Soviet submarine K-129 was a special submarine. It was diesel-electric powered and had 98 sailors, three nuclear missiles with one megaton warheads, nuclear-tipped torpedoes, and Russian cryptographic equipment onboard. She was on her third and final 70-day ballistic-missile combat patrol about 2,510 kilometers northwest of Hawaii on March 8, 1968.
K-129 missed two slated radio check-ins thus alarming the Soviet naval authorities in Kamchatka. An air, surface, and sub-surface mission was launched to find the K-129. However, the mission had no idea where to look for the Soviet submarine.
The US, however, knew where to look for the K-129 without a shadow of a doubt. On March 8, 1969, hydrophones monitored by the US Air Force’s Technical Applications Center (AFTAC) had picked up the sound of a submarine imploding, described as ‘an isolated, single sound of an explosion or implosion, “a good-sized bang”.’ This enabled the US authorities to locate the site of the wreck with ease – it is noteworthy that the Soviet Navy was looking for the wreck about hundreds of miles away from actual site of the wreck.
After searching for a total of sixty days, the Soviets declared that their sub was lost with all hands and ceased the search. That is when the US Navy moved in, and in August 1968, the submarine USS Halibut started towing a fish towards the wreck site. The fish was 12 feet long, weighing two tons collection of cameras, strobe lights, and sonar gear that had been built to survive even extreme depths.
It took thousands of photographs of the wreck site and despite the fact that the K-129 was at a depth of 4,900 meters; it was mostly intact except for her back-engine that featured signs of damage, and a nuclear-tipped torpedo was hanging out of it. K-129 was the very first strategic-missile submarine that was lost and was carrying SS-N-5 Serb nuclear missiles that the US was anxiously trying to get their hands on. The US was also interested in the Soviet cryptographic equipment.
US President, Richard Nixon, was consulted and he authorized a ‘black’ (secret) attempt for recovering K-129. The mission was to be carried out under the control of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as opposed to the US Navy, and thus Project Azorian was kicked off. It was the largest covert operation the US had undertaken since the Manhattan Project during WWII and cost around $800 million back then – about $4 billion today.
The CIA reached out to the antisocial industrialist Howard Hughes for creating a recovery ship under his company Global Marine Development. The cover story was that the new ship’s purpose was to extract manganese nodules from the ocean floor. The construction of the Glomar (Global Marine) Explorer kicked off in 1972. Hughes announced that he was creating a new kind of ship that would be able to mine the riches from the ocean floor. The US science program, Nova, also produced a complete documentary on ocean mining in the new-found excitement.
The Glomar Explorer started its journey from Long Beach, California on June 20, 1974, and made its way to the wreck site. However, the recovery phase couldn’t be started until President Nixon came back from a trip to Moscow on July 3rd. An unknown spy alerted the Soviets, and a number of Soviet ships tailed the Glomar’s every move. The ships included Chazhma – with its crew taking pictures from on deck and from a helicopter circling above the Glomar – and the Soviet naval tug, SB-10.
US Navy had already determined that if the Soviets challenged the Glomar, the ‘only option would be to sink the lift ship [the Glomar]… the men on board the Glomar knew nothing of this plan.’ The Glomar Explorer featured precision-stability equipment onboard. This enabled the ship to remain stationary above a point on the ocean floor regardless of high winds or waves. However, the main highlight feature of Glomar was the moon pool – located in the center of the ship and kept hidden from the prying eyes. It was a room the size of a football field that featured retractable floor allowing it to open to the ocean under the Glomar.
A submersible device that was created by the Lockheed Corporations at ‘Skunk Works’ was lowered to the ocean floor. The device featured huge claws and was used for grabbing the 300 feet long K-129 and started raising the submarine. The 1,750-ton submarine was rained by a mile in the next few days, and only two miles were left when tragedy struck.
Once the K-129 had crossed the 6,700 feet mark, two of the grabber’s arms broke and almost 100 feet of the front section of the submarine made its way back to the seafloor. It took with it a missile, missile’s fire control system, and some cryptographic equipment. Two reasons were identified for the snapping of grabbers’ arms; the seafloor was harder than expected, and the steel that was used for manufacturing the arms was brittle at the extreme depths that it encountered. Only about 40 feet of the submarine was salvaged including the remains of six Soviet seamen. The grabber’s arms were also able to dredge up some manganese noodles. US Government released a video to the Russian government in 1992 that showed the personnel onboard the Glomar Explorer burying the remains of the six Soviet soldiers at sea, with respect.
A 25-year-old reporter for Rolling Stone Magazine named Harriet Phillippi Ryan filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 1975 requesting that the information pertinent to the Glomar Explorer be made public. The CIA, in the very first use of the phrase, refused to ‘either confirm or deny’ the existence of any such operation. The response has since then become famous as the ‘Glomar response’.
The CIA recognizes the PBS documentary, ‘Azorian: The Rising of the K-129’ created by military and intelligence historian Norman Polmar and documentarian Michael White, as the most definitive account of its attempt to recover K-129.