1,560 nautical miles northwest of Hawaii. Project Azorian was one of the most challenging, pricey, and secretive intelligence operations of the Cold War, at the cost of around $800 million, or $3.8 billion in 2016 money.


USS Halibut SSGN-587
USS Halibut SSGN-587

In addition to designing the lifting cradle and the recovery ship, the U.S. used concepts that were developed by Global Marine. Thus they were able to utilize precision stability equipment that would keep the ship almost stationary above the target. This was to be done while lowering nearly three miles of pipe. They worked with scientists to develop methods to preserve paper that had been underwater for years, with the hope of being able to read and recover the submarine’s code books. One of the reasons this project was undertaken was due to speculation that a functional nuclear missile, as well as cyptological documents, were at the location.

After the Soviet Union had completed their unsuccessful search for the K-129, the US started their own search. They used sonic data from four AFTAC sites, and the Adak SOSUS array was able to locate the wreck of the submarine inside five nautical miles.

The USS Halibut submarine used the Fish, a sonar that was made to be able to withstand extreme depths to observe seafloor objects. The recovery operations started in international waters around six years later with the alleged commercial purpose to mine the sea floor for manganese nodules. This was done by Howard Hughes and the Hughes Glomar Explorer. While the ship was trying to recover part of the ship K-129, a mechanical failure occurred with the grapple which caused two-thirds of the recovered section to break off.

The Wreck of the K-129

Golf II class ballistic missile submarine K-129, hull number 722
Golf II class ballistic missile submarine K-129, hull number 722

During April of 1968, Soviet Pacific Fleet were deployed to the North Pacific Ocean and engaged in some’ unusual’ search operations. The activity was assessed by the Office of Naval Intelligence, also known as ONI. This was a possible reaction to the loss of a Soviet submarine. The Soviet surface ship searches were centered on locations known to be Soviet Gold II Class SSB strategic ballistic missile diesel submarine routes. These submarines transferred three nuclear missiles with an extended sail/conning tower and were regularly deployed inside missile range of the U.S west coast.’

The American SOSUS (Sea Spider) hydrophone network located in the northern Pacific was asked to review the recordings in the hope of detecting an explosion or implosion connected to such a loss. The Naval Facility Point Sur , located south of Monterey, California, was able to isolate a sonic signature on a low-frequency array (LOFAR) that recorded an implosion event that happened on March 8th, 1968.

Using NavFAc Point Sur’s time and date of the occurrence, NavFac Adak and the U.S West Coast NAVFAC had also been able to isolate the sonic signature. With five SOSUS lines, Naval Intelligence was able to locate the site of the K-129 wreckage to the area of 40.1° N latitude and 179.9° E longitude.

After searching for weeks, the Soviets were not able to locate their sunken ship. Gradually, the Soviet Pacific Fleet operation returned to a normal level. During the month of July in the year of 1968, the U.S Navy started “Operation Sand Dollar”. They deployed the USS Halibut from Pearl Harbor to the site of the wreckage. The objective for Sand Dollar was to locate and photograph the K-129. During 1965, Halibut was configured to use deep submergence search equipment.

The U.S. inventory submarine at the time was the only one specially-equipped this way. SOCUS provided a search locus that was 1,200 square miles, and the wreck was around 3 miles deep. Halibut was able to locate the wreck after three weeks of visual search that used robotic remote controlled cameras.

Halibut is documented to have spent the next several weeks getting 20,000 close-up photos to record every aspect of the K-129 wreck. This was a feat for Halibut; they received a special classified Presidential Unit Citation that was signed by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968. Another wreck from 1968 was of a U.S. nuclear-powered submarine known as Scorpion. This was in the Atlantic, and it took five months to find.

A sister ship of the K-129, Golf II class
A sister ship of the K-129, Golf II class

In 1970, based on a photo, Defense Secretary Melvin Laird and Henry Kissinger, then the National Security Adviser, had proposed a secret plan. This was to recover the wreckage so that the U.S. could study Soviet nuclear missile technology, and also to possibly recover the cryptographic materials. The proposal had been accepted by President Richard Nixon, and the CIA was assigned to attempt the recovery. They would then build the Glomar Explorer, and employ its cover story.

Global Marine Development Inc. was the development and research arm of Global Marine Inc, a pioneer in deep water and offshore drilling operations. This company was contracted to design, create, and operate Hughes Glomar Explorer in order to secretly salvage the sunken Soviet submarine from the floor of the ocean. The ship was made at the Sun Shipbuilding yard close to Philadelphia.

The billionaire businessman Howard Hughes (whose companies at the time were contractors on several classified U.S. military weapons, satellites, and aircraft contracts) had agreed to lend his name to the project to help the cover story that the ship was mining manganese nodules from the ocean floor. Hughes and his companies had no kind of involvement with the project. The K-129 wreckage was photographed at a depth of over 16,000 feet. At this depth, the salvage operation would be beyond the capability of any ship salvage operation that has ever been attempted. On November 1, 1972, work started on the 63,000 short ton, 619 foot long Hughes Glomar Explorer, also referred to as HGE.


The Hughes Glomar Explorer
The Hughes Glomar Explorer

The Hughes Glomar Explorer made use of a large mechanical claw. Lockheed titled the equipment “Capture Vehicle”, but it was affectionately called Clementine. The capture vehicle was made to be lowered to the floor of the ocean.

It would grasp around the targeted section of the submarine and then would lift that section into the ship’s hold. One of the requirements for this technology was to keep the floating base stable and locked in position over a fixed point 16,000 feet below the surface of the ocean.

The capture vehicle was lowered and raised on a pip string similar to those that were used on oil drilling rigs. Section by section, steel pipes that measured 60 feet long were strung together to lower the claw through a hole in the middle of the ship. This design was made by Western Gear Corporation of Everett, Washington. With a successful capture by the claw, the lift would reverse the process while 60-foot sections were drawn up and removed all at one time. The salvaged “Target Object” would then be drawn into a moon pool, and the doors would then be closed to form a floor for the salvaged section. This would allow for the entire salvage process to happen underwater, away from the view of spy satellites, aircraft, and other ships.

Setting sail 3,008 nautical miles away from Long Beach, California on the date of June 20th, 1974, Hughes Glomar Explorer arrived at the recovery site on July 4th. They conducted a salvage operation for over a month. Throughout this period, at least two Soviet Navy ships arrived at the Glomar Explorer’s work site. The ocean tug SB-10 and the Soviet Missile Range Instrumentation Ship Chazma paid them a visit.

It was discovered after 1991 that the Soviets were told about the operations and were aware that the CIA was planning some form of a salvage operation, although the military command did not believe it was possible for them to perform the task and disregarded other intelligence warnings. Later down the road, Soviet Ambassador Donrynin started sending urgent messages warning that the operation was about to happen. The Soviet military engineering specialists reevaluated their position and alleged that it was possible to recover the K-19 ships inside the area where it was ordered to report any strange activity. The lack of knowledge as to exactly where the K-129 was located prevented them from stopping any salvage operations.

It was stated by U.S. Major General Roland Lajoie – and this was according to a briefing he had gotten from the CIA – that during the recovery operation Clementine had a catastrophic failure which caused two-thirds of the raised portion of the K-129 to sink right back into the ocean floor. Past employees from Hughes Global Marine and Lockheed, who had worked on the operation, stated that several of the claws that were intended for grabbing the submarine fractured. This happened possibly because they were made from maraging steel – this is a very strong steel, but it’s not very flexible compared to other types of steel.

The section that was recovered had two nuclear torpedoes, so Project Azorian wasn’t a complete failure. They also recovered the bodies of six crewmen, who were given memorial services with military honors. They buried them at sea inside a metal casket, due to radioactivity concerns.

Some other crew members have reported that code books and other items of interest to CIA employees on the ship were recovered. Also, images of inventory printouts suggest that different submarine components like hatch covers, instruments, and sonar equipment were also recovered. The documents from White also state that the ship’s bell was recovered and later returned to the Soviet Union as part of a diplomatic effort. The CIA considers that project to be one of the best intelligence rebellions of the Cold War.

The whole salvage operation was taped by a CIA documentary film crew, but this film is still classified. A small portion of the film that showed the recovery and the burial at sea of the six bodies was given to the Russian Government in 1992.

The New York Times contains the story

Jack Anderson has been credited with breaking the story of the Hughes Glomar Explorer and garnering a nationwide audience. He rejected a plea from the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, William Colby, to contain the story.

Anderson stated that he released the story because Navy specialist have told us that the sunken sub had no real secrets and that the project was a waste of taxpayer money.

Glomar Explorer mothballed in Suisun Bay, California, during June 1993.
Glomar Explorer mothballed in Suisun Bay, California, during June 1993.

During February of 1975, investigative reporter and former New York Times writer Seymour Hersh planned to publish a story on Project Azorian. In 2005, Bill Kovach, the New York Times Washington bureau chief, stated that the government offered a convincing argument for delaying publication. Exposure during that time, while the project was still in progress, could have caused an international incident. The New York Times published its article in March of 1975. This was after the story appeared in the Los Angeles Times, and it included a five-paragraph explanation to several twists and turns in the path of the publication of the story. CIA director George H.W. Bush reported on many occasions to U.S. President Gerald Ford on media reports and use in the future of the ship. The CIA came to the conclusion that it was unclear what, if any, action was done by the Soviet Union after finding out about the story.

Freedom of Information Act request and the Glomar response

After stories became public about the CIA’s attempts to stop the publications about Project Azorian, a journalist, Harriet Ann Phillippi, filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the CIA for any records about these suppression attempts.

The CIA had refused to either deny or confirm the existence of such documents.

1998 release of video

A video that showed the 1974 memorial service for the six Soviet seamen was forwarded from the U.S. to Russia during the early 1990s. Parts of the video were shown on television documentaries about Project Azorian. This included the 1998 Discovery Channel special called “A Matter of National Security”. It was based on Clyde W. Burleson’s book, The Jennifer Project. It was again aired on PBS Cold War submarine episode called NOVA in 1999.

2010 release of 1985 CIA article

During the month of February in 2010, the CIA released an article that was from the fall 1985 edition of the CIA internal journal called Studies in Intelligence. This was followed by an application from Matthew Aid at the National Security Archive to declassify the content under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.

Exactly what the operation was able to salvage remained unclear. The report was written by a participant that was not identified in Project Azorian.

2010 release of President Ford cabinet meeting

Throughout the aftermath of the publication of The Project Jennifer story by Seymour Hersh, U.S. President Gerald Ford, Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger, Philip Buchen, John O. Marsh Jr., Lt.General Brent Scowcroft, Ambassador Donald Rumsfeld, and William Colby all discussed the leak and whether the Ford administration would respond to Hersh’s story. During a cabinet meeting on March 19th,1975 (the same date The New York Times published their story), Secretary of Defense Schlesinger had said that this operation was a major American achievement. The operation is a marvel of maintaining secrecy.

With the words “major American achievement” and “marvel” being used to describe Operation Matador, it’s clear that the Secretary of Defense pointed out that some form of success should be confirmed publicly. William Colby, the director of the CIA, stated that he thinks we should not put pressure on the Soviet Union for a response. The result of the meeting was to stonewall; this caused the Los Angeles Times to publish a story by Jack Nelson the next day that was four pages long and had a headline of, “Administration Won’t Talk About Sub Raised by the CIA”.

Conspiracy theory

Time magazine also had a court filing by Morton H. Halperin and Felice D. Cohen on behalf of the Military Audit Project that suggested a project goal of raising a Soviet submarine. This itself might have been a cover for another secret mission. They listed as possibilities for the actual purpose of a secret mission as tapping undersea communication cables, the installation of an underwater missile silo, and repair and installation of surveillance systems to monitor submarine and ship movements.

Recovery site of K-129
Recovery site of K-129

New eyewitness account

Red November: Inside the Secret US – Soviet Submarine War, contained an inside account of the Project Azorian by Joe Houston. He was the senior engineer who made the leading-edge camera systems that were used by the Glomar Explorer squad to take images of K-129 on the ocean floor. The team needed pictures that would offer precise measurements to create the grappling arm and other systems that were used to bring the sunken submarine up to the surface.

Houston was working for the mysterious Mr. P (John Parangosky) who actually worked for the CIA Deputy Director Carl E. Duckett – they were the two leaders of Project Azorian. Duckett later worked with Houston at a different company. It was said that the CIA might have recovered more from the K-129 wreckage than admitted to the public. Reed also detailed how the mini-sub technology that was used by the submarine Halibut to discover K-129 was also used for the later “Operation Ivy Bells” mission to wiretap the underwater Soviet communication cables.

The documentary film titled Azorian: The Raising of the K-129 was produced by Michael White and released in the year 2009. There were three principals who participated in the making of the Hughes Glomar Explorer heavy lifting system and the Lockheed capture vehicle (claw or CV). They gave on-camera interviews. These individuals were also on the ship during the operation and were intimately involved with the recovery mission. The individuals are Raymond Felfman (Lockheed Ocean Systems senior staff engineer), Charlie Johnson (Global Marine heavy lift engineer), and Sherman Wemore (Global Marine heavy lift operations manager).

These three and others were not on board during the recovery, but they were cleared on all aspects of the operation. It was confirmed that only 38 feet of the bow was eventually recovered. The intent had been to recover the forward two-thirds of K-129 that broke off from the rear section of the submarine and was selected to be the Target Object (TO). The capture vehicle was successfully able to lift the TO from the ocean floor. But while on the way up, a failure to part of the capture vehicle caused the loss of control at 100 feet, which included the loss of the sail of the TO.

Here is another story from us: Salvaging the wreck of one of the most feared Soviet cruisers of the Cold War

In October 2010 a book based on the film titled Project Azorian: The CIA and the Raising of the K-129 by Michael White and Norman Polmar had been published. The book has extra documentary evidence about the effort to locate the submarine and the recovery operation.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News