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Soviet submarine K 129 (1960)

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8.2 m

26 January 1954

100 m

2.3 months

Soviet submarine K-129 as rendered in its sunk state under the ocean with a ship above it.

Nr. 402 Severodvinsk or Nr. 199 Komsomol Na Amur

Sank on 8 March 1968 approximately 1,560 nautical miles (2,890 km) northwest of Oahu in the Pacific Ocean with all hands. 98 crewmen died.

Partially recovered in covert salvage operation by the CIA in 1974.

USS Scorpion (SSN 589), USS Thresher (SSN 593), Soviet submarine K 219

The Rogue Soviet Sub that Almost Started WWIII in 1967

K-129 was a project 629A (NATO reporting name Golf-II) diesel-electric powered submarine of the Soviet Pacific Fleet, one of six Project 629 strategic ballistic missile submarines attached to the 15th Submarine Squadron based at Rybachiy Naval Base, Kamchatka, commanded by Rear Admiral Rudolf A. Golosov.


Soviet submarine K-129 as illustrated in its sunk state under the ocean.

In January 1968, the 15th Submarine Squadron was part of the 29th Ballistic Missile Division at Rybachiy, commanded by Admiral Viktor A. Dygalo. K-129's commander was Captain First Rank V.I. Kobzar. K-129 carried hull number 722 on her final deployment during which she sank on March 8, 1968. It was one of four mysterious submarine disappearances in 1968; the others being the Israeli submarine INS Dakar, the French submarine Minerve (S647) and the US submarine USS Scorpion (SSN-589). The Soviet Navy deployed a huge flotilla of ships to search for her but never found her wreck.

The bottom part of a ship sent to retrieve the remains of Soviet submarine K-129.

The United States attempted to recover the boat in 1974 in a secret Cold War-era effort named Project Azorian. The vessel's position 4.8 kilometres (3.0 mi) below the surface was the greatest depth from which an attempt had been made to raise a ship. The cover story used was that the salvage vessel was engaged in commercial manganese nodule mining. Part of the submarine was recovered.

The remains of Soviet submarine K-129 as retrieved by a ship.


Soviet submarine K-129 (1960) in the open ocean when it was still operational.

K-129, having completed two 70-day ballistic-missile combat patrols in 1967, was tasked with her third patrol to commence 24 February 1968, with an expected completion date of 5 May 1968. Upon departure 24 February, K-129 reached deep water, conducted its test dive, returned to the surface to report by radio that all was well, and proceeded on patrol. No further communication was received from K-129, despite normal radio check-ins expected when the submarine crossed the 180th meridian, and when it arrived at its patrol area.

Soviet submarine K-129 (1960) as viewed in different angles when it was still in operational.

By mid-March, Soviet naval authorities in Kamchatka became concerned that K-129 had missed two consecutive radio check-ins. First, K-129 was instructed by normal fleet broadcast to break radio silence and contact headquarters; later and more urgent communications all went unanswered. Soviet naval headquarters declared K-129 "missing" by the third week of March and organized an air, surface, and sub-surface search-and-rescue effort in the North Pacific from Kamchatka and Vladivostok.

This unusual Soviet deployment in the Pacific was analysed by U.S. intelligence as probably in reaction to a submarine loss. U.S. SOSUS Naval Facilities (NAVFACs) in the North Pacific were alerted and requested to review recent acoustic records to identify any possible associated signal. Several SOSUS arrays recorded a possibly related event on 8 March 1968, and upon examination produced sufficient triangulation by lines-of-bearing to provide the U.S. Navy with a locus for the probable wreck site. One source characterized the acoustic signal as "an isolated, single sound of an explosion or implosion, 'a good-sized bang'." The acoustic event was reported to have originated near 40 N, 180th longitude.

Soviet search efforts, lacking the equivalent of the U.S. SOSUS system, proved unable to locate K-129, and eventually Soviet naval activity in the North Pacific returned to normal. K-129 was subsequently declared lost with all hands.

American intelligence resources, with the aid of SOSUS triangulation, would later locate the K-129 wreck, photograph it in situ at its 16,000-foot (4,900 m) depth, and (several years later) partially salvage it.

Discovery and salvage – Project Azorian

The wreck of K-129 was identified by the USS Halibut northwest of Oahu at an approximate depth of 4,900 metres (16,000 ft) in early August 1968. It was surveyed in detail over the next three weeks by Halibut -reportedly with over 20,000 close-up photos- and later also possibly by the bathyscaphe Trieste II. Given a unique opportunity to recover a Soviet SS-N-5 Serb nuclear missile without the knowledge of the Soviet Union, the K-129 wreck came to the attention of U.S. national authorities. President Nixon authorized a salvage attempt after consideration by the Secretary of Defense and the White House. To ensure the salvage attempt remained "black" (i.e. clandestine and secret) the CIA, rather than the Navy, was tasked to conduct the operation. The Hughes Glomar Explorer was designed and built under CIA contract solely for the purpose of conducting a clandestine salvage of K-129. The salvage operation, named Project Azorian, would be one of the most expensive and deepest secrets of the Cold War.

Leak and widespread media attention

Seymour Hersh of the New York Times uncovered some of the details of Project Azorian in 1974, but was kept from publication by the action of the Director of Central Intelligence, William Colby. Months after the salvage operation was completed, in February 1975, the Los Angeles Times ran a brief story regarding the CIA operation, which led the New York Times to release Hersh's story. Jack Anderson continued the story on national television in March 1975. The media called the operation Project Jennifer, which in 2010 was revealed to be incorrect, since Jennifer referred only to a security system which compartmentalised Azorian project data.

The Hughes Glomar Explorer was publicly believed to be mining manganese nodules on the sea floor. Once the real purpose of Azorian was leaked to the media, however, the Soviet Union eventually found out about what happened. According to one account, in July–August 1974 the Hughes Glomar Explorer grappled with and was able to lift the forward half of the wreck of K-129, but as it was raised the claw suffered a critical failure resulting in the forward section breaking into two pieces with the all-important sail area and centre section falling back to the ocean floor. Thus the centre sail area and the after portions of K-129 were allegedly not recovered. What exactly was retrieved in the section that was recovered is classified Secret Noforn or Top Secret, but the Soviets assumed that the United States recovered torpedoes with nuclear warheads, operations manuals, code books and coding machines. Another source (unofficial) states that the U.S. recovered the bow area, which contained two nuclear torpedoes, but no cryptographic equipment nor code books.

The United States announced that in the section they recovered were the bodies of six men. Due to radioactive contamination, the bodies were buried at sea in a steel chamber on 4 September 1974, with full military honors about 90 nautical miles (167 km) southwest of Hawaii. The videotape of that ceremony was given to Russia by U.S. Director of Central Intelligence Robert Gates when he visited Moscow in October 1992. The relatives of the crew members were eventually shown the video some years later.

Continuing secrecy and official objections to full disclosure

The K-129 recovery has been stated to have been a failure, recovering a small amount of insignificant parts of the submarine. The CIA argued in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, however, that the project had to be kept secret because any "official acknowledgment of involvement by U.S. Government agencies would disclose the nature and purpose of the program." This response has entered the lexicon of legal jargon as the Glomar response or Glomarization.

To this day the files, photographs, videotapes and other documentary evidence remain closed to the public. A few pictures appeared in a 2010 documentary showing the K-129 wreck: the bow and the sail, with the missile compartment heavily damaged showing only one missile tube left attached to the structure.

Specific location

The location of the wreck remains an official secret of the United States intelligence services. However, Dr. John P. Craven points to a location nearly 40 degrees North, and almost exactly on the 180th meridian. CIA documents reveal that it sank "1,560 miles northwest of Hawaii," and that the Hughes Glomar Explorer had to travel 3,008 miles from Long Beach, CA, to reach the recovery site. The International Atomic Energy Agency states that two nuclear warheads from K-129 were located in the Pacific 1,230 miles from Kamchatka at coordinates 40°6'N and 179°57'E at a depth of 6,000 metres (20,000 ft), and lists them as recovered. All three distances point to a location of 38°5′N 178°57′E, which is close to 600 nautical miles (1,100 km) north of the Midway Atoll. The CIA gives 5,010 and 5,030 metres (16,440 and 16,500 ft) for its approximate depth.

Explaining the disaster

The official Soviet Navy hypothesis is that K-129, while operating in snorkel mode, slipped below its operating depth. Such an event, combined with a mechanical failure or improper crew reaction, can cause flooding sufficient to sink the boat.

This account, however, has not been accepted by many, and four alternative theories have been advanced to explain the loss of K-129:

  1. A hydrogen explosion in the batteries while charging;
  2. A collision with USS Swordfish;
  3. A missile explosion caused by a leaking missile door seal;
  4. Intentional or unintentional scuttle by crew due to K-129 violating normal operating procedures and/or departing from authorised operating areas.

Reportedly, as many as 40 of the complement of 98 were new to the submarine for this deployment.

The K-129 was approximately mid-way through standard shore leave/replenishement and repair when a new mission was tasked.

Hydrogen explosion

Lead–acid batteries vent explosive hydrogen gas while charging. The hydrogen gas, if not properly vented, could have accumulated into an explosive concentration.

Dr. John P. Craven, former chief scientist of the U.S. Navy's Special Projects Office and former head of the DSSP and DSRV programs, commented:

I have never seen or heard of a submarine disaster that was not accompanied by the notion that the battery blew up and started it all. [...] Naive investigators, examining the damage in salvaged battery compartments, invariably blame the sinking on battery explosions until they learn that any fully charged battery suddenly exposed to seawater will explode. It is an inevitable effect of a sinking and almost never a cause.

At least one American submarine, USS Cochino, on the other hand, was lost off Norway in 1949 due to a hydrogen explosion in the battery compartment. Most of Cochino's crew was rescued and the cause of her sinking is therefore known.

Collision with USS Swordfish

It was standard practice during the Cold War for U.S. Navy attack submarines to trail Soviet missile submarines as they departed their home ports and moved into the North Pacific or the North Atlantic Ocean.

The collision theory is the unofficial opinion of many Soviet Navy officers, and is officially denied by the U.S. Navy. According to U.S. Navy sources, USS Swordfish put into Yokosuka, Japan on 17 March 1968, shortly after the disappearance of K-129, and received emergency repairs to a bent periscope, reportedly caused by ice impacted during surfacing while conducting classified operations in the Sea of Japan.

The USS Pueblo seizure by the North Korean government occurred in the Sea of Japan on 23 January 1968, and the U.S. Navy response to this incident included the deployment and maintenance of naval assets in the area off the eastern North Korean coast for some time thereafter.

In response to Russian efforts to ascertain whether K-129 had been lost due to damage resulting from a collision with a U.S. submarine, an official U.S. statement by Ambassador Malcolm Toon to a Russian delegation during a meeting in the Kremlin in August 1993 related:

At my request, U.S. naval intelligence searched the logs of all U.S. subs that were active in 1968. As a result, our director of naval intelligence has concluded that no U.S. sub was within 300 nautical miles (560 km) of your sub when it sank.

A news release in 2000 demonstrates that Russian suspicion and sensitivity concerning the collision possibility, and indeed their preference for such an explanation, remains active:

As recently as 1999, Russian government officials complained that Washington was covering up its involvement. One accused the Americans of acting like a "criminal that had been caught and now claimed that guilt must be proved," according to the notes of a U.S. participant in a November 1999 meeting on the topic.

A picture of the Swordfish on 17 March 1968 at its berth in Japan published in a Japanese newspaper showed only a bent periscope and a dented sail. A collision sufficient to breach the pressure hull of another submarine would have significantly damaged the sail.

An unconfirmed report states that K-129 was trailed from its home port Petropavlovsk by USS Barb, which had been stationed off Petropavlovsk for an intelligence-gathering mission. USS Barb, according to the report, had orders to attack K-129 if the Russian submarine was preparing for a missile launch. The report further states that USS Barb witnessed the sinking of K-129 but was not involved in it.

Missile explosion due to leaking hatch seal

On 3 October 1986 the Soviet Yankee-class SSBN K-219, while on combat patrol in the Atlantic, suffered the explosion of a liquid-fuelled SS-N-6 missile in one of its 16 missile tubes. The cause of the explosion was a leaking missile tube hatch seal. The leak allowed sea water to come into contact with residue of the missile's propellants, which caused a spontaneous fire resulting in an explosion first of the missile booster, then a subsequent explosion of the warhead detonator charge. In the case of the Yankee-class SSBN, the missiles were located within the pressure hull and the explosion did not cause damage sufficient to immediately sink the boat. It did, however, cause extensive radioactive contamination throughout, requiring the submarine to surface and the evacuation of the crew to the weather deck, and later to a rescue vessel which had responded to the emergency. Subsequently, K-219 sank into the Hatteras Abyss with the loss of 4 crewmen and rests at a depth of about 5,500 metres (18,000 ft). The Soviet Navy later claimed that the leak was caused by a collision with USS Augusta.

There are indicators suggesting K-129 suffered a similar explosion in 1968. First, the radioactive contamination of the recovered bow section and the six crewmen of K-129 by weapons grade plutonium indicates the explosion of the warhead detonator charge of one of the missiles, before the ship reached its crush depth. The report that the forward section was crushed and that charring in the bow section indicated dieseling from an implosion (or alternatively from a fire), would indicate that the explosion occurred while K-129 was submerged and at depth. The report found in Blind Man's Bluff that the wreck revealed K-129 with a 3-metre (10 ft) hole immediately abaft the conning tower would support the theory of an explosion of one of the three missiles in the sail (possibly missile #3). Since K-129's missiles were housed in the sail, much less structural mass (compared to the Yankee-class) was available to contain such an explosion, and loss of depth control of the submarine would be instantaneous.

K-129 off-course or out of area

According to Dr. John P. Craven, K-129 crossed the International Date Line at latitude 40 north, which was far south of her expected position:

When K-129 passed longitude 180, it should have been farther north, at a latitude of 45 degrees, or more than three hundred miles away. If that was a navigational mistake it would be an error of historic proportions. Thus if the sub were not somewhere in the vicinity of where the Soviets supposed it to be, there would be a high probability, if not a certainty, that the submarine was a rogue, off on its own, in grave disobedience of its orders.

Craven does not explain why he eliminated the possibilities that K-129 was proceeding to a newly assigned and officially approved patrol area, or using a new track to an established patrol area, nor why he concluded that K-129 was acting in an abnormal or criminal manner for a Soviet strategic missile submarine.

Craven also noted:

While the Russian submarine was presumed to be at sea, an oceanographic ship of the University of Hawaii was conducting research in the oceanic waters off Hawaii's Leeward Islands. The researchers discovered a large slick on the surface of the ocean, collected a sample, and found that it was highly radioactive. They reported this to George Woolard, the director of the Hawaii Institute of Geophysical Research.

Craven does not reconcile a sinking location at 40°N latitude with an oil slick hundreds of miles south of that latitude, nor does he reconcile the date and time of the sinking with the date and time of the recovery of radioactive oil by the oceanographic research ship.

Anatoliy Shtyrov (Анатолий Штыров), a former Deputy Chief of the Soviet Pacific Fleet intelligence, states that K-129, whose normal patrol area was off the west coast of the USA, was sent on an unscheduled combat patrol in the eastern Pacific only 1.5 months after returning from its previous patrol. Vladimir Evdasin (Владимир Евдасин), who from June 1960 to March 1961 served aboard K-129, states that K-129 was sent on a secret mission in response to the massive US naval force build-up off the Korean coast after the Pueblo incident. K-129's mission was in support of North Korea, which was an ally of the Soviet Union, and directed against US naval operations, Pacific bases and US maritime support lines to South-east Asia.

Administrative inconsistencies

Russian President Boris Yeltsin posthumously awarded the Order of Valor to 98 sailors who died aboard K-129. Some have pointed to this level of manning as anomalous, because the normal complement of a diesel-electric Golf-class Russian submarine was about 83. Boosting total submarine complement by almost 20% might tax the logistical capabilities of the submarine (reducing patrol duration), and could potentially hamper the operations of the boat. No explanation for this level of submarine manning has been provided by the Russian Navy.

Alternative theories on Project Azorian

Red Star Rogue by Kenneth Sewell makes the claim that Project Azorian recovered virtually all of K-129 from the ocean floor, and in fact "Despite an elaborate cover-up and the eventual claim the project had been a failure, most of K-129 and the remains of the crew were, in fact, raised from the bottom of the Pacific and brought into the Glomar Explorer".

In August 1993, Ambassador Malcolm Toon presented to a Russian delegation K-129's ship's bell. According to Red Star Rogue, this bell had been permanently attached to the middle of the conning tower of K-129, thus indicating that in addition to the bow of the submarine, the critical and valuable midsection of the submarine was at least partially recovered by Project Azorian. Additionally, Ambassador Toon is quoted from the 6th Plenum of the U.S.–Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIAs as stating, "Our director of naval intelligence has concluded that no U.S. sub was within 300 nautical miles of your sub when it sank". Red Star Rogue places K-129 at 24deg north latitude by 163 west longitude, less than 350 miles from Honolulu. This site is consistent with the discovery of radioactive oil reported to the Hawaii Institute of Geophysical Research at the time.

The premise of Red Star Rogue is that a fail-safe device designed to be activated in the event of an unauthorised fire command of its nuclear missiles caused 2 catastrophic explosions (monitored by U.S. technology at the time) resulting in sinking the submarine. The 11 extra crewmen have never been satisfactorily identified, and K-129's crew manifest was listed as missing by Russian authorities. An ID photograph of a sailor found in the wreck has never been identified. Red Star Rogue claims the changing relations with China and Russia in the early 1970's, forged by Nixon and Kissinger, were enabled by the K-129 incident.

Craven suggests that Project Azorian's real goal was not the nuclear weapons or the coding systems at all; rather, the project sought to determine exactly what K-129 was doing at 40N/180W "where she did not belong". Such information could be (and supposedly was) utilized within Henry Kissinger's foreign policy of "Deterrence Through Uncertainty", in order to "raise an unanswerable question in Leonid Brezhnev's mind about his command and control of his armed forces".

Mutual agreement – some connection between K-129 and the loss of USS Scorpion

Retired United States Navy Captain Peter Huchthausen, former naval attaché in Moscow, had a brief conversation in 1987 with Soviet admirals concerning K-129. Huchthausen states that Admiral Peter Navojtsev told him, "Captain, you are very young and inexperienced, but you will learn that there were some matters that both nations have agreed to not discuss, and one of these is the reasons we lost K-129." In 1995, when Huchthausen began work on a book about the Soviet underwater fleet, he interviewed Admiral Victor Dygalo, who stated that the true history of K-129 has not been revealed because of the informal agreement between the two countries' senior naval commands. The purpose of that secrecy, he alleged, is to stop any further research into the losses of USS Scorpion and K-129. Huchthausen states that Dygalo told him to "overlook this matter, and hope that the time will come when the truth will be told to the families of the victims."

Gates' visit to Moscow

In October 1992, Robert Gates, as the Director of Central Intelligence, visited Moscow to meet with President Boris Yeltsin of Russia. "As a gesture of intent, a symbol of a new era, I carried with me the Soviet naval flag that had shrouded the coffins of the half dozen Soviet sailors whose remains the Glomar Explorer had recovered when it raised part of a Soviet ballistic missile submarine from deep in the Pacific Ocean in the mid-1970s, I also was taking to Yeltsin a videotape of their burial at sea, complete with prayers for the dead and the Soviet national anthem—a dignified and respectful service even at the height of the Cold War."

Gates’s decision to bring the videotape of the funeral held for the men on the Golf was ultimately motivated by the fact that the United States wanted to inspire Russia to offer up information on missing American servicemen in Vietnam. Before that, “We had never confirmed anything to the Russians except in various vague senses,” he said in an interview. “Shortly after the USSR collapsed, the Bush administration had told the Russians through an intermediary that we couldn’t tell them any more about what had happened on Golf/Glomar. But then when we started asking the Russians about what had happened to U.S. pilots shot down over Vietnam, and if any U.S. POWs had been transferred to Russia and held there, they came back and said, “What about our guys in the submarine?” At the time, the administration told the Russians only that there were no survivors and that there were only scattered remains.” A subsequent FOIA search to find if any POWs were released as a result of this visit produced only negative results.

American officers have refuted the Russian charge made early on that American nuclear attack submarine U.S.S. Swordfish was the U.S. submarine involved—a charge based solely on the latter's reported arrival in the Ship Repair Facility, Yokosuka, Japan, on 17 March 1968, with a badly damaged sail. Retired U.S. Navy Admiral William D. Smith informed Dygalo by letter following a 31 August 1994, meeting of a Joint U.S./Russia Commission examining questions of Cold War and previous war missing, that the allegation of Swordfish's involvement was not correct and that Swordfish was nowhere near the Golf on 8 March 1968. The joint commission, headed by General Volkogonov and Ambassador Toon, informed the Russians that no U.S. submarines on 8 March 1968, had been within 300 nautical miles (560 km) of the site where the K-129 was found.


Soviet submarine K-129 (1960) Wikipedia

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