The Glomar Explorer: Howard Hughes' Spy Ship

The following is an article from Uncle John's Curiously Compelling Bathroom Reader

Shh! This story details one of he most incredible examples of nutty spy technology. Ever. (But don’t tell anyone.)


On March 8, 1968, the submarine USS Barb was on a mission, secretly monitoring shipping activity near Vladivostok, home of the Soviet Union’s largest naval base on the Pacific Ocean. Suddenly five Soviet submarines came racing out of the port at full speed. Subs were supposed to be stealthy and silent- these were anything but. They were noisily “pinging” the ocean floor with active sonar, and repeatedly diving and surfacing. It was clear that they were looking for something, and a dozen surface warships sooner joined in the hunt. Radio communications between the ships was frantic and unencrypted, another indication of the urgency of the search. What were they looking for?


The U.S. Navy’s Office of Undersea Warfare, responsible for intercepting the radio traffic of enemy submarines, quickly started poring over the logs of recent radio traffic, looking for clues to what was going on. Sure enough, K-129, a diesel submarine carrying nuclear torpedoes and ballistic missiles with four-megaton nuclear warheads, had failed to report in, as scheduled, the day before. More than 24 hours had passed since then and there was still no word from the sub. It was missing and now presumed sunk. And judging from the haphazard nature of the search, the Soviets didn’t have a clue where it had gone down.

Did the Americans? The Navy operates a large network of “hydrophones” -underwater microphones- in strategic locations all over the Pacific. The Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) can distinguish between sounds made by military ships and submarines, and those given off by ordinary maritime traffic. It also records background noise. Analysts went over the recordings, looking for any sound that might have been K-129 exploding or being crushed by tremendous pressure as it sank to the ocean floor.


They found what they were looking for: a single unexplained loud popping sound that they traced to the same area of the Pacific where they believed the K-129 was likely to have gone down. The USS Halibut, a submarine capable of dropping a camera to the ocean floor at the end of long cable, was dispatched to the area to search for the missing sub.

Analysts narrowed the search to a five-square-mile section of the ocean floor about 1,700 miles northwest of the Hawaiian Islands. That’s still a lot of ocean- it took two trips to the site and more than 13 weeks of methodically inching across the ocean floor before Halibut finally found the wreck of the K-129, three miles below the surface.

The camera showed that a 10-foot-wide hole had been blown in the sub’s hull right behind the conning tower. That led the analysts to speculate that the sub had suffered a catastrophic explosion while charging its batteries. The batteries give off explosive hydrogen gas while they’re charging,  and a spark from the engines could have ignited the gas.

The Navy had found the Soviet sub. Now what?


Apparently, telling the Soviets where to find their submarine was never given any serious consideration -after all, this was during the Cold War. And the Soviets never did figure out where the K-129 was, so eventually they called off their search. There the submarine lay, at the bottom of the ocean, a potential treasure trove of intelligence information:

* Recovering a nuclear warhead would enable the United States to gauge the sophistication of Soviet weapons.

* Recovering a torpedo would make it possible to build countermeasures against them.

* Recovering cryptographic machines and materials would help the U.S. decipher coded information.

* Examining sections of the hull might reveal how deep Soviet subs were capable of operating.

The problem was that the sub was more than 17,000 feet under water. American submarine operate at a depth of only 1,300 feet; if they go any deeper, they can be crushed by the tremendous pressure e of the ocean. The Navy proposed sending unmanned mini-subs to recover the nuclear warheads and the cryptographic equipment. But the CIA, which had now joined the project, proposed a much more ambitious scheme: why not pull the entire submarine up to the surface?


Picking up something as massive as a submarine from the ocean floor had never been done before. When CIA director Richard Helms first heard the idea, he replied, “You must be crazy.” But the United States already had a secret program to recover Soviet missiles that had been test fired over the Pacific, and recovering a submarine was the same thing, only on a larger scale. Besides, if the U.S. developed the capability to recover Soviet subs, they could use it to recover any American subs that might sink, preventing their secrets from falling into Soviet hands. The program was approved; the CIA set to work designing a ship that could do the job.

(Image credit: Tequask)


Raising a sub from the ocean floor was a tricky enough problem in its own right. Doing it without the Soviets realizing you were doing it is another thing entirely. How was the CIA going to keep it a secret?

They decided to work through the eccentric industrialist (and billionaire) Howard Hughes. Hughes had a lot to offer: His companies had done classified work for the government, and he was obsessed with secrecy. His Glomar Marine Corporation was interested in undersea mining -a field that involved pulling tons of material up from the ocean floor- which made it a good cover. And Hughes had a reputation as being a bit of a nut, so when he announced that he was building the world’s first deep sea mining ship -the Glomar Explorer- to harvest “manganese nodules” from the ocean floor, no one suspected that he was really acting as a front for the CIA. The cover story was so effective, in fact, that after his announcement, other companies began looking into mining for the “potato-sized” manganese nodules, too.


Another Hughes subsidiary, the Hughes Tool Company, designed the 50,000-ton ship, which was 618 feet in length -twice as long as the K-129. It would serve as the mothership to a giant submersible barge called the Hughes Mining Barge-1, which would do the actual lifting of the K-129.

(Image creditL Victorddt)

The barge was about as big as a football field and contained eight sets of giant claws, similar to salad tongs, suspended from a large platform. The system worked like this: the Glomar Explorer would lower the Hughes Mining Barge all the way down to the wreck of the K-129, then the giant claws would close around the sub. Once the claws were secure, the barge and the submarine would be slowly and carefully floated back to the surface. Once there, it could either be hidden inside the Glomar Explorer, which had a 200-foot-long trapdoor beneath the waterline, or it could be left on the Hughes Mining Barge under a giant curved roof, similar to a Quonset hut, to prevent the sub from being observed by Soviet spy planes or satellites.


It took more than two years to build and test the system, and it wasn’t until the summer of 1974 that the Glomar Explorer was ready for action. The ship left port with a 170-man crew of CIA agents, only 40 of whom knew what the real mission was.

What happened next depends on who you believe. The details of the recovery mission, code-named “Project Azorian,” are still classified, and the various sketchy accounts of the mission that have been published contradict each other on many points. They don’t even agree on whether the K-129 lay intact or broken into pieces. At the very least, it was in fragile condition, having been damaged first by the initial explosion that crippled it and caused it to sink, then by the tremendous ocean pressure that crushed it like a soda can as it sank three miles to the bottom. The K-129 slammed into the ocean floor at an estimated 200 mph, which caused still more damage.

(YouTube link)

The Glomar Explorer arrived at the site, found the sub, and was able to lower the barge down to the wreck without incident. But getting its giant hooks around the damaged sub was another story: Because it was partially buried, the claws had to dig through the sea bed to get a proper grip. They apparently dug a little too deep -some of the hooks were so badly damaged that they couldn’t grasp the submarine. The decision was made to try to raise the sub anyway. Lifting at a rate of six feet a minute, the Glomar Explorer managed to lift the submarine 5,000 feet off the ocean floor… only to have it break apart, with some of the most valuable parts -including the nuclear missiles- falling back to the ocean floor.


That’s one version of the story, anyway. Another is that the entire submarine -nukes, torpedoes, cryptographic machines, everything- was successfully recovered, and that the tale about the sub falling back into the ocean was created as a cover story to conceal one of the greatest intelligence coups of the 20th century.

Still another version of the story says that after blowing more than $300 million on the project, the CIA watched everything but a tiny, worthless scrap of the sub slip from its grasp, leaving it with nothing to show for all the money that had been spent. The CIA then made up the story of salvaging part of the sub to cover up their blunder.

Which story is true? Your guess is as good as ours.


One thing that is certain is that the secret of the Glomar Explorer had already begun to leak out even before it set out to sea in the summer of 1974. The Los Angeles Times broke the story on its front page on February 7, 1975, reportedly while the Glomar Explorer was at the site of the K-129, making a second attempt to recover more of the wreckage. Because the mission was still underway and lives were at risk, William Colby, the new director of the CIA, managed to get the story pushed back to page 18 in the later editions of the L.A. Times, and accomplished much the same with a similar story in the New York Times the following month. The story finally blew wide open on March 18, when columnist Jack Anderson reported it on national television.


The exposure of the Glomar Explorer in newspapers all over the world, complete with photographs, ruined its effectiveness as a spy ship. Now that the Soviets and everyone else knew what it really was, it could no longer be sent on clandestine missions without causing an international incident.


For the next five years it went back to what it claimed to have been doing the whole time- working as a deep-sea mining ship. Then in 1980 Hughes Global Marine returned the ship to the U.S. Navy, which added it to the “mothball fleet” of inactive naval ships anchored in Suisun Bay outside of San Francisco. Anyone crossing the Benicia Bridge could see it clearly.

The Glomar Explorer sat at anchor for the next 16 years, until Global Marine leased it back from the government in 1996 and spent a reported $150 million refitting it to drill for oil on the ocean floor. The retrofit removed much of the equipment used to raise the K-129, so the Explorer will likely spend the remaining time on its 30-year lease exploring for oil just like Global Marine says it will.

…Or maybe that’s what the CIA wants us to think.

The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Curiously Compelling Bathroom Reader, a fantastic book by the Bathroom Readers' Institute. The 19th book in this fan-favorite series contain such gems like The Greatest Plane that Never Was, Forgotten Robot Milestones, Ancient Beauty Secrets, and more.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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Apparently, the part of the sub they recovered contained six bodies, which were given a burial at sea. The funeral service was recorded on film, which was eventually sent to Russia not long after the fall of the Soviet Union.
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