Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Gray Lady Down

Did you know the U.S. has lost two nuclear submarines, and that one of them carried nuclear weapons that remain on the ocean floor today? Or that after the Soviets lost a sub off Hawaii in 1968, Nixon ordered the CIA to conduct a salvage operation that involved Defense Secretary Robert Gates many years later? I didn't. If anyone wants to recommend a good book about subs and the Cold War, please post it or email me.

The USS Thresher in 1963 (all excerpts below via Wiki):

Thresher imploded (that is, one or more of her compartments collapsed inwards in a fraction of a second) at a depth somewhere between 1,300 and 2,000 feet (400 and 600m). All on board were killed nearly instantly (1 or 2 seconds at most).

The Thresher today:

The Navy has periodically monitored the environmental conditions of the site since the sinking and reported the results in an annual public report on environmental monitoring for U.S. Naval nuclear-powered ships...The monitoring data confirms that there has been no significant effect on the environment. Nuclear fuel in the submarine remains intact.

And the USS Scorpion in 1968:

Ed Offley, a reporter on military affairs, has closely followed developments in information concerning the sinking of the Scorpion. His most recent article on the subject is "Buried at Sea" published in the Winter 2008 issue of the Quarterly Journal of Military History. This article summarizes the facts in the case as presented in his 2007 book Scorpion Down: Sunk by the Soviets, Buried by the Pentagon: The Untold Story of the USS Scorpion. In the book Offley, gathering decades of his own research, hypothesizes that the Scorpion was sunk by the Soviets, possibly in retaliation for the loss of the K-129 Golf-II ballistic missile submarine earlier that year. The book paints a picture of increasing Soviet anger at US Navy provocations (specifically close-in monitoring of Soviet naval operations by almost every US nuclear submarine). At approximately the same time, the Soviet intelligence community scored a huge boon in receiving the mechanical cryptologic devices from the USS Pueblo. These machines, combined with daily crypto keys from the John Anthony Walker spy ring, likely allowed the Soviets to monitor in real time U.S. Navy ship dispositions and communications. It is Mr. Offley's contention that the Scorpion was tracked by several Soviet Navy assets from the Mediterranean to its final operational area south of the Azores, where it was then sunk by a Soviet torpedo. Among the oral testimony relied upon by Mr. Offley are recountings of SOSUS recording documenting torpedo sounds, evasion sounds, an explosion, and eventually the sounds of implosions as the Scorpion plunged past crush depth.

The Scorpion today:

Today, the wreck of the Scorpion is reported to be resting on a sandy seabed at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean in approximately 3000 m of water. The site is reported to be approximately 400 miles (740 km) southwest of the Azores Islands, on the eastern edge of the Sargasso Sea. The U.S. Navy has acknowledged that it periodically visits the site to conduct testing for the release of nuclear materials from the nuclear reactor or the two nuclear weapons aboard her, and to determine whether the wreckage has been disturbed.

The Soviet K-129:

In early August 1968, the wreck of K-129 was pin-pointed by the USS Halibut (SSGN-587) northwest of Oahu, at an approximate depth of 16,000 feet (4,900 m). The wreck was surveyed in detail over the next three weeks by Halibut (reportedly with over 20,000 close-up photos), and later also possibly by Trieste II. Given a unique opportunity to snatch a Soviet SS-N-5 SERB nuclear missile without the knowledge of the Soviet Union, the K-129 wreck came to the attention of U.S. national authorities. After consideration by the Secretary of Defense and the White House, President Nixon authorized a salvage attempt. To ensure the salvage attempt remained "black" (i.e. clandestine and secret), the CIA rather than the Navy was tasked to conduct the operation. Hughes Glomar Explorer was designed and built under CIA contract, solely for the purpose of conducting a clandestine salvage of K-129. Under the cover name Operation Jennifer, this project would be one of the most expensive and deepest secrets of the Cold War.

The United States announced that in the section they recovered were the bodies of six men. Due to radioactive contamination, the bodies were buried at sea in a steel chamber on September 4, 1974 with full military honors about 90 nautical miles (167 km) southwest of Hawaii. The videotape of that ceremony was given to Russia by U.S. Director of Central Intelligence, Robert Gates, when he visited Moscow in October 1992. The relatives of the crew members were eventually shown the video some years later.

More on the actual CIA salvage operation here. Interesting stuff.


Blogger Clay said...

Hands down the best book is Blind Man's Bluff. Covers the whole era of undersea warfare during the Cold War.

Ivy Bells, the Thresher, Project Jennifer, secret collisions, the works.

It's also relatively short and a quick read.

5/20/2008 7:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Second Blind Man's Bluff.

5/20/2008 7:59 AM  
Blogger Dave S. said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5/20/2008 9:16 AM  
Anonymous Jason Lefkowitz said...

Another recommendation here for Blind Man's Bluff -- it's a great read.

5/20/2008 9:44 AM  
Blogger Oz said...

I haven't read Blind Man's Bluff, but I've heard good things. I have read Red Star Rogue and enjoyed it, although I'm not 100% convinced by his argument. In any case, it includes a lot of interesting info on all of the nuclear submarine sinkings and even related K-129 to USS Scorpion.

5/20/2008 10:13 AM  
Anonymous goldhorder said...

Another recommendation for Blind Man's Bluff. It is the gold standard of Submarine books. Kind of like Das Boot is still the gold standard for Sub Movies.

5/20/2008 12:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I see everyone got in with the Blind Man's Bluff recommendation! Pretty much what everyone says, it is THE book -- and I can speak from authority courtesy of my dad, who served in the sub fleet for the vast majority of his career after graduating from the USNA. I've crawled around enough subs over the past myself, as I'll link here in a sec.

More to the point -- my dad read it and pretty said it was, indeed, the gold standard, capturing a lot of stuff accurately for the first time, but also still leaving a lot out (my dad's cagily never told us everything but he's dropped some interesting hints!). A number of people in the book were familiar to me when I was growing up, so it was a kick to see them in there.

As for me on a submarine, have fun -- I look so bored because I WAS bored, by this time in my life I'd been on subs all the time and had even been on a short trip from San Diego to the SF Bay Area with my dad and his dad, great times!


5/20/2008 1:23 PM  
Blogger Robert said...

read blind man's bluff by sherry sontag

5/20/2008 2:26 PM  
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