>w m@


In  1974,  when the CIA embarked on a clandestine operation to recover a Soviet nuclear submarine from thew depths of the Pacific Ocean, they enlisted the help of the eccentric billionaire, Howard Hughes.

On July 4, 1974, ships sailing the choppy waters of the northern Pacific Ocean, 1700 miles northwest of Hawaii, were confronted by a baffling sight. A huge ship, surmounted by a towering superstructure that resembled a drilling derrick, lay almost motionless at anchor. Captains of passing ships sent incredulous radio messages to the ship, asking how it was possible to drill for oil in this location, where the seafloor plummets to a depth of 5000 metres. They were informed that the ship, the Glomar Explorer, belonged to the legendary billionaire, pilot, inventor and engineering genius, Howard Hughes. It was collecting manganese, a vital component in the production of steel, from the seabed.


Most of the manganese mined - with considerable difficulty in Russia, China, South Africa, Brazil and Australia - was used in the production of steel. A chance discovery had recently revealed that the Pacific ocean bed was littered with curious mineral lumps resembling pieces of horse dung and measuring up to 25 centimetres across. They were found to have a manganese content of up to 40 per cent and the Pacific deposits alone were estimated at over 10 billion tonnes. It is still not clear how the manganese lumps were formed or how they came to be on the ocean floor.

It was likely that an entrepreneur such as Howard Hughes would try to raise this mineral wealth from the seabed and so make the USA less dependent on imports. But this seemingly plausible explanation was a cover story, hiding a much more bizarre Cold War reality. The crew of the Glomar Explorer was on a mission that would yield even greater riches - Soviet nuclear secrets. They were intending to raise a sunken Soviet submarine, armed with intercontinental ballistic nuclear missiles and which contained the potential to wipe out millions of people. They were participants in 'Project Jennifer.'

(Howard Hughes (1905-76) was a legendary hypochondriac, movie-producer and aviator, who made a vast fortune building military aircraft for the US Government. A consummate political lobbyist, he had built close links with the CIA who commissioned his company to build the Glomar Explorer)


By the time 'Operation Jennifer' got under way submarine K-129 had been lying on the seabed for six years. In February 1968, the vessel had set out on a routine voyage from Vladivostok, setting course for the strait that lies between Sakhalin Island and the northernmost tip of Japan. On April 11, according to the official account of the incident, the submarine was rocked by an explosion. The blast ripped a hole in the hull and water surged in under extreme pressure. The crew of 86 Soviet submariners must have perished instantly - they had no time to send out a distress call. Other theories have been advanced to explain the sudden disappearance of K-129. It is possible that the Soviet vessel was involved in an underwater collision with the US submarine Swordfish, which was known to be patrolling the same area as the K-129. A few days after the accident, Swordfish had limped into dock at the US base at Yokosuka with major damage.

Whatever the case, the Americans, unlike the Soviets, knew exactly where the vessel had sunk. They had heard the explosion on the listening devices of their underwater sonar surveillance array known as SOSUS ('Sound Surveillance System'). They were able to plot the precise location, some 750 nautical miles northeast of Hawaii, at a depth of around 5000 metres. The Russians, on the other hand, were completely in the dark about the dramatic events that had taken place. Soviet submarines patrolling the northern Pacific broke radio silence to send frantic transmissions to one another in a desperate attempt to locate their missing submarine.


The K-129 was a vessel of the Golf II class, which was powered by conventional diesel-electric engines and had already been superseded by nuclear-powered submarines. Its main distinguishing feature was an enormous conning tower, the largest ever seen on a submarine, which housed three SS-N-5 intercontinental ballistic missiles along with their firing mechanisms. Why the CIA was so intent on recovering this obsolete submarine was never explained, but no doubt the tense political climate at the time played a part in this decision.

On the political stage, the first steps had already been taken towards detente, but the Cold War showed no signs of abating. Submarines of both superpowers regularly shadowed one another in the depths of the ocean. Both sides regularly undertook surveillance missions in each other's territorial waters. US submarines counted the number of naval ships that were under construction at Soviet shipyards, tapped into underwater telecommunications cables and listened in on telephone conversations. They took photographs, through their periscopes, of the dock installations at Soviet naval bases and followed almost every vessel of the Soviet Navy in order to draw up diagrams of the noise made by their engines and propellers, which could subsequently be used as sonic 'fingerprints' to identify individual ships.

Repeated sightings of actual or imagined periscopes of Soviet submarines off the coast of New York or Florida spread panic among American bathers. Many people insisted they had even seen periscopes in places where the water was only 1.5 metres deep. Against this background of fear and paranoia it is scarcely surprising that 'Project Jennifer' swung into operation at the CIA immediately after the sinking of the K-129.


Once the sunken submarine had been located in the spring of 1969, the CIA commissioned the building of the Glomar Explorer at one of the shipyards belonging to the Hughes Corporation. The salvage vessel had a displacement of 63,000 tonnes and was equipped with a gigantic loading platform amidships, popularly referred to as the 'Moon Pool,' which could be opened up below to allow enormous, grabbing arms to extend down into the depths. The salvage team were briefed to recover the Russian nuclear missiles and decoding devices from the stricken submarine in order to find out exactly how advanced Soviet technology was. If at all possible, they were instructed to raise the entire submarine for examination.

(The CIA planned to lift the submarine up to just below the surface and then remove it from the scene underwater, ensuring that the operation remained clandestine. In fact, the Soviets were well aware of the operation although they did not attempt to thwart it)


The Summa Corporation, the holding company that controlled all the concerns owned by Hughes, supervised construction of the alleged research vessel. Launched at Chester, Pennsylvania, in November 1972, the Glomar Explorer was a superlative piece of engineering. Even seasoned oilmen were awe-struck. The 'Moon Pool' alone, which occupied almost the entire width of the ship, was 61 metres long, 23 metres wide and just under 20 metres deep. Above it, towering into the sky, stood the derrick. It was designed to allow sections of pipe, each 20 metres in length, to be linked together to snake down to a depth of up to six miles. It wielded a grab mechanism with eight claws capable of lifting 

"Certain agencies are taking steps to raise a Soviet submarine that sank in the Pacific. From a well-wisher."


objects of up to 7000 tonnes. Tried-and-tested techniques used in building oil-drilling vessels ensured that the Glomar Explorer would remain completely stable while the submarine was being salvaged.

A top-secret underwater dock accompanied the Glomar Explorer on her mission. This vessel, the Hughes Mining Barge I (or HMB-I for short), was built specially for this task. She carried the grab mechanism out to the Glomar Explorer and, once the salvage operation was complete, it was planned that she would serve as a transportation platform for the K-129.


In July 1974 the Glomar Explorer arrived at its appointed destination in the northern Pacific, directly above the K-129. The salvage operation could only begin once the sea was completely calm. It was several days before the eight grabs on their connecting rods were lowered inch by inch down to the ocean floor 5000 metres below and several more days before the grabs were positioned directly over the submarine.

Progress in the ocean depths was tracked on monitor screens on board the Glomar Explorer. When the salvage crew could see that one of the grabs was touching the submarine's hull, they tried to manoeuvre all the other grabs nearer so that they could grip the submarine like giant claws. But the move was miscalculated and the grab mechanism slammed down violently into the seabed. It then had to be painstakingly pulled back up for a distance of about 100 metres. As the crew stared fixedly at their monitors they feared that they had damaged the apparatus irreparably, bringing an end to their mission. Yet in the dim underwater light, the grabs looked remarkably intact. A second attempt was made and this time the claws were successfully positioned around the submarine --- 'Project Jennifer' was now in full swing.

Painfully slowly, the 5000-tonne Soviet submarine, completely waterlogged, was lifted off the ocean floor. Straining to lift this enormous weight, the Glomar Explorer sunk lower in the water and began to buck and roll under the strain. The crew stood by in strained silence, aware that it was possible that their ship might capsize. Down in the depths, the K-129 hung suspended in the arms of the grab. In nine hours lifting, the steel coffin with its cargo of nuclear missiles had risen just 1500 metres closer to the surface. If everything went smoothly, it would take 30 hours to bring the submarine to the surface.

Suddenly, three of the grabs failed and released their grip, sending a violent shock reverberating through the Glomar Explorer. Although two grabs were still holding the front part of the submarine, the rest of the hull was suspended in mid-water without any support. Further disaster struck when the steel plating of the submarine tore apart along a line of rivets and the major section of the K-129 broke free and sunk back down into the ocean depths. The men on the

(A Soviet submarine of the same class as the K-129. Propelled by diesel power, the Golf II class of submarines were designed to dive to a maximum  depth of 300 metres)

Glomar Explorer were transfixed with horror, aware that intact nuclear warheads were about to hit the ocean floor. Nobody was sure how the warheads had been constructed or confident that they would withstand the impact. It was possible that the salvagers had just set a nuclear catastrophe in motion. The seconds ticked by agonisingly slowly. But when the impact came there was no explosion; the men on board could breathe again.

Only the section of the submarine that still remained in the grab could now be salvaged. Everything else, including the codebooks and all the radio, sonar and encoding equipment - which the CIA had particularly wanted to save - had been swallowed by the sea. The remains of the submarine that were eventually eased through the open hatches of the 'Moon Pool' were of little use to the CIA operatives. Their mission had failed.

The Los Angeles Times broke the story of the Glomar Explorer in 1975 and the United States announced that they had found the bodies of eight Soviet submariners in the recovered section of the submarine. They had been buried at sea with full military honours about 90 miles southwest of Hawaii. The ceremony was videotaped and presented to the Soviet Union.


The Cold War era of underwater surveillance and pursuit furnished ample material for novels and films. Even the CIA conceded that the underwater chase portrayed in the feature film The Hunt for Red October, was completely realistic. 'Project Jennifer' undoubtedly inspired the producers of the James Bond films. The Spy Who Loved Me has a sequence in which a converted supertanker swallows up a submarine - the ship having a similar grab device to that of the Glomar Explorer.

With the end of the Cold War the Glomar Explorer's glory days were over. For many years the vessel was mothbailed. In 1996 she was converted into what she had once purported to be. Nowadays, she is employed as a drilling vessel on the hunt for oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Even the HMB-I was deployed in other roles, first being used by the US environment agency as a floating underwater research platform and later, in the 1990s, serving with the US navy as a base for experimental stealth submarines.