Project Azorian: the Cold War CIA mission to snatch Soviet nuclear sub K-129 from the sea floor

Salvaging a sunken Soviet nuclear submarine using a vessel disguised as mining ship sounds like the plot of a bombastic spy movie – but this CIA mission was real. As Josh Dean uncovers, Project Azorian required a very daring deception

The Hughes Glomar Explorer was a salvage vessel disguised as a mining ship, designed to secretly recover Soviet sub K-129

One morning in November 1969, Curtis Crooke was in a meeting when three unexpected visitors came into the room and said they needed to talk to him.

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The 41-year-old Crooke was in charge of all engineering for Global Marine, a deep-ocean drilling company known for innovative shipbuilding, and it was that expertise that the three men, all in dark suits, wanted.

They sat down and the one clearly in charge, John Parangosky, spoke. “We work for the Central Intelligence Agency,” he said. “I assume you know what that is.” Parangosky explained that Global Marine was the only company in the world that could complete a job that interested the CIA. Was it feasible, he wondered, to lift something weighing several thousand tons from the bottom of the ocean, at a depth of 15-20,000ft?

Crooke thought a minute. It sounded like a ridiculous problem, but not necessarily impossible. He said he’d have to get back to them. Once they left, he pulled out his copy of Jane’s Fighting Ships, a reference book to all naval vessels, flipped to the section on Soviet submarines, and smiled. The numbers matched up, more or less.

What happened to Soviet sub K-129?

In late February 1968, the Soviet diesel-electric submarine K-129 — carrying three ballistic nuclear missiles — was on a routine combat patrol in a remote area of the North Pacific when it vanished. After radio communication suddenly ceased, a flotilla of craft steamed out of Soviet ports in a mass search-and-rescue mission. When nothing could be found of the Golf-class sub, the rescue was abandoned. But the United States had noticed. With it clear that their Cold War foe had lost something, naval intelligence correctly ascertained that it was K-129.

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Very quickly, conversations began in Washington, DC. Could the US locate this sub, and, if it was still intact, recover it? To do so would be to obtain a priceless haul of critical intelligence, in particular, three state-of-the-art ballistic missiles, with nuclear warheads, and the latest cryptography gear.

What’s more, the US had the tools to find the sub that the Soviets lacked. Drawing on acoustic signals from a sprawling network of underwater hydrophones, installed in secret during the 1950s to passively listen to submarine traffic, the Navy identified the likely death throes of K-129. From that, they triangulated its approximate position and dispatched the USS Halibut to locate the wreck.

Outfitted with the latest technology and a quiver of tools to surveil the deep ocean, the Halibut had turned from a missile sub into one of the most secret weapons in the American undersea intelligence arsenal. After a few weeks of searching an area about 1,500 miles north and west of Hawaii, it found its target on the seabed three miles down. The pictures taken proved that K-129 was in good shape and there for the taking, if the US could figure out how to get it.

The gigantic salvaging challenge, the likes of which had never been done before, was approved by President Richard Nixon and handed to the CIA, a hub of out-of-the-box engineering. While imagining and building a recovery system to salvage a sub so far down bordered on impossible, the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology was eager to give it a shot.

The so-called ‘boat project’, code-named Project Azorian, was handed to John Parangosky, arguably the CIA’s most valuable programme manager. He hand-picked the best scientists and engineers and set them up in a secret satellite office outside Washington, nicknamed the ‘Think Tank’. There, his men debated proposals and ultimately landed on something they called ‘grunt lift’ — they would build a ship with a device coming out of the hull able to pick up the near 1.4 million kg submarine and pull it back to the surface.

This was even more difficult and ambitious than it sounds. The deepest salvage of any submarine in history was around 90 metres and the K-129 job would be more complex by orders of magnitude. It was at a depth of almost 5,000 metres. Parangosky needed a contractor who could pull it off, which is what took him to Global Marine.

The Directorate of Science and Technology: the CIA’s Cold War secret weapon

The work of the Directorate of Science and Technology, a branch of the CIA, is one of the most under-appreciated stories of the Cold War. Over decades, a relatively small group of American scientists and engineers turned out one amazing machine after another. Here are their greatest hits…

U-2 Spy plane| Codename: AQUATONE

Developed by Lockheed in eight months and under budget, the U-2 appeared in 1955. Able to fly at 70,000 feet, above Soviet defences, it gave President Eisenhower the confidence that there was no ‘bomber gap’. The Soviets weren’t as far ahead as he had feared.

SR-71 spy plane | Codename: BLACKBIRD

In 1962 came the first flight of the A-12, engineer Kelly Johnson’s successor to the U-2. Within two years it had been developed into the SR-71 – the fastest and most advanced plane in history. It could fly from London to Los Angeles in three hours 47 minutes and bedevilled the Soviets and their allies in North Korea and the Vietnam War.

The first spy satellite | Codename: CORONA

What was better than a spy plane? A satellite circling the Earth taking photos. The first 12 launch attempts failed, but on 18 August 1960, a satellite finally reached orbit. A single day produced more photo surveillance than all U-2 flights combined.

Tapping a Soviet communication cable | Codename: IVY BELLS

Working with the Navy, CIA engineers built and installed a tap on a Soviet communication line under the Sea of Okhotsk in 1971. Every month, saturation divers were carried into the waters aboard the uniquely fitted-out USS Halibut to retrieve and change the precious tapes. The tap was in service for years.

Ghost planes that test radar | Codename: PALLADIUM

A constant concern was the accuracy of Soviet radar defences, so the CIA developed many ways to capture and assess radar signals. Perhaps the most innovative of these was PALLADIUM, a device that electronically generated false targets in the shape of any plane to trick the Soviets into making their equipment visible.   

What does Howard Hughes have to do with Project Azorian?

John Graham, Global Marine’s top naval architect, sketched the design for a ship that would deploy a long string of steel pipe hung from a towering, gimbaled derrick, through a hole in the bottom of the ship that opened via two sliding gates. At the end of this string would be a huge claw to grab the sub and pull it into the belly of the ship, which would have a hollowed-out ‘moon pool’ the size of a small arena. The feasibility studies checked out. This should work, if the various contractors succeeded with each of their particular parts. But a major problem remained. How on Earth could the US explain a giant ship parked in the Pacific for weeks in the area where a Soviet sub went missing?

The CIA needed a cover story, and Parangosky’s group came up with a lie bigger than the ship itself. Project Azorian’s team would tell the world that theirs was a mining ship, designed to pluck manganese nodules, which contain rare minerals, off the sea floor. It was just plausible enough to say that a ship with a novel mining system was being built for the specific purpose of mining this previously unexploited resource. For the lie to work, though, someone had to own that ship, and it couldn’t be the CIA.

The owner, it was decided, should be Howard Hughes. The businessman was fabulously rich, famous the world over and a near-unrestrained eccentric. He did audacious things and didn’t care what people thought of him – after all, he spent years building the world’s largest airplane, the Spruce Goose, out of wood, only to fly it once. Hughes was also a great patriot, with a history of supporting government projects, including a few for the CIA. With his instant agreement to be the front for Project Azorian, the custom-built mining ship was named the Hughes Glomar Explorer.

The Hughes Glomar Explorer

Using Hughes worked perfectly, as his reputation made everyone immediately inclined to believe the mining story. This was helped along by the team assigned by Parangosky to project and protect the cover. A group, led by tall Texan Paul Reeve and including scientists and academics, attended conferences, gave interviews and generally went about life as if Hughes really did have a mining company. Reporters breathlessly reported on the incredible new project from the strange billionaire Howard Hughes, while Parangosky’s Azorian team, based at a secret office near Los Angeles International Airport, worked on the ship.

In July 1973, the Explorer sailed out of its shipyard just south of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. With a crew of ‘mining personnel’, it travelled down the east coast of South America, through the Straits of Magellan and up the west side toward its eventual new base, in Long Beach, California. There, it anchored right next to the immense hangar where Hughes’ Spruce Goose was kept as a museum piece, and work got underway to convert the Explorer into a spy ship with everything needed to steal a sub.

In advance of the ship’s arrival, the CIA built a series of labs inside shipping containers that could be slipped into open spaces on the ship without raising any alarms. Among the dozens of these ‘vans’ was a darkroom, various spaces for dealing with nuclear materials, a decontamination room, an area for drying and preserving documents, a unit for waste handling, and a refrigerated morgue for storing any bodies or human remains found in K-129.

Meanwhile, off the pier, people had grown curious. The Explorer’s arrival had made news, as the CIA hoped, and its association with Hughes was bait for the media and the public. Yachts sailed by, sometimes with the rich and famous on board. It was not uncommon to see John Wayne chilling in shorts on his boat, and workers aboard the Explorer hollered when Peter Fonda cruised past on a yacht loaded with beautiful women in bikinis.

How was Project Azorian kept a secret?

If Project Azorian was going to have any chance of success, it had only a tiny window in which to operate. The area of the Pacific where K-129 sank experienced some furious ocean, meaning that the sea was only calm enough to attempt a salvage during mid-summer months.

The Explorer either had to be on its way by June 1974, or wait an entire year, and the longer the mission had to be kept secret increased the chances of the cover being blown. So even though the ship’s systems hadn’t been fully tested, Parangosky had no choice and the Explorer launched on 20 June 1974. The voyage to the wreck site kept the 178 men on board busy as so many pieces of the ship and technologies had never been seen before. Engineers, riggers and grunts worked furiously to familiarise themselves with everything and get the systems ready.

The crew had no idea what would happen if the Soviets were to show up and board — or worse, attack. The Explorer was basically defenceless

The entire crew had been cleared into the mission’s true story, and everyone was well aware of the dangers. They’d all been given life insurance and told CIA security officers who to contact in the event of an emergency. Yet, most ominously, they had no idea what would happen if the Soviets were to show up and board — or worse, attack. The Explorer was basically defenceless. To carry weapons or a platoon of Marines would give away the lie, and Azorian’s leaders thought it was possible that the secret could be kept even if Soviets did show up, especially if the claw, known as Clementine, and the pipe string were under the ocean.

Despite these concerns, spirits remained high. The crew was about to attempt the most complicated and extraordinary feat of naval engineering in human history. Yes, the work was difficult, even gruelling – and they had been hurled into the clandestine actions of the Cold War – but it was exciting too, and wholly satisfying.

By 4 July, they had reached their destination and the processes began to deploy the claw. Every step forward, though, seemed to bring two steps back, as parts would break and need to be fixed, the sea churned and the weather was a nuisance. Then on 18 July, the Soviets showed up.

Clementine was already making its long and slow journey to the bottom of the ocean when the Chazhma, a ‘missile-range instrumentation ship’ approached the Explorer. It circled, sent a helicopter over to photograph the deck, and radioed for information. When the Explorer’s captain replied that his was a mining ship, the Chazhma believed him, leaving a day later. The crew was in the clear, or so they thought.

Two days on and the recovery was well underway when a second Soviet vessel arrived, this time a small tug called the SB-10. By this point, there was no time to waste, so while the captain dealt with the unwanted visitor, which was acting erratically and actively harassing them, preparations for the salvage continued.

Days into the lift, with more than two-thirds of the pipe retrieved, several of the fingers on Clementine broke, sending most of K-129 hurtling back towards the seabed

Soon, Clementine touched down. Operators in the control room used live CCTV footage, side-scan sonar and small thrusters, powered by seawater hydraulics, to position the claw over the stricken sub. After they successfully touched down, they could attempt, finally, the grunt lift. Cheers erupted in the room as the claw lifted the largest piece of the sub, containing all of the valuable material, up out of the mud. It was now just a waiting game. Retracting the pipe would take days. Fortunately, up top, the captain had finally managed to shake the SB-10. Project Azorian, it seemed, was in the clear.

Then disaster struck. Days into the lift, with more than two-thirds of the pipe retrieved, several of the fingers on Clementine broke, sending most of K-129 hurtling back towards the seabed. When Parangosky found out, he raced to headquarters, where his boss panicked at the news. CIA Director William Colby ordered the Explorer to make another attempt, only to be told that this was impossible. The claw was broken. If the CIA wanted to try again, it would be next year.

Curtis Crooke was more than happy to make the repairs and improvements to the ship in preparation for a follow-up mission. He had no doubt that the Explorer could go back and finish the job, as long as the cover story held.

It didn’t. Someone leaked to the media and, despite Colby convincing some journalists to sit on the story, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Jack Anderson revealed Project Azorian on 18 March 1975.

The latter view of Project Azorian

So was the covert operation a success? It had remained a secret for five years, the ship and systems did work, and, despite the malfunction, a portion of K-129 was still recovered. Inside were two nuclear torpedoes – what else was obtained is a mystery as the CIA refuses to comment.

In 2006, the engineering, the details of which went unknown for so long, got its due when the American Society of Mechanical Engineers named the Explorer as a Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark, the 239th human-made object to earn that honour.

Others went further. The Director of the Scripps Institute compared constructing the Explorer to the Manhattan Project, which he worked on as a young scientist. And Admiral J Edward Snyder, former Oceanographer of the Navy, told Science magazine that the bold, brash and brilliant attempt to steal a Soviet sub was “probably the greatest technical achievement in ocean engineering in my lifetime”.

Josh Dean is a journalist and the author of The Taking of K-129: The Most Daring Covert Operation in History (Amberley, 2018)

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This content first appeared in the May 2018 issue of BBC History Revealed