I didn’t know I was working for the CIA. It was only for a month or two and my pay stubs said “University of Hawaii”. Years later, I found out I had been a very minor part of the cover story for perhaps the biggest intelligence coup of all time. It all started with the mail mix-up.
I was a grad student in economics at the University of Hawaii in 1973 and had a job as a teaching assistant. One day, I got a bunch of mail at my T.A.’s office that was addressed to the wrong guy. They got the last name right, but the mail was meant for Dr. John Craven – not for Steve Craven, lowly grad student. I knew who he was. Dean of the School of Ocean Engineering, marine advisor to the governor of Hawaii, former Law of the Sea negotiator, and former chief scientist on the U.S. Navy’s Polaris missile program. So I picked up the box of mail, trekked it across campus and introduced myself to the esteemed Dr. Craven. We hit it off, established that we are not related, and have been friends for years. I served on the board of John’s company, Common Heritage Corporation, for several years.
That afternoon John offered me a job. He needed an economist for an inter-disciplinary study of the feasibility of mining manganese nodules from the Pacific Ocean floor. I already knew about manganese nodules and their promise, plus we had copious data from Woods Hole, Scripps and similar places to work with. I could get the trade and production data with little problem. So we put a short paper together that concluded that mining manganese nodules was economically feasible. Other teams were working on the technical feasibility of mining the seafloor. We were excited because a manganese nodule industry in the Pacific would likely be based in Hawaii, providing a much needed new industry. But that wasn’t the purpose at all.
Nobody knows what happened after the Soviet submarine K-129 put to sea in 1968. She was headed from Vladivostok to an assignment near Hawaii, where it was not unusual in those Cold War days to see Soviet submarines, surface ships or suspicious-looking fishing boats, keeping tabs on Pearl Harbor. But K-129 went down enroute in 16,500′ of water some 1800 miles northwest of Hawaii. She probably flooded while snorkeling near the surface, though there is outlandish speculation. Some say K-129 died in an accidental collision with a U.S. submarine, Swordfish. Others say that rogue Russians had mutinied and sank the boat in a hurried attempt to fire missiles at Hawaii. Nobody knows.
The CIA was immediately interested, as was the U.S. Navy. K-129 was a diesel-electric submarine, but she carried three nuclear missiles and two nuclear-armed torpedoes. Not to mention code books. The Russians didn’t think she could be raised from such depths, but the CIA came to John Craven to see if it could be done. On his instructions, a U.S. submarine, Halibut, began nosing around the area where K-129 disappeared. Halibut found her, so the problem became how to get K-129 off the sea floor without the Russians knowing about it.
Howard Hughes had already been interested in manganese nodules, but came into the plot enthusiastically when he was approached by Craven and the CIA. Much of the same technology could be used to lift K-129. Hughes’ manganese research ship, Glomar Explorer, was secretly modified for her new mission, equipped to lower massive claws to the seafloor. The idea was to grapple K-129‘s hull and bring her up inside Glomar Explorer‘s hull without ever showing anything above water.
Forty years ago today, Glomar Explorer went on station above K-129, closely watched by Soviet ships who asked what she was up to. There had been plenty of publicity about Howard Hughes’ manganese nodule efforts, so the Soviets weren’t surprised by the story. The raising of K-129 was accomplished without suspicion, but not without adventure. K-129 broke apart as she was raised so only about a third of the submarine reached the surface. But that 38′ section housed two of the nuclear torpedoes and documents that still haven’t been revealed by the CIA. It also held six Russian seaman who were then buried at sea.
Talk about Business Beyond the Reef! I want to see the movie!