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Post A Nuclear Close Call: Soviet Submarine K-129, 1968
Created by John Eipper on 10/07/20 3:45 AM

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A Nuclear Close Call: Soviet Submarine K-129, 1968 (Michael Sullivan, USA, 10/07/20 3:45 am)

I had never heard of this world-class incident from 1968.

Reading this article made me think of what disastrous circumstances may have developed had this Soviet nuclear missile been launched successfully and hit its target. Hopefully, Boris Volodarsky can tell us more on the circumstances surrounding the loss of the Soviet submarine, K-129.

March 7, 1968 - Very Nearly Our Second "Day of Infamy"- Only Much Worse 

It was not FDR's Dec. 7th 1941 "Day of Infamy," but 26 years and 3 months later on March 7, 1968, and the target was the same one--Pearl Harbor.  This time the destruction was to be created by the blast of a one-megaton nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile launched by the Soviet Golf II diesel-electric submarine K-129 from a position northwest of Oahu.  Consider the consequences if that attack had been successful.

A lot of significant events happened in the first half of 1968.  USS Pueblo was captured by the North Koreans on January 23rd, 1968; in Vietnam the Tet offensive by the Viet Cong began on January 30th; this attempted missile launch by the Soviet submarine K-129 took place on March 7th; and USS Scorpion (SSN-589) sank on May 22nd.  I have read four versions of this story, "Blind Man's Bluff" by Sontag and Drew, "The Silent War" by John Pina Craven, "Red Star Rogue" by Kenneth Sewell, and the Wikipedia version of the story - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_submarine_K-129_%281960%29  

What we know for sure is that the Soviet Golf II Soviet ballistic missile submarine K-129 departed from the Soviet submarine base at Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula on 24 Feb. 1968.  The captain of K-129 was Captain First Rank Vladimir Kobzar, and the second officer was Captain Second Rank Alexander Zuravin, both highly respected and trusted officers.  Two things were unusual about the departure.  K-129 had just returned from a 70-day patrol in early January and was not scheduled to make another patrol for about six months.  Very short notice was given to Captain Kobzar to prepare for this patrol, and quite a few members of the crew had departed for leave in distant parts of Russia.  Replacements for those missing crew members came from other submarines at the base.  Most surprising was that just before the departure 15 strangers wearing uniforms of Soviet sailors appeared with orders to join the crew.  We know that K-129 sank at some time during that patrol, and the Soviets conducted a massive but unsuccessful search for the sub.  The US Navy was able to determine the location. and the Wikipedia piece says, "The location of the wreck remains an official secret of the United States intelligence services."  In 1974 the US secretly attempted to raise a portion of K-129 to the surface using Hughes Glomar Explorer.  What was obtained is still highly classified, but the ship's bell and a video tape of the burial at sea for several of the Soviet sailors were presented to Russia by CIA Director Robert Gates when he visited Moscow in 1994.  

Kenneth Sewell is a US Navy veteran, and he served 5 years on the nuclear fast attack submarine USS Parche (SSN-683).  His book "Red Star Rogue - The Untold Story of a Soviet Submarine's Nuclear Strike Attempt on the US" was published in 2005.  In "Red Star Rogue"  Sewell writes his version of what happened to K-129, and here is a brief summary.  Captain Kobzar was told that the reason for the short notice departure was that K-129 was needed as a replacement for another boat on patrol.  After departing Petropavlovsk on Feb. 24th, 1968,  K-129 submerged, exited Kamchatka Bay and entered the North Pacific.  It transmitted the required microburst radio message to the naval headquarters at Vladivostok.  It was also received at US Navy antenna sites in the North Pacific.  That was the last radio transmission received from K-129.  She proceeded toward the assigned patrol area northwest of Oahu, running submerged on her batteries during the day, and snorkeling at night to recharge her batteries.  On March 1st K-129 crossed the International Date Line (180th Meridian), and the required message was not sent.  This was the first indication that something was wrong with K-129.  On March 4th K-129  passed through what was probably her assigned patrol area without sending the required message.  At that point K-129 was clearly a "rogue" submarine, and it is not known who was in control of her at that time.  Was it Captain Kobzar who had never before failed to strictly follow orders, or the new men who arrived with orders just before sailing, or was it a mutiny?  On March 6th K-129 rigged for silent running and used only a small electric motor for propulsion at a speed of just two knots.  Sewell says K-129 arrived at her apparent destination, about 350 miles northwest of Oahu, on March 7th. 

At that point during the darkness of the early morning K-129 came to periscope depth to determine if there were any ships nearby and to check her position using Loran-C.  Seeing nothing, K-129 surfaced.  A sailor dressed in cold-weather gear was sent to the top of the sail to check that the missile tube one hatch was clear, then he sheltered in the conning tower.  The order "prepare to launch" was given, launch coordinates and codes were entered into the missile control and guidance systems, and the hatch on missile tube one was opened.  In the command center below the conning tower the launch countdown began.  When the count reached zero the Serb missile, 42 feet long with a one-megaton nuclear warhead, should have been blasted out of the tube by compressed air, then its liquid fuel propellant should have taken over to propel the missile to the target which was Pearl Harbor.   At that point something unexpected happened, and there was a tremendous blast in the missile tube.  A fail-safe device designed in the US to prevent an unauthorized launch of a nuclear missile had earlier been provided to the Soviets and installed on their missile warheads.  The proper authorization codes had not been entered into the launch system to unlock the fail-safe system.  The missile warhead had conventional explosives packed around the plutonium core, with detonators precisely placed around the spherical warhead.  The fail-safe device triggered the explosives at the bottom of the warhead which caused the warhead to be blown apart, blasting a 10 foot wide hole in the side of the missile tube and the rear of the conning tower, and scattering radioactive material around the area and across the sea surface. The explosion caused a shock wave along the missile tube, which was 42 ft. long and extended from the top of the sail to the K-129's keel.  The missile's fuel tanks were smashed together, causing an explosion that blew the missile out the top of the tube, and created a fireball in the sky.  The explosion also tore through the bottom of the missile tube, and created a hole in the submarine's pressure hull, opening it to the sea.  The explosion also ruptured the fuel tanks in the second tube which then exploded, blasting open its hatch, pushing the second missile and its warhead out of the tube, and creating a second fireball in the sky.  The fire and hot gas from the missile tubes spewed into the submarine compartments killing most of the crew.  Crew members in the forward and aft compartments may have tried to escape topside, but could not.  In several minutes the sea water flooding the submarine overcame the positive buoyancy, and K-129 began her final dive, reaching a speed over 60 mph before hitting the seafloor 16,000 feet below.  The crewman in the foul-weather clothing landed next to the submarine, and the warhead from missile tube two landed nearby.  A highly radioactive slick was all that remained on the sea surface.   

Sewell provides an interesting side story to these events.  Before K-129's departure the Second Officer, Captain Zhuravin, did some unusual things.  He seemed depressed and visited a banking facility and asked for a form to write a will.  He also wrote a letter to his son and left it with a friend to mail later.  He took his wife to the airport so she could fly to their home in Vladivostok.  He could see his wife through a window on the plane and he began to cry, and he just stood there with snow falling on his uniform and he did not wave.  His wife, Irina, said she had never seen him cry before.  March 7th was International Women's Day and Irina took their son to a celebration party.  Suddenly she became hysterical and someone took her home and stayed with her through the night.  That was the day Sewell said that K-129 sank.  Years later she recalled that moment and said that was her perception of doom.   

It was not until mid-March that Soviet naval authorities noticed that the required reports from K-129 had not been received.  On the fleet radio broadcast K-129 was directed to contact headquarters.  That and later urgent requests went unanswered.  In the third week of March Soviet naval headquarters declared that K-129 was missing and began a massive air, surface, and sub-surface search.  At that time the naval staff at the base in Kamchatka looked for and could not find the required manifest showing everyone who was onboard K-129 when she sailed.  There should have been several copies of the manifest filed with different Soviet authorities, and it was a serious military offense for the captain of K-129 not to file it before departure.  It appears that someone intentionally searched the files and removed the manifest copies.  Was it the KGB? 

According to "Blind Man's Bluff," USS Barb (SSN-596) was patrolling off the coast of Vladivostok at that time, and noted the search activity.  The skipper, Bernard Kauderer, said he had never seen anything like it.  I suspect that our Michael Addison may have been onboard Barb at that time.   

At this point I will include some information from "The Silent war" by John Pina Craven, PhD, published in 2001.  Craven had been the Chief Scientist for the Polaris Submarine Program and he then became the Director of the Navy's Deep Submergence Systems Project.  In that position he was directly involved in the search for K-129.  Craven says that when the Soviets began their search for K-129, the US Navy then began a search of SOSUS records and satellite photos.  They discovered that an isolated single explosion had been recorded on March 8th, and characterized it as a "good-sized bang."  That was one day after Sewell said that K-129 sank on March 7th.  They also found a satellite photo that recorded a fireball in the air above that location at the same time   The US Navy was able to determine the location where the explosion had occurred.  Craven says, "It had occurred at a precise latitude of 40 degrees north and a longitude of 180 degrees - the international date line."  He also said that position is "a construct of the human mind...The highest probability was that some human instrumentality chose that precise position for some activity that resulted in the 'good-sized Bang.'"   But if the information about K-129 is still highly classified, why would Craven confirm its location?  And why would whoever was in control of K-129 select that position if their intent was to fire a missile at Pearl Harbor, which is some 1,700 miles from that position, and well beyond the probable range of K-129's Serb missile?    

Craven had USS Halibut (SSN-587) conduct the search for K-129 in secret while running submerged.  Halibut had a towed fish equipped with a camera and strobe lights suspended on a cable 16,000 feet below the submarine.  Halibut captured 22,000 photos of K-129 and the surrounding seafloor.  Craven admits that he knew as much as anybody about what the US discovered in the search for and photos of K-129 on the seafloor.  Craven also said, "I had full responsibility for the search for and investigation of the lost Soviet submarine as part of a Special Intelligence program.  The very existence of this latter program was known to only a handful of individuals."  Craven said that information was still classified, but he would use the information contained in "Blind Man's Bluff,"  because "The facts contained in that book have such a ring of truth and credibility that they must have been provided by an informant or informants who were knowledgeable to some extent..."  Craven then used that information as 'cover' for what he said.   

Kenneth Sewell claims K-129 was at precisely 24 deg. North and 163 deg. West, only about 350 miles northwest of Pearl Harbor, when it sank.  What convinces me that Sewell is correct is that Craven states that a Univ. of Hawaii research vessel operating just off Hawaii's Leeward Islands at that time, "discovered a large slick on the surface of the ocean, collected a sample, and found that it was highly radioactive."  Craven took a number of steps to keep that information secret.  Craven said the if that information became public "all hell would have broken loose."  The Leeward Islands are an extension of the Hawaiian Island chain to the west-northwest,  Sewell said the position of the research vessel was between Necker and Nihoa Islands (small chart below).  The research vessel's logs were confiscated and the crew sworn to secrecy.  If that radioactive slick was from K-129, which seems highly likely, then that slick was probably near her location on the sea floor.  The weather in the North Pacific in March would cause the slick to dissipate rather quickly.    

Craven's book was published four years before Sewell's.  Craven discusses what probably happened to sink K-129, and in the process he provides support for Sewell's conclusion that K-129 sank while attempting to launch one of her Serb missiles.  Based on the photographs of the Russian sailor on the seafloor taken by Halibut and described in "Blind Man's Bluff," Craven concludes that the "sub was on the surface when the fatal event took place."  Also, seeking evidence of the explosion that resulted in the single loud bang, he notes "a hole blown nearly ten feet wide just behind the Golf's conning tower."  Based on that he dismisses the idea that a hydrogen buildup while charging the battery and a resulting explosion was a possible cause of the bang and the sinking of K-129.  Craven said that a Bayes subjective probability assessment "concluded that there was a small probability that the Russian submarine...could have reached Hawaii with a nuclear warhead.  To put it succinctly, there existed a possibility, small though it might be, that the skipper of this rogue submarine was attempting to launch or had actually launched a ballistic missile with a live warhead in the direction of Hawaii.  There is also a small possibility that this launch attempt doomed the sub.  Whatever happened, something in the missile warhead may have exploded, causing the initial damage and possibly kicking off a chain of other events.  Given the fact that the sub was armed with highly flammable liquid-fueled missiles, an explosion was certain to produce a conflagration in the command and control area.  It would certainly have killed everyone in the vicinity....The Soviets, like us, have certain mechanisms designed to prevent the unauthorized launching of a missile or the unauthorized arming of its warhead...The unauthorized attempt to launch or arm the missile and its warhead may have triggered a mechanism in the warhead, which in turn triggered the high-explosive component in the warhead - because such precautionary mechanisms are designed to do just that to prevent such unauthorized use.  The possibility of defeating these precautionary systems is small...This line of inferential reasoning was so disturbing that few wished to contemplate it.  This was news that General Secretary Brezhnev would not want to hear.  It was news the President Johnson did not want to hear."   

Sewell writes that DIA analysts used a methodical approach to put together a threat assessment of the K-129 incident.  The 22,000 photographs taken by USS Halibut's towed camera and any small objects that may have retrieved were the basis for that assessment.  "The analysis resulted in a finding of 'high probability' that the ill-fated Soviet boat was a rogue, and, more stunning, that it was probably intending to launch a nuclear missile against Pearl Harbor at the time of its sinking...The fact that K-129 sank several hundred miles closer to Hawaii than the regular Soviet patrol area was considered especially significant and bolstered the case that the boat was operating in an aggressive mode.  The submarine was approximately 350 miles northwest of Hawaii, much closer than it needed to be for its missiles to reach Pearl Harbor.  The US Navy knew that the Golf II's missile range was between 700 and 800  miles...Analysts believed that K-129 would have to travel to an exact predetermined position to launch its missiles."  Sewell says that position was exactly 24 deg. N, 163 deg. W.  "President Johnson...wanted the information about K-129 hidden behind a curtain of classification for many years to come, if not forever...Initially there would be two lies permanently embedded in the early findings of US military intelligence.  First, the location of the wreckage of K-129 had to be obfuscated.  If anything was ever leaked to the press about the incident itself, the site of the sinking had to be placed beyond the maximum range of the type of missiles carried by K-129.  At the time, there was a legitimate military reason to keep the location vague or even misstated: The Navy planned additional recovery trips to exploit the wreckage for more intelligence."  John Craven's location of K-129, 30 deg. N, 180 deg., and about 1,700  miles from Pearl Harbor would certainly satisfy that requirement.  "When the true location of the sinking is linked to the real cause of K-129's destruction, there can be little doubt about what happened.  A rogue submarine from the Soviet Union attempted an attack against the United States on March 7, 1968.  Instead of succeeding, the submarine blew up in the process.  The startling and unthinkable conclusion of Defense Intelligence Agency analysts was suppressed in 1968, and has been kept from the public ever since." 

A major remaining question is who was in control of K-129 after she departed Petropavlovsk?   Was it Captain Kobzar, who had never before failed to strictly follow orders and who was about to be promoted to flag rank, or the new men who arrived with orders just before sailing, or was it a mutiny?  Sewell states, "The highly unusual makeup of the crew, with fifteen more men aboard than were needed for normal operations, has never been addressed by former Soviet admirals in their published accounts of the K-129 incident...These men had no known operational assignments, and there is no record that they came from elsewhere in the fleet."  That they were aboard the sub was confirmed in 1996 when President Yeltsin posthumously awarded the Medal of Valor to 98 men who died aboard K-129.  The normal crew for K-129 was 83 officers and men.  Craven wrote, "The secret residing in the secret - the motivations of the Soviet captain and his crew - had remained intact and that, ironically, is the secret that ought to be revealed."   

A second question is who originated the plot to have K-129 launch a missile at Pearl Harbor?  Sewell states that in 1967-68, "a number of drastic changes were occurring in the leadership hierarchy in Moscow...A shadowy group with its power base in the KGB was silently scheming for control of the Politburo...The secretive organization was conducting an undeclared war against the People's Republic of China and was sponsoring terrorist assaults on Western interests around the globe.  A new and cynical leadership in the KGB was ruthless enough to devise any scheme, no matter how horrific, to further its ambitions of world dominance and had the hard-core, handpicked specialists with the training and skills to carry out its assignments."  Sewell believes that the man behind the plot to use K-129 for such a mission was probably Mikhail Suslov, along with his enforcer Yuri Andropov.  Sewell quotes Anssi Kullberg, "The beginning of modern terrorism could be traced back to a single date: On 18th May 1967, an exceptionally unscrupulous man, Yuri Andropov became the head of the Soviet secret service KGB..."   The plot to take over K-129 had to originate at a high level in Moscow, and Suslov and KGB Chairman Andropov were probably behind it.  Red China was becoming a military threat to Soviet territory in Asia, and they were also developing submarine missile capabilities.  So the plan was designed to make it look like the missile attack on Pearl Harbor was from a Chinese submarine.  China had a new Golf I ballistic missile submarine, launched in 1966, but its missiles had a shorter range and the Chinese sub had to be on the surface to launch them.  Thus the attempted launch was from just 350 miles from Hawaii, and K-129 was on the surface at that time.  The Soviets believed that a US satellite would photograph the launch and not be able to distinguish between the Chinese Golf I and the Soviet Golf II submarine.  Also the plutonium in some of the Soviet warheads had come from uranium ore from China, which would support the idea that it was a Chinese missile. 

The KGB used their version of the GRU (Soviet intelligence agency) special operations, spetnaz units called osnaz.  Andropov was directly in charge of osnaz units.  These young men were intelligent, fit, and aggressive, and they took "an oath to die before divulging secrets about a mission."  They wore military uniforms and were trained to operate all types of military equipment, including submarines, and they were also trained in nuclear weapons.  Sewell believes that it was one of these KGB osnaz teams that boarded K-129 just before she sailed.  They could easily have had small automatic weapons in their sea bags.  Sewell believes the osnaz team took control of K-129 around March 1st, just before crossing the international date line, so no message was sent.  They arrested or incapacitated the key officers and petty officers and kept them in a forward compartment under armed guard.  They were able to control the other crew members.  The osnaz team was able to get K-129 to the launch position and attempted to launch the missile  The one thing that prevented the launch was that they didn't have the correct code to disable the fail-safe device on the missile warhead.   

The Soviet plotters figured that President Johnson would immediately call General Secretary Brezhnev, who was not aware of the plot and would be shocked, and he could convince Johnson that the Soviets had nothing to do with the attack.  What the Soviets did not know at that time was how good the US SOSUS capability was to track Soviet submarines.  K-129 had been tracked from Kamchatka to its position northwest of Hawaii.  Thus the revenge would have fallen on the Soviet Union, not China. As for what would have happened if the missile launch from K-129 had been successful, Sewell states that a one-megaton warhead exploding at ground level at Pearl Harbor would have created a crater 200 feet deep and 1,000 feet in diameter, and vaporized everything within a radius of six-tenths of a mile.  90% of people within a radius of 1.7 miles would have instantly died.  The shock wave would have reduced most buildings in Honolulu to structural skeletons. and 50% of the people there would have died instantly.  In the next two weeks lethal radiation would have begun killing people as far as 90 miles from the blast site.  The Hawaiian Islands and a large part of the surrounding ocean area including the fisheries would have been contaminated, and all of the  Hawaiian Islands would have been uninhabitable for at least the next decade. 

What would have been the US response to this nuclear cataclysm?  Fortunately this nightmare may have been prevented by a fail-safe device developed in the US and provided to the Soviets. 

Although this happened 52 years ago, the US government and the Russians have not released information about K-129.  Wikipedia has this comment:  A retired United States Navy Captain Peter Huchthausen, and former naval attaché in Moscow, said he had a brief conversation in 1987 with Admiral Peter Navojtsev, who told him, "Captain, you are very young and inexperienced, but you will learn that there were some matters that both nations have agreed to not discuss, and one of these is the reasons we lost K-129."

JE comments:  Hope you all made it this far--the journey is worth it.  Michael Sullivan received this from a fellow officer, a retired submariner.  We do not know who originally wrote it, and I cannot find it published elsewhere on the Internet.  The story, however, seems credible enough.  Let's let WAISers decide.

How many times after 1945 was nuclear war narrowly averted? The 1960s may hold the crown for the most near-misses. The saga of the K-129 leaves mostly unanswered questions: was there a mutiny on board? Did the crew attempt to deploy the missile and it failed on launch, or was it an unrelated (non-nuclear) explosion that sunk the ship, killing all hands? Did Andropov and Co. really want to start a nuclear war, involving the three superpowers--or preferably for them, between the US and a rising China?  But if they had concocted such an elaborate and diabolical scheme, why then did they forget to acquire the necessary launch codes?

The US recovered parts of the wreck, but the mystery remains: what happened with the K-129, and why did it (possibly) target Pearl Harbor?

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  • Soviet Submarine K-129: A Nuclear Close Call? (Eugenio Battaglia, Italy 10/08/20 3:32 AM)
    Excellent post from Michael Sullivan (October 7th), but...

    How can Kenneth Sewell, in his book Red Star Rogue:  The Untold Story of a Soviet Submarine's Nuclear Strike Attempt on the US, know in detail what happened on the Soviet submarine?

    Maybe the submarine sank only because of an accident and not from a failed nuclear attack on the US.

    JE comments:  This would be the likely scenario, but how do you explain the radio silence from the K-129 a full six days prior to the incident?  And to my mind, the most interesting question:  Why would Andropov try to orchestrate a nuclear strike on Pearl Harbor?  What possibly could have resulted other than Armageddon?

    Fast-forward to 1982, and Andropov's brief (barely over a year) tenure in power is one of the most overlooked periods in Soviet history.

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  • Revisiting the K-129 Incident (from Gary Moore) (John Eipper, USA 10/14/20 3:00 AM)

    Gary Moore writes:

    Just a note here on the well-written but mysteriously authored essay supplied by Michael Sulivan (Oct. 7th) on the 1968 disappearance in the Pacific of Soviet nuclear submarine K-129.

    Like John E, I read every word of the lengthy but gripping piece that posits the sub's disappearance as a failed attempt at a rogue missile launch. At last, however, there is the Achilles heel that haunts writers of detective fiction. The big twist that the plot uncovers has to be impossible, else, in the real world, it would not have lain hidden. In the K-129 story, the Spetsnaz-like team of expert operatives who supposedly took over the submarine would have to have known about a built-in fail-safe mechanism in the sub's nuclear missiles, if they had the expertise to operate the missiles at all.

    The essay (I think it was suggested it might have come from a former submariner, though publicly no one knows) reminds of many email forwards that are well-crafted and masquerade as fact. It's a genre unto itself, and not a new one--as witnessed by the extra, "pseudo-epigraphical" books of the New Testament, written as if by a real observer of real events, but now generally rejected as what a later era might call "fake news."

    JE comments: The most plausible explanation for what happened is the mundane (if tragic for the crew) one:  the K-129 simply sank.  Still--and isn't there always a "still"?--how do we explain the several days of radio silence?  And the arrival of the extra "crew" just prior to leaving port?

    One other potential hole in the story:  why would the fail-safe mechanism engage a non-nuclear explosion if the wrong security codes were used?  Wouldn't it have been far less fatal to program the missile to sink harmlessly to the bottom of the ocean?

    It's been over a week, so here is a replay of the K-129 saga:


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