After The CIA Recouped A Sunken Soviet Sub, Suspicion Over Its Original Mission Began To Swell

In the midst of the Cold War, American undersea monitors captured a noise – and officials couldn’t ignore it. It sounded an awful lot like an explosion, so perhaps an enemy Soviet submarine had blown up in their waters? To test this theory, they’d have to go underwater and ultimately begin a covert operation unlike anything the country had ever seen before.

A Soviet K-129 sub had been patrolling the Pacific when American devices picked up the suspicious sound. This underwater craft – which was helmed by Vladimir Ivanovich Kobzar – had orders to scan the water from February until May 1968. But U.S. officials heard the questionable noise on March 8, right in the middle of the vessel’s deployment.

The Russians didn’t expect to hear much from the K-129 commanded by Kobzar. Their vessels, after all, had to be quiet when trawling enemy waters. But the crew was meant to check in briefly before crossing the dividing line that cut through its patrol area. But they were never heard from again.

What the Americans had heard made them believe that the K-129 had exploded. But they couldn’t confirm it without finding the vessel – and they could only look for it with help from a good cover story. So, they came up with a covert way of exploring the ocean floor. And it was a plan that included a famous American and the CIA. But that mission didn’t answer their questions. So, why was the submarine there in the first place?

At its height, the Soviet Union encompassed more than 8.6 million square miles of territory. This made it well over double the size of the United States. Around the same time that it reached this extent, the U.S.S.R. fell into a tense standoff with its one-time American allies known as the Cold War.

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After the Second World War, the Soviet Union installed its style of governance across the eastern European countries that it had freed from Nazi control. The United States and the United Kingdom then feared that communism might trickle across the wider European continent. The Soviets, meanwhile, wanted to protect themselves against another German uprising, while also spreading their ideas across the globe.

The Cold War lasted until 1991, and both the Soviet Union and the United States avoided engaging in any military action directly. But both sides participated in an arms race that saw them create weapons of mass destruction. These included nuclear bombs and intercontinental missiles that could easily obliterate their respective enemies.

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The Soviets didn’t just build missiles and nuclear weaponry, though. They commenced what was called Project 629 in the 1950s, a program designed to complement the arsenal they were accruing. Specifically, they wanted to build a submarine to carry a trio of missiles that could hit targets almost 100 miles away.

The original Project 629 resulted in 22 submarines, all of which were built in a four-year span. The vessels measured in at approximately 322 feet in length, and they could travel at speeds of up to 12.5 knots underwater. This model was called the Golf I – within four years, though, the U.S.S.R. needed improvements on it.

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So, the Soviets commenced project 629-A in 1966, through which they upgraded their Golf I class of submarines. They started by extending the length of the vessel, adding about a foot in length to each one. The speed of the new and improved Golf II went up to 14 knots underwater, as well.

The new Golf II could hold 83 crew members, which was three more than its predecessor. And with all of these troops on board, the Soviet Union could send their submarines on important missions. The vessels were almost sent to Cuba as part of the deployment of military weapons that caused the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

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Ultimately, though, the Soviets didn’t send the intended Project 629 submarines to Cuba. Instead, in September 1968 they sent a pair of their improved 629-A vessels to their Pacific fleet. An additional four submarines trekked from the U.S.S.R. to this region between 1971 and 1974. Six others sailed to patrol the Baltic in the late 1970s.

By the mid-1970s, only seven 629-A submarines still served in the Soviet Union’s fleet in the Pacific. Only a pair remained by the end of the 1980s. And in 1990 the U.S.S.R. decommissioned all of these underwater vessels, just before the fall of the Soviet Union in the year 1991.

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But one of the Project 629-A submarines didn’t reach decommissioning. In fact, it disappeared, causing controversy and intrigue. At least, that was the case for those who knew about the vanished vessel. It was the K-129, one of the submarines spruced up under the Soviets’ Project 629-A designation.

Vladimir Ivanovich Kobzar had taken the helm of the K-129 with a perfect naval record. He led the submarine through a pair of 70-day north Pacific sailings, both of which took place in 1967. Then, the vessel received its third mission, which would see it trekking through the same waters from February until May 1968.

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The K-129 had to stay quiet as it traversed waters close to Hawaii. It was, after all, doing so in the midst of the Cold War. But the Soviets began to worry when the vessel failed to make contact at its checkpoint at the 180th meridian, which delineated the vessel’s zone of patrol.

Soon enough, other Soviet Pacific Fleet vessels – both in the air and on the surface – began to perform what seemed to be a search mission. The United States’ Office of Naval Intelligence observed this action and hypothesized that the Soviets had lost a submarine. Indeed, the increase of activity happened along a known patrol way.

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So, the Americans decided to try and confirm their suspicions. They started with their hydrophone network, which recorded sounds across the Pacific ocean. They hoped that previous tapes might reveal the sound of an explosion or implosion – anything that would indicate that a submarine had gone down.

Eventually, the Naval Facility Point Sur in California isolated a sound that could very well have been that of a submarine going down. The noise in question sounded out on March 8, 1968, about a month into K-129’s patrol of the Pacific Ocean. The experts believed that they heard the vessel imploding underwater.

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The Soviets never located the K-129 in their search. Instead, they seemed to call it off and resume their normal patrols. With their Cold War nemeses out of the way, the American forces stepped in and began a trawl of their own in July 1968. They called their effort Operation Sand Dollar.

Through Operation Sand Dollar – conducted aboard by the USS Halibut – United States forces attempted to locate the suspected sunken submarine themselves. They were also tasked with photographing the vessel. They could do so because the Halibut had deep-sea searching technology, the only American ship to have such resources at the time.

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It took only three weeks for the Halibut to pinpoint the remains of the wrecked Soviet submarine. The vessel laid to rest three miles underwater, but the American ship had the appliances required to locate it and photograph it, too. Over several weeks, it captured more than 20,000 close-up images of the ill-fated K-129.

But photographs of the K-129 weren’t all that the United States government wanted from this exploratory mission. They theorized that an enemy vessel would have valuable information on board – codebooks, technology, weapons to analyze. The idea of seeing such Soviet secrets particularly interested the CIA, but Defense Secretary Melvin Laird and then-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger came up with a plan.

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Laird and Kissinger didn’t want to send another robotic vessel to the seafloor to explore the sunken K-129. Instead, they proposed recovering the submarine’s wreckage, which would give American experts the chance to pore over it in person. Then-President Richard Nixon gave the project the green light in 1970 and assigned the CIA with the task of making it work.

But the CIA couldn’t just send operatives out to the Pacific to draw up the submarine in broad daylight. It had to be a clandestine recovery, so they needed a backstory to explain their dive into the depths for the K-129. They nicknamed their mission Project Azorian, and they looped in an unlikely accessory to help them see it through.

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The American billionaire Howard Hughes wore many hats. Throughout his day, he produced and directed movies, designed planes and built a medical research center. But he may well have been more notorious for his behavior and quirks than anything else. Specifically, he went from being a loner to a full-on recluse in 1950.

But Hughes had the funds to help the CIA. And beyond that, they thought his varied professional experience could explain their search, too. So, in 1972 the organization approached the one-time Hollywood head honcho and asked if he’d work with them to create a cover story. Plus, they requested that he supply the equipment required to pull a submarine from the bottom of the sea.

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Hughes obliged the CIA operatives who proposed the idea to him. And with that, work began on the huge vessel that would be called the Hughes Glomar Explorer. The former aviator explained the project to a curious public by revealing that he wanted to mine for manganese from the depths of the ocean.

Inside of the Glomar Explorer, though, were the tools necessary to mine for a wrecked submarine, not an undersea supply of manganese. It encompassed a sprawling platform from which a claw-shaped vehicle could launch through a pool built into its center. Doors sprung open at the bottom of the pool, thus allowing the claw to reach into the sea for the submarine.

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And once the claw grabbed hold of the Soviet vessel, it could pull it all the way back up and into the pool. You see, it had large enough dimensions to hold the sunken sub. So, the true purpose of the mission would be hidden within what appeared to be a mining ship built by a billionaire.

But the Glomar Explorer wouldn’t make it to sea without stirring up the waters – figuratively speaking, anyway. Just before it was set to take sail, a band of thieves got into Hughes’ office and uncovered some surprising documents that linked the reclusive billionaire to the CIA. With that, rumors started swirling about the real reason behind his new mining venture.

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It wasn’t just the American public who found out about Hughes’ undercover mission. By the time the Glomar Explorer set sail in 1974, the Soviets had caught wind of the CIA’s plan to dredge up their sunken submarine. At first, they had ignored the rumors – they thought it’d be impossible to pluck wreckage from the bottom of the sea.

Plus, the Soviets had no way of interfering with such a mission – at least, not right away. They had never located the K-129 themselves, meaning they wouldn’t be able to intercept the Glomar or beat it to the punch. However, the massive Hughes-backed vessel sat over the wreckage for a month, during which time a pair of Soviet ships did locate the American crews at work.

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And in the end, Soviet predictions about the recovery of their sunken submarine proved to be true. The Glomar’s claw-shaped vehicle performed partly as intended. That is, it managed to pull the K-129 a part of the way up from the ocean floor. However, the claw may not have been flexible enough to ebb and flow with the vessel as it moved upward through the water.

So, as the submarine rose through the Pacific, it snapped, and two-thirds of it sank back down to the bottom of the ocean. As such, some may have considered Project Azorian to be a failure in the end. It never realized its mission of recovering an intact soviet vessel from the seafloor.

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But one-third of the K-129 was said to have provided the CIA with some valuable information about their Soviet enemies. They supposedly found codebooks, and some inventory listings have shown that they may have salvaged sonar equipment, on-deck instruments and hatch covers. They also found the remains of six crew-members, all of whom were then buried at sea.

From the media’s perspective, though, the entire mission was a total waste of funds, especially those raised from taxpayers’ pockets. That was part of the reason why the CIA didn’t try and recover the dropped portion of the submarine. After all, they had too many eyes on what was meant to be a covert mission.

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In the end, the CIA refused to admit its involvement in the Hughes Glomar Explorer debacle. Josh Dean – who wrote The Taking of K-129 on this semi-failed venture – has explained as much. According to Dean, the organization simply responded to inquiries by saying they could “neither confirm nor deny” their involvement in the project.

But the more intriguing part of the ill-fated K-129 was the reason behind its unceremonious sinking. When exploring the vessel, the Sand Dollar captured photos of deceased crew-members who were wearing fire-fighting gear. This has led some to believe that the ship surfaced before falling to the seafloor.

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Some believe something even more sinister than that. According to this line of thinking, the vessel’s missile exploded amid an unsanctioned move against American forces. Namely, they think the weapon misfired in an attempt to start World War III. Of course, if that was the case, the history books would tell a much different story about the K-129 that landed on the bottom of the Pacific in 1968.

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