The true story of how the CIA stole a sunken Russian submarine from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean at the height of the Cold War without anybody finding out. And the NAME alumni who made it happen.
Most people don’t know the tale of one of the largest covert operations in U.S. history. Only press leaks, declassified documents, and the men who were there can confirm it ever happened. Author Josh Dean and three NAME alumni who worked on the top-secret CIA mission recently visited the department to tell the tale of one of our nation’s largest covert ops.
At the height of the Cold War, in January of 1968, the Russians lost a submarine (K-129) in the Pacific Ocean. The Americans located it and set to the nearly impossible task of recovering the potential treasure trove of Soviet secrets from 17,000 ft – or 3.2 miles – beneath the surface of the North Pacific without tipping off the Russians. To achieve such a Herculean task, the CIA needed to reinvent the science of deep sea recovery with the help of some of the best marine engineering minds of the time. University of Michigan Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering alumni including Charles Cannon (NAME ’68), Chuck Canby (NAME ’69), John Hollett (NAME ’68), and Steve Kemp (NAME ’70) were there to answer the call.
The top-secret mission was dubbed Project Azorian. It’s task? Use a claw (or capture vehicle) built into the bottom of a ship outfitted to look like a mining vessel to grunt-lift the sunken submarine, equipped with three nuclear missiles, into a secret moonpool in the bottom of the vessel. The problem? Nothing like this had ever been attempted before. The technology for such a mission hadn’t been developed yet. And they had to do it while inquisitive Soviet ships and helicopters kept a close watch.
The ship was to be the Hughes Glomar Explorer. Hughes, as in Howard Hughes, was to be the public face of the very covert operation. The cover story was that the recluse and eccentric millionaire was getting into the mining business and that the Explorer was looking for potentially valuable rare-earth mineral deposits known as manganese nodules.
Reinventing Naval Technology
Crucial to the mission’s success were seven special requirements for the Hughes Glomar Explorer. Much of this technology was created specifically for this project and pushed the bounds of what was possible in the field of naval architecture for the time.
- A Dry, Floodable Center Moon Pool to house the recovery claw and the submarine,
- A Heavy Lift Pipe String 17,000 ft long with a payload capacity of 4250 s.t. or 8-1/2 Boeing 747s,
- A Gimbaled, Heave Compensation Platform to support the weight of the entire lift system and to isolate the pipe string from the ship motions in unpredictable seas,
- A Hydraulic Heavy Lift System with a maximum load capacity of 7000 s.t.,
- A Heavy Lift Pipe Handling System to move 285 pipe string 60 ft long “doubles” weighing 12-20 tons from horizontal storage to vertical above the main desk, then stab threaded end into pipe string being lowered at speeds of 18ft/min. Repeat every 200 seconds.
- A Docking System to capture claw and cargo and transfer the moving load from the pipe string to move in sync with the ship’s own motions,
- A Pre-GPS Dynamic Position System capable of holding the ship’s position relative to the ocean bottom within a 40′ radius.
The U-M Naval Architects
In all, 11 U-M engineers worked on Project Azorian. Of those, 7 were NAME graduates. As the author of The Taking of K129, Josh Dean states, “Without U-M NAME, there would be no Project Azorian and no book.” Of particular note are the following four alumni who had prominent roles in the development of the Explorer and the recovery of the Russian submarine.
Chuck Cannon (NAME 1968) was hired right out of college by Global Marine which came to be the naval architecture firm in charge of the project. On Project Azorian, he was assigned to design the hull which included the sliding moon pool gates and to maintain vessel weight and center-of-gravity estimates. He recalculated these estimates every month based on the latest information from the project engineers and contractors and it was Cannon that noticed a problem with the Explorer’s hull width.
It wasn’t going to keep the ship stable during the pipe string operations at its original size and needed to be even bigger than originally proposed. Cannon spent six weeks re-fairing the bow and stern lines by hand to suit the new beam and allow for the widening of the ship by 10 ft. He acted as the Resident Naval Architect onboard the Glomar during initial sea trials and delivery from Pennsylvania to California. But the title didn’t save him from the strict head of security, who confiscated his film when he was caught taking photographs of seabirds.
Charles Canby (NAME 1969) was a 21-year-old, inexperienced naval architect hired by Global Marine for his enthusiasm and unpredictability as much as for his qualifications. When Global Marine Chief Naval Architect John Graham asked him to draw up some ship’s lines with specs unlike any he’d seen before, he did so eagerly. “With minimal supervision and left pretty much on my own,” Canby says, “I developed the lines for the ship and programs for calculating hydrostatics and longitudinal strength.”
It was only after more than a year of work on the project that he found out what the true mission was. “It was like learning the facts of life when you’re eleven,” he says. “When your mom and dad tell you the truth for the first time.” When it came time for the Glomar to set sail, Canby, who had left Global Marine for a short time, rejoined the crew as a lowly ordinary seaman and welder because he loved the ship so much. However, when Cannon turned down the role of Resident Naval Architect due to family obligations, Canby took it on. He was in charge of maintaining stability and bending stresses and made frequent welding repairs.
When the Chief Security Officer needed a place to store a few key documents in the event that they were boarded by the Soviets, Canby built a “magic pipe” from the CO2 room to the main deck with a false section to house the documents.
John Hollett (NAME 1968) was hired because of his brash and colorful personality to help market the new ship technology from the Hughes mining program including the dynamic positioning, gimbaled platform, and semiautomatic pipe-handling system technology. Unfortunately, Hollett was a little too good at his job and no one had told him that his job was part of a top-secret covert CIA operation. When he realized there wasn’t much of a market for the technology beyond Uncle Sam, he decided to meet with the Secretary of Salvage for the Navy, who was pretty surprised at being pitched his own technology back to him.
Hollett was quickly brought in on the true mission after that was that he could do his job, “without ruining everything,” as Global Marine Head of Engineering, Curtis Crooke put it.
Steve Kemp (NAME 1970) was a close friend of Charlie Canby and was hired onto Global Marine to work on calculating weights and centers-of-gravity. The calculations took months and were all done by hand on desktop calculators. However, he was never fully cleared to be given the true story of the Glomar’s mission. So, though he saw every drawing of every piece of the ship, except the alleged ‘mining machine’, it wasn’t until March of 1975 when he picked up an LA Times newspaper and learned what all his painstaking calculations had been for.
The mission was both successful and unsuccessful. Despite a watchful Russian tug circling nearly the whole time, the manganese nodule mining cover held. And while they were able to retrieve some of the submarine, a failure with several of the tines on the claw machine during the lift cost them two-thirds of the vessel. It was a devasting loss. The ballistic missiles, as well as the code machinery, which had been the driving factors for the mission, were lost.
Important nuclear intelligence, however, was gained through the recovery of an intact journal of a Russian officer. Also of great importance, was the submarine construction itself as it proved that the Russian Navy was not nearly as sophisticated as had previously been believed. Perhaps more crucial intelligence was gleaned, but as the documents remain classified to this day, we might never know the real scope of the recovery.
The original plan was to return for a second mission to retrieve the rest of the vessel but in March of 1975, the press broke the story and future plans of a return attempt were dashed.
So, was it all worth it? In all, the mission ended up costing a whopping $800 million – $4 billion in today’s dollars – and six years of top secret preparations. In the end, though, most people in the intelligence community say yes. Beyond the recovery, the project itself was, and still remains, inarguably, one of the greatest feats in naval engineering history.
It also gave us one of the CIA’s most recognizable phrases. The now well-known nonresponse of, “we can neither confirm nor deny,” was a direct result of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from journalists surrounding the existence of Project Azorian. Even today, the trademark CIA slogan is known as the Glomar Response.
The true success of Project Azorian was the creation of the engineering marvel that was the Hughes Glomar Explorer and the engineers and scientists who took an impossible task and were redefined the limits of possible.