Sunday, July 15, 2007

Sunday Ship History: Glomar Explorer

In 1968, a Soviet Golf II ballistic missile submarine sank in 17,000 feet of water about 800 miles south of Hawaii. For a variety of reasons explained in the links that follow, the U.S. Navy had an fairly specific location of the wreck, whereas the Soviet government did not. What followed next is the normally the stuff of Clive Cussler novels, but even more amazing because it is true.

The U.S. government decided, as a matter of national intelligence, to raise the sunken submarine, the K-129, a Soviet Project 629A boat. Quite an undertaking, since
the K-129 was about 400 feet long and displaced about 3500 tons when submerged. However, the idea was sold to the CIA, and the CIA contracted with Howard Hughes, the ultra-reclusive billionaire, to get the recovery accomplished. Hughes contracted with Sun Shipbuilding to construct a purported "deep sea mining" vessel, known as Glomar Explorer - as well as a large submersible barge "HMB-1" (Hughes Mining Barge) to go along with the "mining ship" as it allegedly recovered manganese nodules from the deep sea bed (there is some assertion that parts of the Law of the Sea Treaty pertaining to deep sea mining were inspired by this CIA cover story). (photo from here- more photos here)

The Glomar Explorer was built with a modified derrick located amidships over a "moon pool" about 200 feet long with hatches on the bottom of the hull that swung open to allow access to the sea. The HMB was designed with a retractable cover and was able to submerge so that it could sink under the keel of the Glomar Explorer and rise up under the moon pool. Unknown until years later was that the cover of the HMB shielded from view a large lifting
clamp (a/k/a "claw") known as "Clementine" that was put in place by the submerging barge process and connected to cables and hydraulic lines from the ship. The Clementine was the mechanism by which the K-129 was to be hoisted from the sea floor to the the HMB and then shielded from sight as the small flotilla returned to port with their prize intact. Or, as set out here:
The main ship—a hefty 36,000-tonner that would be 618 ft. in length and 115.5 ft. in beam—would serve as a floating, highly stable platform. Amidships would stand a high derrick that would pass piping directly through a well, or "moon pool," in the ship's hull, which could be opened or closed with a sliding panel. The ship's companion was to be a huge submersible barge roughly the size of a football field, which would be covered by an oval roof. The barge's purposes would be to carry the huge retrieval claws that would grapple for the submarine and later transport it to the U.S. The roof was meant to conceal its cargo from prying Soviet satellites.
More on the Project, code named "Jennifer," here, suggesting a role of U.S. submarines in finding K-129 and with a "hypothetical drawing" of "Clementine" as well as other speculative thoughts.

The Project began:
Towing the ungainly barge in her wake, the Glomar Explorer headed for the open sea on June 20, 1974, ready at last to attempt the culmination of Project Jennifer. By about mid-July the odd convoy reached the site of the sunken Soviet sub. The delicate salvage operation got under way. Despite the chop of waves and force of the current, it was necessary for the Glomar Explorer to maintain an almost impossible stationary position, straying no more than 50 ft. in any direction. To do that, the ship dropped a series of bottom-placed transducers, which detected the force and direction of the water's flow and transmitted that information to a shipboard computer. The computer, in turn, kept the ship in one place by activating a series of water jets and small propellers placed at intervals along the ship's hull. Next the barge opened its sea cocks until it had taken on enough water to sink to a depth of 150 ft. It was maneuvered directly beneath the Glomar Explorer's moon pool and held in place by stanchions from the mother ship. Pipe from the ship reached down to the barge and attached itself to the giant grappling claws, which resembled a series of four or six interconnected ice tongs hanging from a long platform. Then the ship's crew began to feed length after length of pipe through the hole. By the time the claw reached the Soviet submarine 16,000 ft. below, the pipe alone weighed more than 400,000 Ibs. Television cameras equipped with strobe lights enabled the claw operators to see what they were doing....
But operations did not go well:
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.
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.
More info on how the Project began here from a somewhat breathless PBS show which, of course, laid emphasis on the fact that Richard Nixon was the President at the time (can't you hear the booing and hissing at PBS?):
__: Now how much is the prize worth? Well I ask you, how much would you be willing to pay to get a fully-armed Soviet submarine on operational station aimed at the United States, with the weapons targeted on our cities? Seems to me, that's worth an awful lot of money. And we spent a lot of money, sure.

NARRATOR: Richard Nixon has just been elected for his first term, and money for fighting Communism is not a problem. Within months, he orders the CIA to get to work on the nation's largest covert operation since the Manhattan project. Security is a major concern. Detection could precipitate an international crisis.

__: We're obviously dealing with very sensitive relationships when you get into stealing another country's submarine.

NARRATOR: Two challenges are paramount. First there is no known technology that can do the job; and second, the whole operation has to be kept hidden from both the Soviets and the American public. That requires finding a great cover story.

__: And lo and behold, we fond this wonderful example in Howard Hughes, who was secretive by nature, he'd been associated with sort of far-out ideas in the past, with the Snow Goose (sic: "Spruce Goose") and some other things of that nature, so he's absolutely perfect. And he agreed to be the "cover."

NARRATOR: Hughes announces to the world, he's going to build a magnificent ship that will collect the mineral riches lying on the ocean floor.

__: It was an extremely plausible thing for a rich techno-eccentric like Hughes to want to go out and mine the deep, you know, with a vacuum cleaner that could just sweep up all these manganese nodules.

NARRATOR: Even NOVA gets swept up in the excitement, and does an entire show on ocean mining. Corporations the world over, fearing they will be left out, begin building their own ships. It's a perfect cover for the centerpiece of the CIA's operation. Hughes calls his ship the Glomar Explorer. Everything about the ship is custom built. After all, no one has ever attempted to lift a sub from the floor of the deep ocean.

The Glomar Explorer has two engines and multiple thrusters so she can hold her position in high winds and seas. The middle of the ship is a single giant room with floor that retracts allowing access to the ocean below. Three hundred 60-foot steel pipes will be strung together to lower a huge claw down the Soviet sub. Together, claw, pipe and flooded sub will weigh 15 million pounds.

The men who sign on as crew for the Glomar Explorer are fully aware of the risks they face, which range from being boarded by the Soviets to being contaminated with radioactivity. In the end, Wayne Collier is not among them, but his younger brother, Bill, signs on as a member of the "B" crew.

COLLIER: I was specifically set up that "A" crew would do the recovery step and then we would have a crew change, and then "B" crew would be responsible for the dis-assembly. And that's actually how it worked out.

NARRATOR: This account is based largely on Bill Collier's personal experiences and conversations he had with other members of the crew. The Glomar Explorer arrives at her destination in early July. It takes two days to lower the claw, nearly the size of a football field, to the sea floor, three miles below. After what feels like an eternity, the cameras on the giant claw reveal the Soviet sub. It appears intact, except the rear engine compartment has broken off. A nuclear missile is visible in one of the tubes. The operators of the claw cautiously maneuver in for the "grab." But when they close the claw, its arms strike hard on the bottom. Unwilling to lose the time it would take to check for damage, they check again.

The tension is high as the long, slow lift begins. Almost half way up, three of the arms on the giant claw give way. K-129 slips and a nuclear missile glides slowly, almost gracefully, out of its silo. It will be traveling 80 miles per hour when it hits the ocean floor. Before it does, K-129 breaks apart. The minutes tick by slowly. There is no nuclear explosion. Only a 38-foot section makes it to Glomar Explorer's giant recovery room. There are no code books or missiles. There are body parts.

__: During the disassembly, we would find fingers, pieces of scalp, bones, but everybody looked at them quite solemnly and protected.

NARRATOR: On board the Glomar, the CIA holds a funeral service for the Russian dead. This footage, given to Boris Yeltzin in 1993, is the CIA's only official acknowledgement that the operation ever happened.

As Glomar heads home, plans are made to return the following summer. Before that can happen, the press discovers the true mission of Howard Hughes' mining ship. Without the cover of secrecy, the fabulous technology of the Glomar is worthless to the CIA. The world's most sophisticated ocean mining vessel spends the next 25 years in the navy's mothball fleet.
But, you can't keep a good ship down. Modified, Glomar Explorer now plies her trade as a drill ship in the oil business. Although, like many other ships, she has the occasional mishap.

As to whether any value was gained from the operation to raise K-129...you have to decide for yourself. But it was a spectacular effort!

And HMB-1? It was being used as a home for the Navy's Sea Shadow ship.
The Navy has offered both the ship and the barge for donation to a museum or other non-profit, see here.

Give a salute to the brave sailors of K-129 and to those who served in trying to raise her.


  1. Anonymous4:14 PM

    I love this story, but some of your facts are not correct. I suggest watching the PBS special "The raising of the K-129" Its worth your wild. It is available on Netflix to stream.

  2. T. Dougherty9:08 PM

    The correct title is "Project Azorian: The Raising of the K-129" by Michael White. A book, co-written by Norman Polmar and Michael White is als0 available. Both are at Amazon.com, and the film is indeed on Netflix.

    I was one of the three researchers listed in both the book & film.

  3. The book is available from the U.S. Naval Institute, too, here and as a Kindle book at Amazon here. I have the Kindle version.

    I note that this post precedes the publication of the book by 3 years and was based on what I information I could gather at the time.