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BOOK REVIEW: Project AZORIAN – the CIA and the Raising of the K-129

by Norman Polmar and Michael White. Naval Institute Press, 2010. 173 pp.

Reviewed by Captain James B. Bryant, U.S. Navy (Retired)

The year 1968 was bad for submarines.  In January the Israelis and the French lost their diesel-electric powered submarines Dakar and Minerve at sea with all hands and a submerged grounding badly damaged the American nuclear-powered fast attack submarine Seawolf (SSN 575).  On March 11, 1968,  the K-129, a Soviet Golf II diesel-electric powered ballistic-missile boat vanished north of the Hawaiian Islands carrying three ballistic missiles with one-megaton nuclear warheads.  The story of the sinking and partial recovery of the K-129 by the CIA is the subject of this review.

Just two months later Scorpion (SSN 598) sank in the Atlantic.  The short time between the of loss of K-129 and Scorpion led to decades of Cold War intrigue, diplomatic confrontations, investigations, speculation, and books based on conflicting, false, conspiracy theories labeled “non-fiction” to promote sales.

This is the first book that gets the facts right on the events leading to the loss of the K-129, why we knew where it sank and the Soviets didn’t, and the covert location and reconnaissance of the wreck by the super-secret Halibut (SSN 587).  Due to recently declassified information it tells the story of Project AZORIAN that designed, built and operated the Hughes Glomar Explorer to salvage the forward section of the K-129 from a depth of 16,000 feet.  This technical achievement is comparable to the Apollo 1969 moon landing as well as an exciting intelligence success by recovering a 38-foot section of the K-129 in plain view of the Soviets.  This is one time we caught them “flat-footed, and pants down.”

The authors have the right stuff.  Norman Polmar has written dozens of books on naval subjects, held advisory positions for the Navy’s leadership and is a recognized expert on U.S. and Soviet submarine issues.  He is fearless in getting his point across, but can be controversial.  Polmar told me that this was a difficult book for him to write because more than ninety percent of his prior knowledge on PROJECT AZORIAN was wrong.  I also interviewed Michael White by phone from Vienna, Austria and was truly impressed by his dedication to this project and what he calls “his team of experts” who have unprecedented knowledge of the subject and were personally committed to making the book accurate.  Michael’s 104 minute video with the same title provides more detail and personal interviews with this team of experts.

There is a long list of unsung Cold War heroes like Raymond Feldman, a senior engineer at the time with Lockheed Ocean Systems, one of the key contractors, who helped plan and then run the project, including watching the recovery from TV cameras.  Rear Admiral Viktor Dygalo, Soviet Navy (Retired), commanded a submarine division of ten ballistic-missile boats that included K-129.  He ordered K-129 on patrol, participated in the search and wrote the letters to the families when K-129 was declared lost at sea.

Bruce Rule was the leading acoustic analyst for the Office of Naval Intelligence for 42 years.  In May 1968, the Navy took the acoustic data and compartmentalized it so that not even the Navy’s experts could review it.  Consequently, it was not until 2009 – forty-one  years after the event – that Bruce’s analysis of the data from open sources determined that the K-129 was lost when two ballistic missiles’ rocket motors fired, melted the launch tubes and filled the boat with burning exhaust.  This book gives details of the probable causes.

This book is critically important to understanding the Cold War as Shattered Sword: the Untold Story of the Battle of Midway by Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tullyis to better understand that pivotal battle.  Shattered Sword makes a strong case that the Japanese defeat at Midway couldn’t be blamed on the delayed launch of the Cruiser Tone’s #4 scout plane or Admiral Nagumo’s rearming his attack planes.  Project AZORIAN : The CIA and the Raising of the K-129 provides indisputable evidence that sinking of K-129 and Scorpion can’t be linked to or blamed on US/Soviet interaction.

The authors dismantle the conspiracy theories by proving they are mostly derived from unrelated data, selective interviews or just fabricated.  This book should thwart attempts to write new conspiracy theory books on K-129 and Scorpion.  This is a must read for all of you that were or wished you were in the exciting, dangerous, previously highly-classified, submarine component of the Cold War.  I bet my 24-carat Gold Dolphins and Command at Sea Pin that you will love this book.

After commanding Guardfish (SSN 612) Captain Bryant was a Deputy Commander of Submarine Squadron 11 before being assigned to the Political Military Division of the Navy Staff. 

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    In his excellent review of “Project AZORIAN, the CIA and the Raising of the K-129,” CAPT Jim Bryant discusses this writer’s analysis of acoustic detections of the loss of the K-129 first completed in 2009 because the Navy compartmentalized the acoustic data so that not even their own experts at the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) could analyze it.

    I thank CAPT Bryant for his acknowledgment of my analysis; however, the basic conclusion (two R-21 missiles fired within the K-129 for 96-seconds each with ignition separated by 361-seconds) was so straight-forward (obvious) that it took less than an hour to come to that conclusion.

    There were at least six acoustic analysts at ONI in 1968 who could have derived that assessment with the same facility. Such was the dark side of the Navy’s obsessive compartmentlization which prevented those involved in the approval of the AZORIAN recovery effort from knowing that the area within the K-129 from which they hoped to recovery crypto-equipment and associated documents had been exposed to 5000-degree (F) missile exhaust plumes for more than three-minutes.

    Bruce Rule
    Louisville, KY
    14 September 2011

  3. Pingback: BOOK REVIEWS: Two Books on U.S. Fast Battleships, Reviewed by Norman Polmar | Naval Historical Foundation

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