For the better part of two weeks, the world has watched, in hope and horror, as 13 countries embarked on a frantic search for the ARA San Juan, the Argentine sub that went missing on Nov. 15 with a crew of 44 aboard. It’s almost certain now that all hands have been lost, and it could be weeks or months before we know what caused the sub to sink. The first challenge is to locate it.
The ARA San Juan is first submarine to be lost at sea since the Kursk, which sank after an accident in 2000, causing the loss of 100 Russian lives. The remarkable string of safe patrols in the years since helped us all forget that submarine duty is one of the most perilous peacetime jobs in the armed forces. It’s certainly not something that any submariner takes for granted.
This article first appeared in 2017.
For as long as they’ve had submarines, the world’s navies have worried about losing them — and especially about how best to find them when they’re lost, ideally soon enough that a crew rescue is still possible.
Much of the technology and strategy deployed in sub search and rescue today can be traced back to 1963, when the USS Thresher was lost at sea during routine deep-diving tests off of Massachusetts. The loss of that state-of-the-art submarine, and her crew of 129, sent a shockwave through the US Navy’s submarine program, leading to the creation of numerous deep sea programs that continue to this day.
Many of them were put to the test in 1968, the worst-ever peacetime year in submarine history. Four boats were lost in 1968, including the USS Scorpion and the Soviet Union’s ballistic missile boomer K-129, which the Soviets never did locate — until the United States handed them the wreck’s location six years later.
How did the United States find it? Credit Project Azorian, a massive top-secret CIA mission to salvage the wreck. The six-year effort cost a half-billion dollars, and involved some of the U.S. Navy’s most impressive tools, many of them still classified. It was arguably the single most impressive feat of naval engineering in history.
The hunt for the Soviet sub is the subject of journalist Josh Dean’s gripping new book, The Taking of K-129: How the CIA Used Howard Hughes to Steal a Russian Sub in the Most Daring Covert Operation in History. Here, an excerpt:
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 it 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 excellent 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, thirty-four, 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, and ambitious, one of the youngest officers in the fleet at his level. 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. Irina was in high school at the time, back in Moscow, so their relationship began as a series of letters that she 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 some of 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 at least a month or two 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.