The Taking of K-129

The Taking of K-129: The Most Daring Covert Operation in History, by Josh Dean

Being the full account of the CIA operation you’ve all probably heard of: to salvage a sunk Soviet submarine by building a specialised submarine-salvaging ship, the Glomar Explorer, and as they could scarcely keep the ship secret, pretending it was a mining ship designed to retrieve manganese nodules from the seabed and doing it all under the umbrella of the Howard Hughes corporation as no one would raise an eyebrow at Hughes doing something so obviously offbeat and costly.

The book goes all the way back to the beginning in 1968, when the sudden mobilisation of half the Pacific Soviet fleet told the Americans something was up. Unlike the Russians, the US had the Pacific pretty well wired for sound with underwater microphones, which were forever picking up the sounds of minor explosions in the form of geological events. Going back over the tapes for the period just before the mobilisation they realised there was a minor explosion on the International Date Line at precisely 40’ N. Natural events don’t pinpoint themselves so exactly, artificial ones do, so they realised they had heard the submarine explode and that was probably where it was now.

But they didn’t just rush out and build the ship. First they had to adapt an existing submarine for the necessary underwater exploration to locate the wreck and evaluate its condition in the first place. So, this is a tale of not one but two almost Gerry Anderson-like supercool vessels. (Though Anderson would have given the submarine a sexier name than the USS Halibut.) The engineering challenges involved in building the ship, which was essentially just a means for transporting a submarine-sized moonpool to the middle of the Pacific, with a mechanism for hoisting a submarine on board without external observers noticing anything, could fill a book in themselves. And of course, even though the Russians obviously never guessed their real purpose they knew something was up so couldn’t help sticking their oar in …

It’s all nail-biting stuff, made even more keratinvorous if, like me, you don’t already know whether or not they succeeded. And if you don’t know either, I won’t spoil it for you.