Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage

This 1998 book by Sherry Sontag, Christopher Drew and Annette Lawrence Drew explores the stories of the US submarines engaging in clandestine operations against the USSR. It was a high-risk game of machismo, with daring captains driving straight into Soviet territorial waters, no thoughts given to the niceties of international law. High government officials were often unaware of the risks being taken by their fleet. But the risks they took gave important technical information, and the opportunity to stop nuclear war before it started.

USS Cochino

The US and USSR acquired some experimental German U-Boats during WW2, and as the war ended, the US and USSR started adapting the Germans’ technology to their own boats. This technology included a snorkel that allowed the submarine to hide below the water while expelling poisonous exhaust gases, allowing the submarines to operate underwater even longer. Another was passive sonar, which allowed the sub to listen for other ships without sending out an active sonar ping that other ships could hear and detect. At this point, the Navy is more afraid the Soviet Union would adapt these technologies and expand their submarine fleet to be used beyond coastal defense, that the USSR would adapt true attack subs. Therefore, most captains thought that their focus would be on sub dogfights. However, Naval Intelligence sees the potential for these new submarines to sneak into Soviet waters and the USS Cochino gets sent on a spy mission - to sail along the Kola Peninsula and determine if the Russians had exploded an atomic bomb. They would also try to intercept Russian radio signals to see if they were building missiles based on the German V-1 and V-2 missiles.

Life was quite hard on these cramped boats:

  • One of the first 30-day test runs on a Soviet Whiskey-class submarine left her crew so ravaged by noxious gases that their hands and legs were swollen to twice their normal size.
  • The subs have showers on them, but they were used to store food so each sailor got a basin of water once a day to wash, and could wash their clothes once a mission (3+ months)
  • The diesel subs had a lot of condensation from the bilges, so the mattresses were stored in zip-up bags - Every submariner learned fast to quickly unzip, slide into bed, and zip back up.
  • On the diesel subs, you “hot bunked” - 3 people would share an assigned bunk and sleep in shifts.
  • Everything smelled like diesel fumes, to the point where submariners were mocked by other sailors for their smell

The mission was troubled from the beginning. At this time of year, the sun is shining all day - and in order to intercept communications, the sub had to surface, where it would be easy for the Russians to see them. They were accompanied by the USS Tusk part of the way, but she would split off from the Cochino off the coast of Norway to conduct sonar tests. After several days near Murmansk, they manage to intercept some voice communications, but no missile telemetry. Dejected, they decide to sail home and encounter a storm. They bump into something underwater. At first, everything seems alright. However, the captain soon hears cries of “Fire in the after-battery” - one of the batteries that powers the ship underwater was emitting hydrogen gas and igniting it. They had to put out the fire, but it’s exceedingly dangerous - the battery room could explode at any moment, and the gas is poisonous. Benitez orders the sub to surface, and evacuates anyone not manning a critical position or fighting the fire. The men lash themselves to the deck, because this is the middle of a storm. However, one sailor is knocked overboard by a wave. The XO, Lt. Commander Wright attempts to force his way into the after battery room, but upon opening the door, the hydrogen gas ignited and threw him back, burning him severely. All of the radiomen were too gassed to function, so the resident spook, Lt “Red” Austin, had to semaphore to the Tusk that they were in distress. The men pumped 16,000 gallons of diesel into the ocean in an attempt to calm the waves. Below deck, XO Wright was in terrible pain, and the doctor pumped him full of morphine. He somehow managed to climb the ladder up to the deck while burned on 90% of his body. The Tusk would attempt to send a raft over with 6 men to assist (including one civilian), but the raft overturned and sent the men to their deaths. Eventually she pulls along side and manages to rescue the crew, but the Cochino is lost, along with 7 men.

USS Gudgeon

The next story involves the USS Gudgeon, another diesel submarine. At this point, the first two nuclear subs, the Nautilus and the Seawolf had been built, but the Navy was hesitant to use them on intelligence operations. Besides, Admiral Rickover found his budget increased each time he gave a congressman a ride on the nukes.

The Gudgeon is sneaking into Soviet waters by day, then sneaking out to snorkel by night. Towards the end of one of these days, they get hit by a Soviet radar sweep. Right now the ship is filled with carbon monoxide and diesel fumes - the worst time to get caught. The captain orders the sub to submerge and head out of Soviet waters, but they are followed by multiple Soviet sub hunters. The men feel the active sonar pings ring through the boat. The captain tries to dive further to find a cold patch of water sonar will be thrown off by, but because something is stuck in the garbage chute, they can’t go to maximum depth. Then the Russians start dropping small depth charges into the water. The sailors can feel the small explosions against their hull. They take other evasive actions such as deploying decoy noisemakers, but the Soviet Navy isn’t fooled. Eventually starved of oxygen, the Gudgeon is forced to surface, while the sailors destroy any records of their mission. They radio to the Russians that they are Americans. The Soviets say “Thanks for the anti submarine warfare exercise” and inexplicably let them go. When they were safe, each man got two cans of beer - nobody asked where the beer came from. While the Gudgeon escaped, the Soviets proved that diesel boats were vulnerable to sub hunters as long as they had to snorkel.

Admiral Jerauld Wright, commander of the Atlantic fleet, seeking revenge for the Gudgeon, promised a case of Jack Daniel’s to the first captain who successfully forced a Soviet diesel to surface. This was won in May 1959, by Lieutenant Commander Theodore F. Davis of the USS Grenadier, who forced a Soviet sub to surface near Greenland

Picture of the  USS Cochino
The USS Cochino

USS Halibut

As it became clear that diesel subs were vulnerable, the Navy started turning to nuclear subs. However, there was a disaster when the USS Thresher sunk during a test dive to 1300 feet, killing all 129 men aboard. It’s believed that a propulsion system failed, causing the submarine to sink and implode. In the aftermath, the Navy promised a “sub safe” program, complete with Deep-Submergence Rescue Vehicles (DSRVs). While most of these proposals were more science fiction than anything else (the sub would have to be fortunate enough to sink in relatively shallow waters) a civilian scientist, John P. Craven, saw the opportunity to use the program as a cover to build robotic deep-sea vehicles that would recover Soviet hardware from the ocean. Operation Sand Dollar was born. However, the Navy wasn’t about to give one of it’s 20 top nuclear submarines for an underwater treasure hunt. So Craven got one of the Navy’s nuclear “clunkers”, the USS Halibut. She carried Regalus guided missiles, but they were quickly scrapped for the longer-range Polaris missiles. Now that the Regalus missiles were obsolete, nobody was quite sure what to do with the Halibut. However, she did have one asset - a “mouth” at her bow that could open and close. Craven realized this could be used to deploy underwater robots. Halibut did also have one fatal weakness - she was an extremely loud submarine, but Craven fell in love with her nonetheless. He was given $70m in 1963 ($700m in 2023 dollars) to refit the Halibut as a “rescue vehicle/oceanographic research vessel”.

While Halibut is being refitted, Craven gets a call - “We’ve lost an H-Bomb” - A B-52 bomber had collided with a tanker in mid-air during refueling off the Spanish coast, dropping 4 atomic weapons into the Mediterranean. Three were quickly recovered, but one was lost in the ocean. Craven called in a group of mathematicians and submarine/salvage experts to place bets on the most likely story of what happened to the weapon. For example, did one, two or no parachutes attached to the weapon activate?. They used this with Bayes theorem to plot the most likely location for the bomb to be - and unfortunately, that location was a ravine that would be nigh impossible to reach. President Johnson blew up on Craven when he presented these probability charts rather than a definite answer, and actually called in another group of scientists, who said that Craven’s plan was the best one they had. While the Halibut wasn’t used for this mission, Craven did use another vessel, the USS Alvin to search for the missing H-bomb, and successfully recovered it from the ravine he said it was in.

Meanwhile, the Halibut was encountering cost overruns: for example, the most important aspect of the Halibut were the “fish”: underwater robots designed to go down to the ocean floor and send up video. They cost $5m each, and John ordered 6 of them - they also broke down a lot. One poor captain was ordered to stash Halibut expenses in a missile warhead program he ran and had weekly meetings where he had to explain to GAO administrators why he was overspending.

There were many technical problems:

There were never-ending computer problems. The computer’s “Interleaf” operating system needed more than the computer’s 32 kilobytes of memory to operate. When computer components in the fish failed, new ones were secreted into Pearl Harbor in the luggage of American Airlines stewardesses.

Then there was the rest of Halibut’s deep-sea equipment. Her crew was discovering that systems that functioned fine at a few hundred feet underwater just didn’t work the same way 15,000 feet deep, where pressures were enough to crush any slight flaw or weakness into a full-scale failure. The tiny, gold-plated rubber connectors used in the fish’s wiring failed at 10,000 feet when the gold and the wire began to compress at different rates, sending the gold flaking off and breaking the circuits. The strobe lights, so carefully designed to ride the fish and light the sea floor, worked too well. They were so bright that they blinded the cameras. Ultimately, dimmer lights were built. Unfortunately, the video signal failed to survive the climb through the coaxial cable that toted the fish, one at a time. So on Halibut ’s early missions, the crew would have to make do with grainy sonar images of shadows, bright spots, and shapes. The crew would be able to grab hold of clearer photographs only once every six days, when a massive fish was hoisted back aboard, carrying its film to the surface.

Once the Halibut was fitted out, she was ready to start looking for Soviet hardware - Operation Winterwind, an attempt to actually grab the items listed in Operation Sand Dollar was underway. The goal of Winterwind was to find the nose cone of a Soviet ICBM, to get the dummy warhead payloads and guidance systems of the missile. At this point, the Halibut didn’t actually have the ability to retrieve things from the ocean floor, but Craven figured that if they could find the nose cone, they could put a transponder on it and they’d have some time to figure out a way to retrieve it from the depths. The crew was told the transponders were “mines” and warned to deny that mines were onboard the sub.

Once they arrived in the Northern Pacific waters, they began the search. However, they ran into a problem - the steel cables towing the fish, 7 miles long, were made of shorter strands of cable welded together. One of the welds failed, causing the hydraulic spool controlling the fish to fail. The sailors had to manually haul the multi-ton fish back aboard, and attempted to wind the spool back in reverse so that the failed weld wasn’t being used. Still, they did not find any missile hardware.

Returning to port, the Navy put out a tender for seven miles of unwelded, continuous steel cable. Nobody could meet this specification, so US Steel finally agreed to modify their cable making process at a huge expense. It took 3 months to spin this cable. Despite all these efforts, the Halibut was unable to find a missile cone this time either - and nearly lost a man who fell overboard when the fish had to be repaired on the surface.

As she turned back empty-handed however, something started happening in the Pacific - A dozen Soviet subs poured into the Pacific, banging the ocean floor with active sonar, no effort to hide what they were doing. Unencrypted radio transmission sounded out:

“Red Star, come in, come in”

The Soviets had lost a submarine and were looking for it. Naval intelligence had been following Soviet sub transmissions for many years now. They couldn’t decode the signals, but they were able to learn things from the metadata of the transmissions - each sub had a unique frequency it operated on, there was a transmission when it left port, crossed the international date line etc. Naval Intelligence figured from the pattern of transmissions that this was a Golf-II sub, K-129 - and based on the transmission patterns, they thought the USSR was looking in the wrong place for the sub.

Maybe the Halibut couldn’t find a missile cone - but maybe she could find a much bigger target, a sunken submarine.

They started looking for more evidence to help them pinpoint the missing sub. The US had a network of underwater listening devices, SOSUS, that should have heard the sound of a sub imploding and hitting the ocean floor. They started going through the SOSUS records, and found a single loud pop in the area the sub was thought to have gone down. It didn’t match the sound of a sub imploding, but what if the sub had flooded before sinking? Then she wouldn’t have died in cacophony of crashing steel, but silently. Craven got the navy to sink a WW2 sub to test the theory, and it matched the sound they heard from the SOSUS records.

Naval Intelligence wasn’t 100% convinced because the soviets were searching in a totally different location, but they had little else to go on, so the Halibut was deployed to the spot. There they began searching, the men not told what they were looking for. They would deploy the fish, bring them up and develop the photos. Eventually, the ship’s photographer bursts out of the darkroom, yelling “Captain Moore, Captain Moore”.

It was the skeleton of a doomed sailor, probably just an enlisted man, a kid, lying alongside his submarine, alone, his crewmates probably entombed within. One of his legs was broken and bent almost at a right angle, perhaps from the shock of the explosion that destroyed the submarine. Maybe that’s what had killed him. Or maybe he had drowned as he fell the three miles to the ocean floor.

Picture of the sunken K-129
Wreck of the K-129

They took more photographs, code-naming them “Velvet Fist”. Shortly after, in 1969 Nixon was sworn in as president. Soon Naval Intelligence got a call demanding to see Velvet Fist from the new administration. Velvet Fist had gotten the attention of the CIA, and they began to engineer a bureaucratic takeover. They created a joint Navy-CIA office, called the National Underwater Reconnaissance Office (NURO) that would pool their resources. In theory it should be equally divided Navy-CIA effort, but in practice it was dominated by the CIA. The CIA, however had no oceangoing expertise whatsoever. They come up with a plan: recover the entire submarine from the depths. Naval Intelligence thought this was impossible and impractical. They wanted to blow a hole in the submarine, and recover the Soviet code books and transmission equipment, a much simpler and practical plan. Most of the Golf-class submarine was already obsolete, and of limited intelligence value. Besides, the sub was very fragile despite looking intact, and it would also take many years to develop the technology required to lift a sub from the ocean floor.

However, the CIA held the power in Washington and generally got what it wanted, even if it was impossible. Howard Hughes’ Summa Corporation was contracted to build a ship to recover the sub, the Glomar Explorer. Cynics thought that Nixon was looking for a way to funnel money to Hughes to pay his political debts.

The Glomar Explorer’s cover story was that Howard Hughes was interested in mining maganese nodules from the ocean floor. There’s a lot of easier ways to obtain maganese, but Hughes was a known eccentric and famous for his secrecy and paranoia. Interestingly, the CIA created classified briefs arguing the salvage operation was legal, despite maritime law saying sunken military ships belong to the country that sailed them. Glomar had a huge crane (named Clementine) with a net attached to it, designed to reach 16,000 feet underwater and pick up the sunken K-129. They took days to lower clementine to the bottom of the ocean, but they miscalculated trying to maneuver closer to the K-129 and crashed it into the ocean bed. Again, they aimed at the sub, and succeeded at draping the net over the conn tower. They then started to reel it in - 6 feet per minute. 14 hours passed, and K-129 was 5000 feet off the ocean floor - but then the arms of the crane cracked from the damage when it hit the ocean floor, and most of the sub fell back to the ocean floor. The CIA wanted to do another attempt, but later analysis showed that the sub exploded, making it useless for intelligence work. The 10 percent of the sub they recovered was mostly worthless. As the Glomar Explorer headed home, the crew heard on the radio that Nixon had resigned in disgrace.

Six sailors’ bodies were recovered from K-129, and the US buried them with full military honors.

Unfortunately for the CIA, journalist Seymour Hersh (the New York Times’ top investigative reporter, and publicized the My Lai massacre) was on the trail of what the CIA called “Project Jennifer”. He published a story that noted they failed. Some of the story was wrong, Hersh reported that it was a nuclear sub, not a antiquated diesel, that the government had recovered 70 bodies and a third of the sub. While the CIA was embarrassed, they did get away with the fact that the plan was ludicrous from the start and of limited intelligence value. Secretly, the Navy was glad the CIA was humiliated - the CIA had been trying to swim in their waters. However, the USSR didn’t want it publicized, since they hadn’t told the families of the K-129’s crew what had happened to them and wanted to keep their citizens in the dark. The Ford administration agreed to be silent on the matter and promised not to attempt to raise K-129 again.

Picture of the Glomar Explorer
The Glomar Explorer

USS Scorpion

Two months after K-129 sunk, the USS Scorpion disappeared. All anyone knew is she was due in Norfolk and had not arrived. Nobody knew where she was, and could be anywhere in a 3000 mile path in the Atlantic. Craven was assigned to find her.

While the Navy had been implementing safety overhauls since the Thresher disaster, the Scorpion’s refitting had been postponed due to budget cuts and the pace of intelligence operations, and was one of four subs not fitted with new safety features. She was assigned to NATO exercises in the Mediterranean, because the Seawolf had rammed an underwater mountain and had to be repaired. Scorpion was being used as “prey” to train US allies in submarine warfare. She was also assigned to monitor unusual Soviet activity in the North Atlantic before coming home, and radioed last on May 21, 1968.

The families of the Scorpion crew had begun to worry as early as February 15, 1968, three months before Craven heard the news on the radio, three months before rumors began swirling through the sub force that the Soviets might have sunk her . There, standing on the dock tossing the final mooring line to the crew as Scorpion departed, was Dan Rogers, an electrician’s mate who had risked his career by demanding to be transferred off the boat, writing to his captain, Lieutenant Commander Francis A. Slattery, that everyone on board was “in danger.” The Navy had always portrayed the 252-foot-long sub as a gleaming showpiece, but Rogers said Scorpion was so overdue for a thorough overhaul that the crew had taken to calling her the “USS Scrap Iron.” There were oil leaks in the hydraulic systems and seawater seeping in through the propeller shaft seals. Her emergency ballast systems weren’t working, and the Navy had restricted her depth to 300 feet, less than one-third of the operational depth of other boats of her class. There had also been a frightening incident three months earlier when Scorpion had vibrated so violently during high-speed maneuvers that she seemed to corkscrew through the water, sending huge pieces of equipment swaying on their rubber mountings. Rogers and other crewmen feared that the problem could reappear at any time.

People began to fear the USSR had sunk the Scorpion. The Navy frantically radioed for it to come in, and Craven thought about how he could locate it. While there was an extensive SOSUS system in the Atlantic - the system filtered a lot of noise such as the blasts of oil exploration and whale mating calls - it was designed to detect the whir of soviet submarines entering the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap (GIUK gap). However, after making a few calls to scientist friends, he found a lab in the Canary Islands with a hydrophone in the water.

Craven used this data along with Scorpion’s path to come up with 8 possible locations Scorpion could have had some disaster at. All were more than 2000 feet deep, Scorpion’s crush depth. The Navy sent planes to look for oil slicks or debris, but came up with nothing. They then found more hydrophones operated by Argentina and the US Air Force, and were able to triangulate a location where an explosion and loud crash of an implosion had happened in Scorpion’s path. Craven now thought the sub had imploded. But the Navy was unwilling to accept that based on some blips on paper. The USS Mizar, a polar supply ship, was assigned to search for it, but there was nearly 7000 square miles to search. Craven began to look for more clues to assist the Mizar. Craven later found something interesting - the Scorpion had gone east, back towards Europe rather than west towards America in her final moments.

Craven asked “What could make a submarine go 180 degrees in the wrong direction”. The Admirals answered one thing: a torpedo activating on board, called a “hot run”. The boat turns because that activates fail-safe devices on the torpedo and shuts down the warhead.

It was common to test sub equipment such as torpedoes on the way home.

One of Craven’s favorite maxims was “If something can be installed backward, it will be.” And in this case, it was true. Several submarines had reported hot runs as a result of electric leads on the test equipment being installed backward. The problem had become common enough that the commander of the Atlantic Fleet issued warnings.

Craven decided that a hot torpedo had sunk the Scorpion: the only problem with the theory was that nobody else agreed with it. Craven even thought he might be wrong, but he wanted more evidence. After running a hot torpedo simulation in a submarine simulator, the torpedo exploded in the submarine and caused it to sink and implode. Craven, once again, took submarine and salvage experts and had them take bets on what path it took as it sunk.

Years later, the mathematicians would write a book based on their work with Craven, entitled Theory of Optimal Search. The U.S. Coast Guard would adopt the method for search and rescue, and the Navy would use Craven’s interpretation of Bayes to help Egypt clear sunken ordnance from the Suez Canal. But in the Scorpion search, naval officers just shook their heads at Craven’s acoustic evidence and his probability map.

The Navy however, had found debris to the west, and wanted to keep searching west.

As a last ditch effort, they decide to try Craven’s location. They detected iron almost as soon as they neared the point Craven had pointed out, but it turned out to be iron ore, not a sub. However, the Captain of the Mizar pretended he needed another week to calibrate the sensors, and spent more time searching. The Mizar eventually found the Scorpion 220 yards from Craven’s most probable point, 11,000 feet underwater.

The Navy held a court of inquiry. After 6 months, the Navy told the press that the Scorpion disaster remained a mystery, and that no proof of the cause could be found. The Navy even appeared to rule out a torpedo disaster of any kind, saying that “Procedures used in handling ordnance on board were consistent with established safety precautions.“. The families of the ninety-nine sailors who perished would not get an explanation of what happened. This of course, was lying by omission: when a more detailed report was released in 1993, the Navy had concluded that various torpedo accidents were the top 3 causes of the Scorpion’s loss. However, the top cause was that the torpedo was released into the water, it sought the nearest target - the Scorpion.

By 1993, Craven was sixty-nine years old and retired from the Navy, but was contacted by a Charles M. Thorne, who had written a classified memo about the Mark 37 torpedoes on the Scorpion. A foil diaphragm was supposed to rupture when the torpedo was sent out of the tube, connecting the battery to the motor. The diaphragm failed alarmingly frequently when experiencing vibrations, causing the torpedo to activate and spark, possibly causing a fire. This failure condition was also difficult to detect: normally, the crew would notice the propeller turning. However, in this case, the first sign might be a burning-hot torpedo seconds away from a battery explosion. Naval Ordnance command sat on the memo, not sharing it with the wider submarine fleet. This memo was written days before the Scorpion sunk. Naval Ordnance had insisted instead, that an onboard detonation was impossible.

It later turns out that the catastrophe was caused by Naval Ordnance bypassing its own safety procedures. Engineers had written about this potential flaw in 1966, well over a year before the disaster and recommended a redesign, saying the batteries had no margin of safety. One of the companies contracted to build the torpedoes were not able to make any batteries that passed QC checks, but because of torpedo shortages, the manufacturer was allowed to ship 250 of the torpedoes. One of these torpedoes was on the Scorpion The Navy to this day has not acknowledged the possibility that a hot torpedo sunk the Scorpion.

The Ballad of Whitey Mack

Commander Chester “Whitey” Mack was captain of the USS Lapon and assigned to find out more about the newest model of Soviet nuclear subs, named Yankee-class subs. So far satellite images had shown that the soviets were working on mass producing them, and that they were mimics of the Polaris missile program. The US didn’t know much about them, other than they would give the USSR a second-strike capability, and that the Yankee-class was a huge leap over the earlier Soviet nuclear subs, much quieter than previous designs. Whitey’s mission was to get close to the Yankee subs undergoing sea trials, and stay close enough to get an idea of what they sounded like, so that US sonar nets could detect them entering the ocean. Some ships had already done this, but in quieter waters, near soviet ports. It was unknown if the data gathered so far would be useful in the Atlantic, with the cacophony of fishing trawlers, oil rigs and marine life. For his part, Whitey was itching to out do them all of the other sub captains - get on the tail of a Yankee and successfully stalk it in the open ocean.

Whitey gets his chance in September 1969 - the SOSUS Sonar Net had detected a yankee heading through the Denmark strait, which separates Greenland and Iceland. If Mack could intercept her before reaching the open ocean, she could begin a tail. To motivate the crew, he hung up a map in the mess, plotting the Lapon’s location, and if they found the Yankee, her location as well - Sharing these details was against regulation, but Mack was not really a man for regulations. And he wanted his crew enthusiastic.

They arrive at the Denmark strait, but in the noisy waters of Greenland are only dimly able to see the Yankee - she has to venture within 1400 yards of the Lapon to be visible. Worse, the Soviets weren’t sticking to their expected course. A storm was making it even harder than normal to hear the Yankee. After several days of search, with the crew exhausted from lack of sleep, Mack decides to take a gamble - guess where the sub is headed to, and try to beat her to that location. They decide to plot a course to Portugal’s Azores Island. They make it there at top speed, but there they get caught in a steel fishing net. The fisherman quickly give up on their catch, but the Lapon is forced to surface to cut themselves free. Now they are praying the Yankee doesn’t find them. Fortune smiles upon them, for the Yankee shows up again only a few hours after freeing the Lapon.

This time, Mack is determined not to lose his quarry. Pressing his luck again, he decides to tailgate the Yankee from 3000 yards behind, an enormous risk - normally surface ships stay two miles from each other, and that’s when they don’t have to be worried about detection. All someone had to do was drop a wrench or slam a watertight door at the wrong time and even the Soviet’s outdated sonar would detect its American shadow. And until the crew understood the clicks and whirs of the Yankee propellers, they were in danger of colliding with the sub.

Standard sonar would never have been enough. The Yankee was simply too quiet. But Lapon wasn’t relying on just standard sonar. Mack had slipped aboard an added edge, an experimental sonar device designed to capitalize on some discoveries that Kelln’s USS Ray had made in 1967 and 1968 when she trailed the November-class attack sub into the Mediterranean and then tracked a Charlie in the North Atlantic. The device worked by upgrading the way the standard system registered noise levels in the ocean. It zeroed in on certain tones, those made by the Yankee as she moved through the water, almost the way notes of music sound from a bottle when somebody blows over the top. After a fair amount of trial and error, Lapon’s crew realized that one particular frequency changed each time the Yankee turned. A shift to the left, and the tone was slightly higher. When the Yankee moved away, the tone lowered. If the tone changed quickly, it meant the Yankee was making a swift course change…Ultimately the best vantage point turned out to be a little off to the side of the Yankee’s stern, in either direction—with the left side being a little louder. From there the new sonar device picked up strong tones, and standard sonar registered steam noises coming from the Yankee’s turbines and the clicks made by the Yankee’s propeller each time it made a revolution. Counting those clicks and logging turn counts was how Mack and his crew determined the Yankee’s speed. All this took four or five days to figure out—longer than the entire length of most trailings attempted so far against the noisy Soviet Hotel, Echo, and November subs.

The Soviet sub regularly hunted for a tail, going into a figure 8 maneuver occasionally to look for enemy submarines. One problem was that the regimented soviets cleared their “baffles” on regular intervals, so the crew was prepared for the Yankee’s maneuvers. The US, on the other hand used dice to determine when to clear their baffles. She never detected the Lapon trailing on her stern.

Then, someone - probably an admiral - leaked to the press what was going on, because on October 9, 1969, the front page of The New York Times declared “New Soviet Subs Noisier Than Expected.” Whoever leaked the story was unfamiliar with the details, because the Soviet subs were much quieter than expected - though the American ones were quieter. In any case, the Soviet captain figured out he was being tailed, and started changing up his maneuvers. He wildly started rushing around the ocean searching for her tail, coming within 300 yards of Lapon at one point. However, these wild maneuvers generated too much noise, masking out the noise of the Lapon. The Yankee eventually headed back to the USSR in November, where the Lapon left her and returned home.

Whitey had successfully tailed the Yankee for forty-seven days. The Lapon would win a Presidential Unit Citation and Whitey Mack a Distinguished Service Medal, the highest peacetime award a submarine or naval personnel could earn. But the best praise Mack got was from one his crew members writing a song, “The Ballad of Whitey Mack”

Whitey’s got the deck and the conn.
Now he had quite a job to do,
And every man on board knew, When the going got rough,
In this game of “Blind Man’s Bluff,”
Somehow he’d pull her through.

Operation Ivy Bells

It was 3 AM in the Pentagon and James Bradley, director of undersea warfare in naval intelligence, was dreaming of a new mission for the Halibut - to tap a soviet telephone cable in the Sea Okhotsk. Of course, Bradley had no proof this cable existed. It was a pretty good hunch though. Moscow insisted on constant reports, and would be too impatient to take the time to encrypt and decrypt radio communications. The Russians would consider the sea secure enough to lay a telephone cable, nestled deep in Soviet waters and easily blockaded. But how to find the cable? He realized that in America, underwater cables near shore were marked with signs “Do not Anchor! Cable Here”. Surely the USSR had similar signs in Russian?

There were a lot of technical challenges for diving to tap a telephone cable underwater. 300 feet down, air compresses so much that oxygen becomes poisonous and nitrogen has a narcotic effect on divers. The Navy had been experimenting with a mixture that included mostly helium, which is non toxic, for deep water diving. But first, Bradley had to get approval for his plan. In theory, he had to go through the “40 committee” which was chaired by Kissinger. It consisted of national security experts who were supposed to evaluate the cost-benefits of covert missions. But in practice, the committee almost never disapproved a mission, as long as Kissinger wasn’t bypassed. The only oversight that mattered was his.

Getting inside the sea was tense. They had to maneuver in a shallow channel, wary of being detected at any time. However, in the north of the sea they found the sign Bradley had dreamed of, “Do not Anchor! Cable Here”. The divers scrambled into a decompression chamber welded to the Halibut, the only ones told what exactly they were doing. They wouldn’t pierce the cable directly, rather they had a device that worked through induction. Once they had found the cable and proved it could be tapped, they would return with a dedicated tap.

When they returned with the initial recordings translated from Russian, it was pure military gold: unencrypted conversations between the submarine base in Kamchatka and high level Soviet Navy officials. The committee of 40 quickly approved a dedicated tap. This new device, developed at Bell Labs also worked via induction, but weighed 6 tons and utilized a form of nuclear power. It could record for a year when the Halibut would return to pick up the tapes. Two months after the Watergate break-in, the Halibut was on her way to perform wiretapping for an administration that would soon be crushed by it’s own wiretapping and covert operations. The mission was so secret that the sub was rigged to explode if in danger of being boarded. While lawyers had drafted briefs arguing the wiretapping was legal, it was certain the Soviets would not see it that way.

Initially the tapping went off without a hitch, and the Halibut spent a week listening in to the Soviets communication. They would gather all the information they could then leave, letting the tap record for many months before the Halibut could return to the site. However, on the last day, a storm hit the Halibut and both anchors snapped at once while the crew tried to keep her level. The divers, still connected by the air hoses, watched the Halibut start to rise. If they were pulled up by her, decompression would kill them. But if they cut themselves loose, they would suffocate. Inside, the officer of the deck gave a desperate order - “Flood it!” - the Halibut began to take in tons of water, and crashed back to the ocean floor. The divers scrambled into the decompression chamber. But now there was a serious problem - the Halibut may be stuck to the ocean floor with no way to rise to the surface. Still, the captain insisted they wait until the tapes were full to attempt a rise. The crew decided to try to engineer an emergency blow to free their sub, and then to almost instantly take on enough water to remain submerged—sort of like trying to exhale and inhale water nearly at the same time—to leave their sub bobbing mid-depth. The men also knew they had to get it right the first time. Halibut had enough compressed air to attempt the move only once.

It worked. Halibut was freed.

She had an entirely uneventful trip across the Pacific. The response to her return, however, was anything but uneventful. Bradley got the word from the NSA almost immediately. The tap had recorded as many as twenty lines at once. The NSA had been able to separate all of them electronically. Halibut had hit the mother lode. There were conversations between Soviet field commanders covering operational tactics and plans and maintenance problems, including defects that could cause missile submarines—like the Yankees, which were now beginning to patrol in the Pacific—to make noises that might help U.S. submarines in their efforts to track the enemy. Logistical business was conducted through the line, reports that ships couldn’t get under way for lack of spare parts. There was also other high-level reporting of command and control, decisions made about when and if patrols would get under way, and which submarines would be sent to lurk off of U.S. shores.

Picture of the USS Parche
The USS Parche

USS Parche

Richard Haver, a Naval Intelligence department head, was preparing to brief President Carter on the latest addition to the Soviet Fleet, the Delta submarine.The Navy’s previous strategy relied on having American subs trail their soviet counterparts when they entered the ocean, prepared to destroy them before they launched their missiles. This worked as long as the Soviet subs were relatively noisy, that the Russians did not realize they were being followed and that they patrolled the north Atlantic, where they could easily be detected. But now that the Soviet Navy had nuclear missiles with much longer range (4200 miles) than before, they were hiding their nuclear submarines in the Barents sea, protected by surface ships and attack subs. But the Americans had one ace in the hole, the cable tap. What if they could plant a cable tap in the Barents, right under the nose of the Russian Atlantic Fleet?

The Halibut was too noisy to sneak directly into the Soviet fleet and plant a cable tap. The Navy, however had a new submarine - the USS Parche, a Sturgeon-class nuclear sub. She was much quieter than any sub before her, and equipped with the latest in eavesdropping and diving equipment. Carter approved the operation, despite his campaign talk of cutting the military budget. Haver walked out of the briefing elated. However, he did have nagging doubts about the Soviet’s shift in strategy beyond technology. It was almost as if the USSR had it’s own way of reading the Americans’ minds as well. The Soviet Union now escorted their Yankees and Deltas with attack submarines circling, as if they were looking for NATO ships. Then the Soviet Fleet started showing up at spots the US planned to hold naval exercises before the exercises started. And the next model of soviet attack subs - the Victor III - was being designed with quiet in mind, rather than the standard Soviet focus on quantity. Could the USSR have tapped them? Was there a spy?

The Parche was set to go out in 1981 to retrieve the Pacific tapes, but instead she was struck by reefer madness. 15% of the crew tested positive for marijuana, including 3 officers. Staffing the boats had never been easy. The stress often saw crew members turn to drugs, and many were survivalists who were preparing for a Communist takeover in mountain forts, practicing with non-Navy issued rifles in their spare time. While they looked for more crew members, a more antiquated boat, the Seawolf was sent out in her stead to retrieve the tapes from the Sea of Okhotsk. After the Halibut’s anchors snapped, the Seawolf was fitted with ski-like legs that would let her settle directly on the ocean floor. However, as the Seawolf descended to the ocean floor, the ski landed directly on the cable. Did they interrupt the phone calls flowing through the cable? Would the Russians come to search what had happened to the cable? Fortunately, no search happened.

As divers began the work retrieving the tap, two storms simultaneously hit, turning into a monster typhoon. Normally submarines can wait out a storm by sinking deeper than the storm can reach. However, the sea was only 400 feet deep here, and they felt the storm. The submarine rocked from side to side. One of the divers was nearly pinned by the skedge when she suddenly lifted off the ocean floor. Then the reactor operator saw that sand was entering the reactor’s cooling system. Men rushed into the room, only to see piles of sand and mud in the reactor room. The Seawolf’s reactor was in danger of shutting down. Similar to how the waves bury in feet in sand at the beach, Seawolf was sinking into the ocean. After two days, she was still stuck, and a key reactor system was close to failing, requiring a scram. They decide to cut loose the anchors and do an emergency blow, hoping they wouldn’t surface and be detected by the Russians. The maneuver worked - she began to rise. However, when she returned to port the Soviets had started sending surface ships to search the cable.

They had found the tap.

They did more than find the tap, they lifted it out of the sea. It was impossible to hide who did it either: inside the taps were parts that were emblazoned with “Property of US Government”. Did the Seawolf give away the tap? No - The ship had been deployed (it took a meandering route) before Seawolf arrived in the sea of Okhotsk . There had to be a spy, in fact, multiple spies - someone with knowledge of Atlantic submarine tailings in the late 1970’s would not be in the loop of Pacific tapping operations.

In 1985, FBI counterintelligence received a tip that John A Walker Jr had been operating a spy ring. Walker had been a watch officer in the Navy, handling communications between submarines and shore, and passed off his communications to the Soviet Union for money. When he retired from the Navy, he then recruited his brother and son into the spy ring. His ex-wife had tipped off the FBI to prevent their daughter from being arrested. Walker and his family was arrested, but the damage had been done. The Soviets had eroded the US’s entire nuclear advantage for less than $1 million.

The second spy was given up by a high-ranking KGB defector, Vitaly Yurchenko. Yurchenko had been working in the Washington embassy when a mysterious caller called to offer information to the USSR. However, Yurchenko never found the man’s name or what he had to offer. The NSA, however, listened to a tape recording Yurchenko provided and identified the voice as Ronald W Pelton, a NSA intelligence analyst. Pelton had sold out the Okhotsk cable taps for $35,000.

The Cold War Ends

The book ends with the end of the Cold War, and the final chapter deals with the submarine force’s new missions now that the Soviet threat was no more. In 1993, spying with subs is still done, but focused on Iran, Iraq and China instead. Russia might not be the great bear of the Cold War anymore, but it does ship highly advanced submarines to Iran and China. Both superpowers are also dealing with the question of how to decommission decades of nuclear submarine and their reactors. Russia especially has to deal with the environmental catastrophe of scuttling dozens of nuclear-powered subs in the Barents sea near the island of Novaya Zemlya.

The afterword focuses on the cost to the sailors and their families of their missions and secrecy. The book’s authors held multi-hour signings, and talked to many sailors who participated in these missions both in writing the book.

a sailor on Parche, the most decorated of all subs for her cable-tapping missions, came and asked us to write a letter to his eighteen-month-old son, believing that even when the boy was eighteen years old, his oath of secrecy would still be in place and he would still not be able to explain. And so we tried, writing as best we could, to say what this man could not: why Daddy hasn’t been there to tuck the boy in at night, to watch his first steps. We wrote that his father was with him in another way all along, and that Dad would never have gone away if the mission weren’t so profoundly important. We met many men like this man, this submariner and dad. They were the ones who answered with tears when we asked, “How old are your children?” We came to understand that the question had an unintended echo, one that whispered, “How many years did you miss?”

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