October 2010

Back/Story What Lies Beneath

An insider’s tale of the search for Soviet bombs in the Pacific can finally be told by Annie Jacobsen

It was 1971, and electrical engineer Wayne Pendleton had just spent a decade on a series of “black world”—highly classified—projects for the CIA. He was looking forward to a change of pace from the high-stress world of espionage when he bumped into an old boss at a party in Los Angeles, who talked him into taking a “white world” job with a company called Global Marine. Pendleton’s engineering talents were needed, he was told, for a Herculean effort being spearheaded by eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes. Pendleton signed on.

He reported to work in an El Segundo building Global Marine shared with Hughes. “They spent about two hours talking to me about this ship Howard Hughes was building called the Glomar Explorer,” Pendleton says. “I was told we were going to be mining for magnesium nodules on the deep ocean floor.”

Magnesium, a component used in making very strong steel, comes from Africa, and in the 1970s, Africa was an unstable supplier, so to Pendleton the concept was entirely plausible. He told them it sounded interesting, and someone briefing him grinned and said, “Good, that’s what we wanted you to think. Now here’s what’s really going on...” Welcome back to the black world, Pendleton realized with resignation.

Three years earlier, in March 1968, an undersea drama began when a Soviet K-129 submarine carrying three one-megaton thermonuclear warheads—enough firepower to flatten Los Angeles—sank in the Pacific Ocean 1,560 miles northwest of Hawaii. “The Soviets had no idea where their sub was, but we did,” Pendleton explains.

In addition to nuclear warheads, the sub held a treasure trove of Soviet military intelligence, including codebooks and a radio with a coveted encryption device. “Recovered documents would provide insights into the Soviets command-and-control aspects of their strategic attack doctrine,” one recently declassified CIA report notes.

Equally remarkable was the possibility of acquiring Soviet nuclear weapons. “We had no idea how the Soviets built their thermonuclear weapons,” Pendleton clarifies. “If we got ahold of one of them, we’d be able to reverse engineer it, and that would be an intelligence coup.” (In the 1960s, Pendleton worked on nuclear-weapons tests in Nevada.)

“International law recognizes that state vessels and aircraft, and their associated artifacts, whether or not sunken, are entitled to sovereign immunity,” says J. Ashley Roach, a former navy captain and legal adviser to the State Department. But this was not an opportunity the CIA was willing to pass up during one of the scariest periods of the Cold War. President Nixon gave the green light—if the Soviets remained in the dark. The operation, called Project Azorian, was so secret its existence was not declassified until February 2010.

The K-129 had sunk in water three miles deep. At the time, no nation had ever recovered anything of that scale from that kind of depth before. The submarine weighed 2,000 tons—an extraordinary amount of weight to haul to the surface. Lockheed Missiles and Space Company was hired to build the single most important feature on the Glomar Explorer: the deep-sea retrieval claw. One of Pendleton’s job assignments was to work on claw issues during the CIA’s trial runs.

“After years, the K-129 Soviet sub was about to be in CIA hands. Then came the Murphy’s Law moment: ‘We had it in the claw,’ Pendleton says, ‘and suddenly part of it just dropped away.’ ”

“Everyone called the claw Clementine,” Pendleton says. Like something out of a James Bond movie, Clementine’s job was to grasp the submarine around both sides and haul it up into a giant “moon pool” in the center of the Glomar Explorer, out of view of spy satellites. The CIA executive committee agreed to go with a “dead lift”—or bruteforce—system. Clementine would be attached to a giant pipe made of 590 individual pieces. A 326-foot tall derrick (think of a tall tower with a movable arm at the top) sat atop the ship and controlled the lines that moved the pole attached to the claw.

The Glomar Explorer was built to order at the Sun Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Company in Chester, Pennsylvania. In April 1973, more than five years after the K-129 had gone down, the Glomar finally set sail from the East Coast. Down the Delaware River she went, into the Atlantic, around South America, through the Strait of Magellan and up the California coast to the Port of Long Beach. There, almost 13,000 miles from where she embarked, Glomar underwent her final, white world–to–black world conversion. A fleet of 24 cargo vans emblazoned with a “No/So” logo (actually a shell company created by Lockheed) met the Glomar Explorer at Pier E. They carried Project Azorian’s top-secret crown jewels.

The CIA had spent years developing cutting-edge equipment to deal with the soggy codebooks and nuclear weapons they hoped to haul up from the bottom of the sea. “Ultrasonic cleaning tools, [a] paper processing facility...[a] special facility for proper drying of documents...[equipment] for decontaminating exploitation personnel...” were just some of the blackworld contents unloaded from the vans onto the spy ship.

“There were major concerns,” Pendleton says. “We were dealing with raw plutonium. Was it slush? No one had any idea exactly how watertight the Soviets made their plutonium cores. What exactly had happened to it while it was lying on the sea floor?” As one Project Azorian document noted, “Handling nuclear material and contaminated items [was an area] of little-understood danger.”

On June 20, 1974, the Glomar Explorer left Long Beach headed for the target area. The engineers, nuclear scientists, doctors, meteorologists, oceanographers, photo experts and CIA officers on board had all been made aware of a critical unknown hanging over the mission. What if the Soviets found out in the 11th hour? With tensions high, the ship arrived at the recovery site on schedule but amid dense fog and an impending typhoon. In no time, the Glomar was battling 22-foot waves.

Clementine the claw was on its way down to the ocean floor when the first in a series of potential national-security nightmares began. A British merchant craft called Bel Hudson radioed Glomar on an open channel, requesting emergency medical assistance. A boatswain was having a heart attack, the captain said, and international treaties required Glomar to assist.

In the heat of the moment, the Project Azorian mission director became convinced this could be a covert tactic by KGB agents to board the ship. “We all thought the same thing,” adds Pendleton, who was receiving briefings at the Hughes Building in El Segundo. In very choppy waters, the Glomar’s surgeon, medical technician and security officer went to examine the patient. When the crew indeed appeared to be British, not Soviet, the boatswain was brought over to receive medical help.

That was not the end of the incident. “The Bel Hudson distress call had gone out,” Pendleton says, “and there happened to be a Soviet ICBM-retrieval ship nearby.” That ship, called the Chazhma, decided to investigate why the Glomar was out in such deep waters and was spotted taking pictures.

The Project Azorian director spotted a helicopter parked on the Soviet cruiser’s 459-foot deck. “Now,” Pendleton says, “the big question was, What if the Soviets tried to board by helicopter? It could lead to a showdown on the high seas.”

The 1968 capture of the USS Pueblo by North Korea, after the ship was caught spying in international waters off Pyongyang was still fresh for the CIA. (Pueblo’s cover was “scientific research.”) After firing on the ship and killing a U.S. sailor, the North Korean People’s Army stormed the Pueblo and took the captain and 82 crew members hostage. The navy never got its ship back; the craft remains on display in Pyongyang. The last thing the CIA wanted was the intelligence failure of losing the Glomar to the Soviets.

The Soviet helicopter took off and began circling the Glomar, as the mission director prepared for the “emergency destruction of sensitive material” and ordered the crew to cover the decks with crates so the helicopter couldn’t land. Men were sent to the front of the ship to prevent “any attempt by the Soviet helicopter to hover and lower personnel onto the bow,” according to one internal report.

The two crews had an exchange about what exactly Glomar was doing. “We are conducting ocean mining tests—deep-ocean mining tests,” the captain said. Finally, after a second sweep by the Soviet helicopter, the Chazhma unexpectedly announced its departure. “I wish you all the best” were the parting words heard.

Back in Washington, CIA officials breathed a huge sigh of relief. It appeared the Soviet intelligence apparatus had fallen for the Howard Hughes cover story, and Clementine the claw continued her incremental voyage to the sea floor. And soon, sonar located the target. The crew was elated. But the celebratory moment was shattered by the sudden appearance of a second Soviet ship—this one alleged to be the seagoing salvage tug SB-10.

“We were dealing with raw plutonium. Was it slush? No one had any idea how watertight the Soviets made their plutonium cores. What had happened to it while lying on the sea floor?””

“The real purpose of that kind of tug is to accompany the [Soviet] Polaris submarines on cruises up and down the California coast,” Pendleton says. Between missions, the tugs would hang out at sea. “The tug had divers on board, and now the fear was, What would happen if they were sent underwater to have a look?” Suspense mounted. The Soviet tug moved in to just 200 feet from the Glomar’s bow—CIA memos document that the Soviet crew members were wearing “fatigue-type outfits, swim trunks, shorts.” Just when it appeared they were going to find out what was going on, the salvage tug simply motored away.

Alone at last, Clementine reached the bottom of the sea. An elated crew watched on closed-circuit TV as the claw took the K-129 in her teeth. A seminal engineering feat had been achieved—almost. The disaster turned out not to be the arrival of the KGB but an engineering catastrophe of epic proportions. “Six of the seven hydraulic pumps blew out, [parts] overheated and several coffee cup–size poppet valves welded shut,” Pendleton recalls.

It was a harrowing moment, as the engineers realized the Glomar was stuck to the submarine, which was in turn stuck to the bottom of the ocean floor. A tropical storm blew in, and waves started cresting at 15 feet. “The fear was the ship might break in half. These huge waves were trying to lift up the ship, but it was stuck on the sub and would not heave.”

Back in Los Angeles, Pendleton and the engineering team worked around the clock to get Glomar’s hydraulic pumps back online. Finally, Clementine was working again. After six long years, the K-129 Soviet submarine was about to be in CIA hands. Then came the final Murphy’s Law moment: “We had it in the claw,” Pendleton says, “and suddenly a large part of it just dropped away.”

And then, as the crew members waited for the sub to hit the bottom of the ocean, a terrible and overwhelming feeling of dread set in. What if the thermonuclear bombs and atomic warheads exploded on impact? And would three miles of saltwater absorb a nuclear blast?

What happened in the minutes and hours that followed is still classified, but Pendleton can vouch for the fact that everyone on the Glomar Explorer made it to shore alive. As planned, he met up with the crew a few days later in Hawaii—in an old whaling town called Lahaina Roads. But what about the nuclear weapons on the sea floor? “My guess is that, later on, we sent a DSRV [Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle] to reacquire what was lost,” Pendleton speculates. “But who am I to say?”

By 1974, DSRV technology was more than a decade old—also developed and pioneered by Lockheed Missiles and Space Company. After the K-129 sank for the second time, the CIA drew up plans for a followup search-and-rescue mission. But those covert plans were abruptly aborted in February 1975, when Los Angeles Times reporter Jack Anderson broke the story of the Glomar Explorer to the world, including, most importantly, the USSR.

“The Soviets reacted immediately to the disclosure and assigned one of their ships to sit and monitor the site of their lost submarine,” reads the CIA declassified report. How long it took for the CIA to covertly access what lay beneath—without being caught—is anybody’s guess. “But knowing the CIA,” says Pendleton, “they figured out a way.”

ANNIE JACOBSEN blogs on intelligence issues and political intrigue in backstory.latimesmagazine.com.