In the early hours of February 25, 1968, a Russian submarine armed with three nuclear ballistic missiles set sail from its base in Siberia on a routine combat patrol to Hawaii. Then it vanished.
As the Soviet Navy searched in vain for the lost vessel, a small, highly classified American operation using sophisticated deep-sea spy equipment found itwrecked on the sea floor at a depth of 16,800 feet, far beyond the capabilities of any salvage that existed. But the potential intelligence assets onboard the shipthe nuclear warheads, battle orders, and cryptological machinesjustified going to extreme lengths to find a way to raise the submarine.
So began Project Azorian, a top secret mission that took six years, cost an estimated $800 million, and would become the largest and most daring covert operation in CIA history.
After the U.S. Navy declared retrieving the sub "impossible," the mission fell to the CIA's burgeoning Directorate of Science and Technology, the little-known division responsible for the legendary U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird spy planes. Working with Global Marine Systems, the country's foremost maker of exotic, deep-sea drilling vessels, the CIA commissioned the most expensive ship ever built and told the world that it belonged to the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, who would use the mammoth ship to mine rare minerals from the ocean floor. In reality, a complex network of spies, scientists, and politicians attempted a project even crazier than Hughes's reputation: raising the sub directly under the watchful eyes of the Russians.
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The Soviet nuclear ballistic missile submarine K-129 left Petropavlovsk, on Russia's remote, frigid Kamchatka peninsula, with a crew of ninety-eight after dark on February 24, 1968, for a routine but unexpected patrol. No external markings signified the sub's name, and even its hull number was painted over so that the vessel would be unrecognizable to any ship that happened to notice it when it surfaced to gulp air and run the diesel motors that recharged its onboard batteries.
The Golf-class sub, which the Soviets called by its side number, PL-574, was under the command of an ascendant thirty-eight-year-old Ukrainian captain first rank named Vladimir Kobzar, who was leading his final mission aboard the boat he'd commanded for four years. When the submarine returned to its home base, Kobzar would move to Soviet fleet headquarters to assume a more senior position commanding multiple subs from a desk.
Kobzar was one of the most experienced captains in the fleet, a rigorous, demanding man so highly regarded that many in the submarine service thought he might one day command the entire fleet. He had been given the Order of the Red Star for service and was being rewarded for his four years at sea with a promotion that was certain not to be his last. Kobzar was loved by his crew and respected by his superiors, who noted how he personally helped train watch officers, oversaw survival training, and could capably handle any job on the sub. He had a question he liked to repeat to men under his command: "Who is the most dangerous man on a submarine? The one who doesn't know what he's doing!"
Upon return to port, Kobzar's second-in-command, Captain Third Rank Alexander Zhuravin, would take over the K-129. The two officers knew each other well, having served more than a year at sea together, and were comfortable working in unison.
Zhuravin was sharp, polished, ambitious, and, at thirty-four, one of the youngest senior officers in the fleet. He was tall for a submariner, at six foot two, and good-natured, fond of practical jokes and of occasionally fishing from atop the sub with the enlisted men when it wasn't on war patrol. Alex was introduced to his wife, Irina, by her brother, while the two were cadets at the Leningrad Naval Academy. She was in high school at the time, back in Moscow, so their relationship began as a series of letters that Irina would sometimes read aloud in class, to impress her friends with the romantic notion that she was being wooed from afar by this handsome naval cadet. This went on for seven years, with Alex traveling to Moscow to continue his pursuit in person whenever his schedule allowed.
When Irina graduated from college, she finally agreed to marry him, making a commitment that came with an unfortunate asterisk: Alex was to join the Pacific Fleet, forty-two hundred miles away, on Kamchatka. Worse, he was to serve on submarines, leaving Russia for several months at a time, during which she would be home alone, unable to communicate with her husband for days and sometimes weeks. And yet, the marriage came with an upside, too. Being a Soviet naval officer was a prestigious job and Irina enjoyed the residual luster and of course the benefits-especially a nice house and a salary that was high for a young family in the Soviet Union. When Alex left port, his wife missed him, but she never feared he wouldn't come back.
None of the sub's officers expected to be at sea in February. The boat had completed a normal two-month combat patrol in the northeast Pacific on November 30, 1967, and upon return the crew was split into two for the duration in port, as was the custom. Half of the personnel went on vacation, while the other half were assigned to routine maintenance-cleaning, painting, repairs. Halfway through the break, they swapped roles.
What little rest the crew got during the break wasn't just welcome; it was necessary. Autumn storms had rocked the boat almost incessantly for the entire time K-129 was at sea, making the previous mission a rough one, physically. And the men assumed, fairly, that they'd have several months to recover. Subs of this type typically did two combat patrols a year, but when two different sister ships experienced mechanical problems early in February and were deemed unfit for combat patrols, the Soviet Navy decided to send the K-129 back to sea so as to not disrupt the fleet's scheduled activities.
Telegrams from Central Command went out, ordering the crew to report to base between February 5 and February 8. When Division Commander Admiral V. A. Dygalo heard the news, he complained that the decision was cruel and potentially reckless. He filed a report stating his concerns to Rear Admiral Krivoruchko, commander of the Fifteenth Squadron, but Krivoruchko handed it right back, with a very clear message.
"You can take your report to the latrine," he said. "Direct your energy to getting the sub ready for service."
Dygalo was irritated enough that he didn't heed the warning. Instead, he went up the chain of command, sending his report to the fleet commander, who had the same response.
"Comrade Dygalo, this order comes from the Supreme Commander," he replied. "And nobody, not I, nor the Commander of the Navy will be asking him to postpone the mission by two weeks in hopes that [another] sub might be able to work through all its problems and report to active duty."
Sufficiently chastened, Dygalo focused instead on trying to get his submarine ready for duty. Submarine K-129 wasn't new; in fact, it had been in service since 1960, but it was outfitted to be as advanced as any of the forty subs stationed at the Soviet Navy's Petropavlovsk-Kamchatka base. It was the first sub in the division to be given an award of excellence, and it sailed with the newest, most advanced navigation system in the Pacific Fleet.
Like all subs operating during the height of the Cold War, K-129 went to sea in full battle rattle. She was 328 feet long from nose to tail, propelled by three two-thousand-horsepower diesel engines when at the surface or in recharge mode, and three electric propulsion motors when cruising underwater, when the silence provided by electric motors is essential to mission success.
The sub carried three R-21 ballistic nuclear missiles-also known as SS-N-5 Serbs. Each R-21 had a white nose cone stuffed with a nuclear warhead and was loaded into one of the three vertical launch tubes that stood behind the sub's conning tower. A single R-21 warhead carried one megaton of punch-more than sixty-five times the explosive power of Fat Man, the bomb that leveled Nagasaki-and had a range of 755 miles. It was also a historic weapon, the first Soviet missile that could be fired from a submerged submarine, giving the K-129 the ability to launch a preemptive nuclear strike from an undetectable position far from the American coastline if war were to break out.
Missile subs are relatively slow and vulnerable to attack. So to defend herself, K-129 carried two nuclear-tipped torpedoes loaded into the forward launch tubes, each one capable of sinking a US aircraft carrier, as well as a second set of conventional self-guided torpedoes in the stern bays to defend against attack from other submarines.
Boats like the K-129 were particularly critical to the Soviet Navy's mission. The Pacific Fleet was still young, and these diesel-powered ballistic missile subs of the Twenty-ninth Division provided the most direct threat to America's major West Coast cities-a threat that the Americans couldn't easily track. The sub's role was to patrol the Pacific quietly and stand ready to act in the event of nuclear war.
The end result of the schedule change was that Kobzar and his men were yanked out of shore leave they had earned, tearing them away from neglected hobbies, upcoming anniversaries, and family birthdays they missed all too often in the course of serving the motherland. Zhuravin, his wife, and their two children had joined several other officers and their families at a spa resort, where the pristine air of the Kamchatka peninsula helped clear up the respiratory irritation he had developed on the previous mission. But the arrival of a telegram announcing orders to return to port could not be ignored, and though the young captain had reservations about returning to sea so soon, with the sub in need of repairs, he knew better than to express that sentiment aloud.
A Soviet submarine's precise directives were never known to its captain upon departure, but Kobzar and his crew knew the broader plan: to follow a prescribed course to K-129's station, a relatively small block of ocean well to the northwest of Hawaii, and more or less sit there-in a remote section of the Pacific, infamous for heaving seas and flotillas of flotsam and for being largely barren of naval activity except for the silent passage of American hunter-killer subs that stalked Soviet ballistic missile subs. The K-129's mission was to stay out of sight of these subs, or any other hostile American vessels, until returning to base on May 5 at no later than 1200 hours.
The sub slipped out of her bay, docked briefly alongside a floating barracks ship, then cruised on to the fleet weapons depot to pick up the ballistic missiles and nuclear-tipped torpedoes. Once loaded, the K-129 moved farther into the bay and anchored, to await the arrival of a large antisubmarine ship that escorted her as far as the booms, a standard procedure meant to signal loud and clear to any Americans watching that the sub leaving port was on a combat mission, carrying live nukes.
At twelve fifteen a.m. on February 25, the submarine passed the booms and headed into the open ocean. At one a.m., a monitoring station picked up a signal that the K-129 had submerged, and then it went quiet. After leaving Russian waters, the sub headed south until it reached 40 degrees latitude, then turned away from Japan, under orders to spend at least 90 percent of her time submerged, mostly at a depth of around sixty feet, running on underwater diesel power (UDP), with the boat's snorkel-induction mast above the water to suck air for the diesel engines. This was a hybrid stealth mode mandated by fleet command to keep Soviet subs hidden yet still within range of radio signals from shore. It was a far more risky (and noisy) position than cruising under battery power at a deeper and safer depth, but Soviet sub captains were under orders to operate according to UDP protocols as much as possible-and a mission's success was in part judged by the percentage of time spent in this mode.
The K-129 cruised more or less in a straight line, with periodic zigs and zags to seek out and shake any American subs that might be trailing. Submarine warfare during the Cold War was a game of hide-and-seek. All captains of slower ballistic subs considered their vessels prey for attack subs and were trained to move evasively, making unpredictable course changes regularly. A sub might ascend or descend suddenly and would occasionally shut down all engines so the crew could just sit silently and listen for any external sounds that would indicate American hunter-killers lurking nearby.
At 180 degrees longitude, the K-129 was to turn again, toward the US coast. To prevent detection, especially considering the rising geopolitical tensions in the region, the K-129 traveled as much as possible in silent mode, running on battery power. As far as anyone back at command was concerned, she was proceeding as directed.
Vulnerable at snorkel depth, diesel-powered boats routinely and unavoidably traveled there. Golfs were the last generation of Soviet subs to have diesel power (all later generations had nuclear power, which eliminated the necessity to surface), and those noisy engines cranked up when a sub surfaced to charge the electric batteries that made cruising silently underwater possible. Ascend, charge, submerge. The pattern repeats over and over.
Inside, there was no fresh air. The caustic, bitter smell of diesel fuel permeated every inch of the submarine, seeping into clothes, mattresses, and sheets. And there was precious little freshwater. Each crewman was allowed a single liter per day, and that had to cover drinking, bathing, and-very occasionally-laundry. The entire crew shared three toilets and slept in bunks stacked so tightly that there was barely room for a man to lift his head.
When a sub is on or near the surface, all personnel stand at the ready, with key officers manning the boat's two periscopes: the sky-search scope, which points straight up to spot sub-hunter planes; and the attack scope, which scans the ocean surface in search of foreign vessels. At prearranged times, the K-129 would also use these opportunities to send word back to Kamchatka, in the form of encoded burst communications that told superiors back at base that the mission was continuing as planned and that no problems had arisen en route.
A submarine's most important attribute is stealth, and what made subs so important during the Cold War was that they enabled both sides to move nuclear missiles from land-where their fixed positions were easily located and, in theory, destroyed if a war were to break out-to sea, where on these silent, mobile launch platforms they would remain capable of striking and prolonging a war even if the homeland's nuclear arsenal had been eliminated. Locating Soviet subs, then, was a huge priority for the US Navy, which had an almost unlimited budget for intelligence and antisubmarine warfare tactics-a line item so important that it required no congressional oversight.
The Soviets were aware that any radio transmissions sent between the subs and the mainland were intercepted by a network of land-based installations. What frustrated US Naval Intelligence was that analysts could not unlock these communications-typically short bursts of code sent at prearranged times and from specific locations-so while they could hear when and from where a particular burst originated, analysts had no idea what specific information was being transmitted.
Like any Soviet captain, Kobzar did not learn his official orders until the sub was in the open ocean. They were contained in a packet handed to him by his commander just before departure. The envelope was marked with clear directions: "To be opened on the third day after leaving base." Kobzar bore a heavy burden-he was in a position to start a war if necessary, and should that happen, he would be asked to target and destroy three of the most critical US military installations in the Pacific: Pearl Harbor, Hickam Air Force Base, and US Pacific Command Headquarters, in Oahu.
What People are Saying About This
Josh Dean has a gift for unearthing remarkable stories lost to history, and in The Taking of K-129 he has uncovered perhaps the most remarkable one of all—a story replete with spies and engineering marvels and a secret drama unfolding thousands of feet beneath the sea. Brilliantly researched and beautifully written, this is a book you can't put down.
David Grann, New York Times bestselling author of Killers of the Flower Moon
An engrossing account of shadowy intrigue, precision engineering and ultra-deception, The Taking of K-129 is a high-stakes espionage drama of operational boldness married with technical brilliance.
Robert Wallace, author of Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA's Spytechs from Communism to al-Qaeda
A riveting account of the American intelligence community. Told in fascinating detail, The Taking of K-129 is nonfiction at its best because with every page I had to remind myself this actually happened.
Kevin Maurer, co-author of the #1 New York Times bestseller No Easy Day
As a former submariner and navy diver, I give Josh Dean an A+ for The Taking of K-129. This non-fiction account of one of the most dangerous and daring missions of the Cold War is well-researched and reads like a Tom Clancy thriller.
W. Craig Reed, New York Times bestselling author of Red November