The story of “Project Azorian” began on March 1, 1968, when a Soviet Golf-II submarine, the K-129 (the CIA history refers to the submarine by its pendant number – 722), carrying three SS-N-4 Sark nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, sailed from the naval base at Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula to take up its peacetime patrol station northeast of Hawaii. If war had broken out, the K-129 would have launched its three ballistic missiles, each carrying a one megaton nuclear warhead, at targets along the west coast of the United States.
But something went terribly wrong, for in mid-March 1968 the submarine suffered a catastrophic accident and sank 1,560 miles northwest of Hawaii with the loss of its entire crew. (Note that different articles give different dates and locations.)
On 11 April, 1968, US underwater listening devices picked up the sinking of a Soviet submarine carrying nuclear missiles, torpedoes, codes and coding machines. A flurry of coded communications alerted the U.S. Navy to the loss of a Soviet Golf-class submarine, an older diesel vessel that had sunk in 17,000 feet of water about 750 miles northwest of Hawaii.
Unbeknownst to the Soviet’s at the time, the US knew exactly where the sub was thanks to its Pacific underwater acoustics system, which was in place to locate and track ships and submarines of our enemies. U.S. Intelligence reports soon revealed that an explosion had occurred, probably while the sub was at the surface, but that it was mostly intact – and that it still carried nuclear missiles on board.
On July 1, 1969, the CIA established the Special Projects Staff within its Directorate of Science and Technology to manage “Project Azorian.” The head of the unit was John Parangosky, a senior official in the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology who had previously managed the development and operation of a number of highly-classified CIA aerial reconnaissance systems. His deputy, and the man who ran the day-to-day operations of Project Azorian for the next six years, was a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and World War II submarine officer named Ernest “Zeke” Zellmer. President Richard Nixon personally approved the creation of the special task force in August 1969.
With President Nixon’s approval in hand, on August 19, 1969, CIA director Richard Helms placed all information concerning the work being done by Parangosky and Zellmer’s staff in a special security compartment called “Jennifer,” thus restricting all knowledge of what these men were doing to a very small and select group of people inside the White House and the U.S. intelligence community, including President Richard Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger. It should be noted that in the 1970s, a number of books and articles claimed incorrectly that “Jennifer” was the name of the operation.
It was not until October 1970 that a team of CIA engineers and specially-cleared contractors determined that the only technically-feasible way to lift the huge 1,750-ton Soviet submarine off the sea floor was to slip a specially-made sling made out of pipe-strings around the submarine, then slowly raise the sub to the surface using heavy-duty winches mounted on a specially-modified ship built for this purpose.
Initially, senior intelligence officials were not particularly optimistic about the chances of success for the operation, believing that there was only a 10 percent chance that the operation would succeed.
In August 1971, during the early research and development stage of the program, “Project Azorian” came within inches of being cancelled because of huge cost overruns. According to the article, the only thing that saved the program from being terminated was the potential intelligence bonanza that would accrue if the project succeeded. Despite deep concerns about rising costs on the part of the officials overseeing “Project Azorian,” on October 4, 1971 the CIA was authorized to proceed with the program.
Work began immediately building a ship specifically designed to conduct the operation. On November 16, 1971, the keel was laid at the Sun Shipbuilders yard in Chester, Pennsylvania of what would become the Hughes Glomar Explorer. The initial schedule called for the ship to be launched on October 5, 1972, and delivered to the CIA on April 20, 1973.
The developing U.S.-Soviet détente, symbolized by the cordial meetings between President Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev at the May 1972 Moscow summit, threatened to derail Azorian. In July 1972, the special Executive Committee, which oversaw the project, asked the high-level and top secret 40 Committee, which oversaw all sensitive intelligence operations, to review the project due to the possibility that, by the time it was ready for deployment in 1974, “the developing political climate might prohibit mission approval.” The views of other senior government officials cleared for access to “Project Azorian” were also solicited. The response was far from positive. The Deputy Secretary of Defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Chief of Naval Operations, the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Intelligence), and the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) all recommended that “Project Azorian” be terminated because, in addition to the rapidly rising costs of the program and the political risks involved, the value of the anticipated intelligence gain from the operation was probably less than what the CIA believed. Despite the impressive heft of these negative assessments of “Project Azorian,” on December 11, 1972, President Richard Nixon ordered that the program be continued. This proved to be the last major bureaucratic obstacle that “Project Azorian” had to clear.
While docked at the port of Long Beach, California between October 1973 and January 1974, 24 vans containing the classified equipment needed to perform the mission were loaded aboard the Hughes Glomar Explorer.
In November 1973, a strike by union members belonging to the Marine Engineers Benevolent Association (MEBA) disrupted the completion of the fitting out of the Hughes Glomar Explorer for its mission at Long Beach. Because the mission could only be accomplished during a ten week “weather window” between July and mid-September, CIA officials were concerned that the delay could cause the ship to miss its deployment date. If that had happened, the mission would have been delayed for an entire year until the next period of favorable weather conditions occurred.
On June 7, 1974, President Nixon personally approved launching the “Project Azorian” mission, with the stipulation that the Hughes Glomar Explorer not begin its work until after he had returned from a summit meeting in Moscow scheduled to last from June 27, 1974, to July 3, 1974. The Glomar Explorer arrived at the recovery site 1,560 miles northwest of Hawaii on July 4, 1974, the day after Nixon left Moscow. Recovery operations commenced immediately to attach the pipe-string collars around the Soviet submarine.
The project cost the US about 200 million dollars. The Hughes Glomar Explorer [HGE] was built in 1973 by Sun Shipbuilding and Drydock Co. It was an enormous barge built for the ostensible purpose of mining manganese nodules from the ocean floor. Although manganese nodules are real, the mining venture was actually an elaborate hoax.
In reality, the Glomar Explorer was built as part of an audacious CIA effort to retrieve the Golf. Codenamed “Project Jennifer,” the plan was to use a giant claw dangling on the end of a three-mile-long tether to grasp the submarine and raise it into a “moon pool” – a large area open to the sea – built inside the Glomar Explorer. The submarine would then be searched for Soviet codebooks, communications gear, and nuclear warheads. If the Soviets discovered the ship’s true mission, the Hughes Glomar Explorer could be sunk.
The vessel’s crew faced hazards that would sober even the bravest. First, the nuclear warheads, exposed to immense water pressure, might be unstable and could possibly explode during retrieval. Perhaps even more dangerous, the salvage crew would be alone on a vast ocean.
And, finally, there was the weather. If a storm hit while lifting K-129, the pipe string could snap, tearing the ship in half.
The retrieval, begun in 1974, did not go smoothly. The Hughes Glomar Explorer moved into position over the wreck in July. But President Ford didn’t grant permission to begin the operation until August 11. (another date conflict) Working under immense time pressure because of a rapidly closing weather window, “Project Jennifer” was carried out over the next month. Soviet spy ships arrived and began circling – and watching.
Trouble began when the claw (nicknamed “Clementine” by the crew) had been lowered almost within reach of the wreck of the Golf. While tantalizingly close to the submarine, the operators lost control, and the claw collided violently with the seabed. Inspection by remote camera showed no visible damage to the claw assembly, however, so the engineers decided to continue with the operation. The claw was lowered the final few feet, and found purchase around the hull of the wreck. The slow, methodical process of bringing the Golf to the surface began, and the success of the salvage effort was apparently in sight, despite the earlier mistake.
Hours later, when the submarine was about two miles below the surface, disaster struck. The impact of Clementine with the ocean bottom had seriously weakened the claw assembly. Three of the five tines that carried the load in the claw suddenly broke off, leaving most of the 5000-ton Golf unsupported. Unable to take the strain, the submarine tore apart under its own weight, most of it plunging back into the depths – but not before spilling a missile from an open missile bay.
Tense moments passed onboard the Glomar Explorer, as the crew steeled themselves for the nuclear explosion that many expected when the lost warhead smashed into the ocean floor. The explosion never came. Only a small part of the forward section of the submarine that remained in the grasp of the claw could be brought to the surface. This section contained little of interest to the CIA, but found among the wreckage were the remains of six Soviet sailors. The remaining section of the sub was small enough to fit into the ship’s “moon pool,” a huge opening in the center of the ship, where it was dissected and analyzed.
The Hughes Glomar Explorer’s recovery operations were greatly complicated by almost 14 days of near-continuous surveillance of the ship’s work by two Soviet naval vessels. Despite the presence of the Soviet surveillance vessels, recovery work did not stop. But fearing that the Soviets might try to land personnel on his ship by helicopter, on July 18, 1974, the CIA mission director on the Glomar Explorer ordered crates stacked on his ship’s helicopter deck to prevent the Soviets from landing on it. According to the article, orders were given to “be prepared to order emergency destruction of sensitive material which could compromise the mission if the Soviets attempted to board the ship. The team designated to defend the control room long enough to destroy the material… was alerted, but guns were not issued.”
The Hughes Glomar Explorer began lifting the K-129 off the sea floor on August 1, 1974, more than three weeks after the ship arrived at the recovery site. It took eight days to slowly winch the remains of the Soviet submarine into the massive hold of the Glomar Explorer, with the sub finally being secured inside the ship on August 8, 1974. The next day, recovery operations were completed and the ship sailed for Hawaii to offload its haul.
The mission was accomplished in total secrecy and many of the details are still a matter of national security. It is assumed that at least half the sub and a few nuclear warheads were recovered. They were given a solemn burial at sea by the crew of the Glomar Explorer, the ceremony performed in Russian. A video of this was given to the Russians in 1992.
The world remained in the dark about the ship’s true mission, which the CIA code-named “Project Jennifer.” However, that changed when four burglars broke into Hughes’ office and stole thousands of dollars in cash and files about the project, scattering papers as they fled. Assuming the files contained business documents, the thieves demanded a million dollars for their return. The FBI and the Los Angeles police were brought in.
Most of the documents were ultimately recovered but, despite tight secrecy, details leaked to the media. In February 1975, Jack Anderson’s column in the Los Angeles Times broke the story of Project Jennifer to the world. The ship’s cover was blown, and plans to return that summer to recover the remainder of the wreck were abandoned.
Exactly what the US Navy recovered remains a debate even today. Some say that the entire submarine was raised and that the claw-breaking story was further “cover.” Officially, only the forward 38 feet of the submarine was salvaged, and with it a pair of nuclear-tipped torpedoes, several encoding devices, various code books and the bodies of six sailors, which were given a solemn Soviet burial at sea.
In June 1993, a panel of Russian experts prepared a report for President Boris Yeltsin, using only information made available to them by the Russian intelligence services, which concluded that the CIA recovered at least two nuclear-armed torpedoes from the portion of the K-129 that it managed to bring to the surface. According to the report, the level of plutonium radiation the CIA team on the Hughes Glomar Explorer encountered was consistent with two nuclear warheads. This conclusion is partially confirmed in the surviving text of a FOIA’s CIA article, which reported that Glomar Explorer’s recovery crew had to deal with plutonium contamination once the sub was raised to the surface caused by the one-point detonation of the high explosive components of one or more of the K-129’s nuclear torpedoes.
From 1978 to 1980, Global Marine operated the ship in a deep-ocean mining test in water depths to 17,000 feet. The Explorer, which is 619 feet long and 116 feet wide, is owned by the US Navy. With the exception of the brief stint as a manganese module miner, the vessel has since been mothballed with the Naval Reserve Fleet in Suisun Bay CA, where it could be seen by cars crossing the Benicia bridge on U.S. Highway 680 east of San Francisco. After years of being mothballed, the ship was recently taken to Hunters Point Naval Shipyard for commercial modifications, including the removal of an 840-ton gimbal and a 608-ton cage. The vessel is on a 30-year lease from the US Navy to Global Marine Drilling, and recently underwent a large conversion project to one of a kind deep sea drill ship. Conversion cost over $180 million and was completed during the first quarter of 1998. Glomar Explorer was equipped to drill in waters of 7500 feet and with some modification up to 11,500 feet, which is 2,000 feet more than any existing rig. The conversion included the removal of 25 million pounds of superstructure and equipment to prepare the vessel for its conversion to a a dynamically-positioned deep sea drilling ship. Houston-based Global Marine is one of the largest worldwide offshore drilling contractors, with a five-year commitment from two major oil companies for drilling in water depths up to 7,500 feet in the US Gulf of Mexico.
In the 1970s, a number of books and articles claimed incorrectly that “Jennifer” was the name of the operation. Rather, “Jennifer” was the name of a small security compartment for the work being done on Azorian, thus restricting all knowledge to a very small and select group of people inside the White House and the U.S. intelligence community, including President Richard Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger.