August 8 1974 was the day when one of the most interesting events of the Cold War came to a dramatic point. On that day, the Glomar Explorer completed a journey and a mission that had been so well cloaked in secrecy, it is doubtful that we even know today all that transpired during the project that was known as “Azorian”.
I need to assure you that even though I was a member of the USS Halibut during her final days as an operational US Navy ship, I have no personal knowledge or experience concerning any alleged role Halibut may have played. All of my references come from searches related to the FOIA activity surrounding the project. I have read in a number of locations that this particular project has generated more FOIA requests than anything since the start of the ability to do so. It makes sense why.
Having operated in some of the most state of the art submarines of their day, it still amazes me to think how hard it must have been to find the location of a submarine lost in the Pacific. The depths in which we often operated in are staggering when it comes to proportion and survivability. The pressures at those depths are also beyond imagination to the average person. Submariners are mainly aware of the pressures at great depths on the occasions when they find themselves operating there. I can assure you that in almost every case, I was happy to see the depth gages returning to a safer operating place.
The story has its real start in March of 1968. From the redacted CIA Report:
“The story of “Project Azorian” began on March 1, 1968, when a Soviet Golf-II submarine, the K-129 (the CIA history refers to the submarine by its pendant number – 722), carrying three SS-N-4 Sark nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, sailed from the naval base at Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula to take up its peacetime patrol station northeast of Hawaii. If war had broken out, the K-129 would have launched its three ballistic missiles, each carrying a one megaton nuclear warhead, at targets along the west coast of the United States. But something went terribly wrong, for in mid-March 1968 the submarine suffered a catastrophic accident and sank 1,560 miles northwest of Hawaii with the loss of its entire crew.”
Not surprisingly, the CIA history does not mention the cause of the accident, mentioning neither how the agency came to learn of the sub’s demise nor the exact location of its resting place 16,500 feet below the surface of Pacific. This information was probably still Top Secret, and could not be included in the article at the Secret classification level.
The most fascinating thing for me was the information included about the three basic categories of lift that were being considered at the start of the project: total “brute force” or direct lift; trade/ballast/buoyancy; and at depth generation of buoyancy.
These methods are described as follows:
1. Total “Brute Force” Direct Lift was referred to as the Rosenburg Winch. This involved a series of massive floating winches with wire ropes of the needed strength to manage the total weight of the object which was thought at that time to be about 2,000-2200 long tons.
2. Using the Trade Ballast/Buoyancy method, buoyant material would be transferred to the bottom using excess ballast. The ballast would be jettisoned on the bottom generating sufficient positive buoyancy to free the target object and help lift it to the surface.
3. At Depth Generation of buoyancy would involve the generation of gas a depth to create sufficient buoyancy to lift the target. Some of the methods discussed included electrolysis of sea water, cryonic gasses generation, and various types of chemical generation using active metals or hydrides.
Not surprisingly, the technical details of each suggestion were heavily redacted in the CIA papers. By late July of 1970, the heavy lift concept was clearly favored and from that point on it became the soul source of focus and activity.
Many articles have been written since about the event and the players. I found the stories to be very interesting and the key players who appear in the articles kept coming back to the fore front from the early 1970’s all the way up until now.
If you have time, here is a good link with some useful background information and redacted copies of the material used in preparation for the history of this project.
37 years ago the following activities brought the project to its conclusion:
“The Hughes Glomar Explorer began lifting the K-129 off the sea floor on August 1, 1974, more than three weeks after the ship arrived at the recovery site. It took eight days to slowly winch the remains of the Soviet submarine into the massive hold of the Glomar Explorer, with the sub finally being secured inside the ship on August 8, 1974. The next day (August 9th, 1974), recovery operations were completed and the ship sailed for Hawaii to offload its haul.”
Of course, as we now know the mission was not a complete success. Despite the expenditure of many millions of dollars, the critical components of the sub fell back into the ocean during the lift, never to be recovered. Its hard to say what we truly gained from the recovery. The Glomar Explorer was never again used for the designed purpose. But it is fascinating what could have been. Who knows, maybe someday the whole truth will be finally revealed.