The $200 million Glomar Explorer set sail in 1974 to find deep-sea minerals. But that was just a CIA cover story. The ship's mission was to secretly salvage the wreck of a Soviet nuclear sub 3 miles under the ocean, 750 miles off Hawaii. Eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes helped with the hoax: A Hughes subsidiary built the Explorer, based on designs pioneered by a Hughes vessel doing deep-sea exploration.
The story began in 1968, when a flurry of coded communications alerted the U.S. Navy to the loss of a Soviet Golf-class submarine, an older diesel vessel that had sunk in 17,000 feet of water about 750 miles northwest of Hawaii. K-129 sailed from the port of Petropavlovsk in February 1968 en route to a patrol station in the Pacific where it would be available for a nuclear attack on the United States in the event of war.
U.S. Intelligence reports soon revealed that an explosion had occurred, probably while the sub was at the surface, but that it was mostly intact - and that it still carried nuclear missiles on board.
Interesting fact is that the Soviets undertook a massive two-month search effort but were unable to locate K-129. Almost miraculously, the U.S. submarine Halibut found it within weeks, documenting the wreck with thousands of photographs.
A few years later the wealthy eccentric Howard Hughes constructed the Glomar Explorer, an enormous barge built for the ostensible purpose of mining manganese nodules from the ocean floor. Although manganese nodules are real, the mining venture was actually an elaborate hoax.
In reality, the Glomar Explorer was built as part of an audacious CIA effort to retrieve the Golf. Codenamed " Project Azorian," the plan was to use a giant claw dangling on the end of a three-mile-long tether to grasp the submarine and raise it into a "moon pool" - a large area open to the sea - built inside the Glomar Explorer. The submarine would then be searched for Soviet codebooks, communications gear, and nuclear warheads.
The retrieval, begun in 1974, did not go smoothly. Trouble began when the claw (nicknamed "Clementine" by the crew) had been lowered almost within reach of the wreck of the Golf. While tantalizingly close to the submarine, the operators lost control, and the claw collided violently with the seabed. Inspection by remote camera showed no visible damage to the claw assembly, however, so the engineers decided to continue with the operation. The claw was lowered the final few feet, and found purchase around the hull of the wreck. The slow, methodical process of bringing the Golf to the surface began, and the success of the salvage effort was apparently in sight, despite the earlier mistake.
Hours later, when the submarine was about two miles below the surface, disaster struck. The impact of Clementine with the ocean bottom had seriously weakened the claw assembly. Three of the five tines that carried the load in the claw suddenly broke off, leaving most of the 5000-ton Golf unsupported. Unable to take the strain, the submarine tore apart under its own weight, most of it plunging back into the depths - but not before spilling a missile from an open missile bay.
Tense moments passed onboard the Glomar Explorer, as the crew steeled themselves for the nuclear explosion that many expected when the lost warhead smashed into the ocean floor. The explosion never came. Only a small part of the forward section of the submarine that remained in the grasp of the claw could be brought to the surface. This section contained little of interest to the CIA, but found among the wreckage were the remains of six Soviet sailors. They were given a solemn burial at sea by the crew of the Glomar Explorer, the ceremony performed in Russian.
In 1992, as the Cold War waned, Robert Gates - then CIA director, now defense secretary - delivered a videotape of the ceremony to Russian President Boris Yeltsin as a gesture of friendship. Against the backdrop of the U.S. and Soviet flags, the flickering tape shows the bodies being placed into a red vault as the two countries' national anthems are played. At the end, to the strains of the Navy Hymn, the vault is hoisted overboard and dropped into the black sea.
The operation became public in February 1975 because burglars had obtained secret documents from Hughes' headquarters in June 1974. After reporters revealed its mission in 1975, and the CIA admitted that the attempt had been a limited success; the sub broke in half while being raised off the ocean floor and several nuclear warheads were lost. Claims that the CIA had pressured journalists to keep quiet prompted a Rolling Stone reporter to file a Freedom of Information Act request to uncover intimidation tactics. The petition was foiled by the agency's refusal to either confirm or deny the existence of such documents, the first time that the evasion–now known as the "Glomar response"–was used.
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