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Cold War Warriors

Incidents at Sea – Part 2
Submarines – the Secret War Within the Cold War

Commander John Murphy, USN, RET

There was a dramatic growth of the submarine forces of both the U.S. and the USSR in the 1960s. The U.S. Navy was getting rid of its WWII diesel submarines and the Soviets were building both diesel and nuclear subs to gain a quantitative advantage in the Cold War under the sea. Both navies were giving top priority to the construction of modern, nuclear attack and ballistic missile submarines.

We were snooping on them and they were snooping on us – up close and personal. In and around Soviet naval bases and test areas in the Atlantic and Pacific I was the Atlantic Fleet project officer from 1962- 64 for special intelligence support teams (e.g. Russian linguists, analysts and communicators) for what some called the "Northern Run". We knew our diesel and nuclear attack submarines were driving the Soviets crazy. They would try to ram us and depth charge us, but never got one of our boats.

In the early 60s, we were sitting in on their sensitive nuclear testing at the super secret Novaya Zemlya test range. Hot stuff! Literally and figuratively. The work was risky and strategically important. I developed a deep respect for some of the "stars" of our Northern Run to include USS Nautilus, Skate, Skipjack, Scorpion and even that large undersea hotel – USS Triton.

This was very dangerous work – because the Soviets threw caution to the winds in their development projects and when something went bad – they simply covered it up. I know of at least four or five Soviet nuclear submarines that sank during the Cold War. Also, at least 15 nuclear power plant "accidents " or fires. Also, over 500 Soviet submariners died during Cold War incidents from 1961 to 1991.

The U.S. on the other hand – lost only two submarines during the Cold War – USS Thresher during sea trials off Cape Cod in 1963 and the mysterious disappearance of USS Scorpion near the Azores in 1968.

Cold War’s Silent Warriors - Submariners have one thing in common – they don’t want to be seen or heard. Especially if they were involved in an incident of any kind. They are, by nature, a Silent Service. That is why – when you look at all the incidents of the Cold War – you hardly see anything about submarines. Aircraft were being shot down; space craft exploding; ships ramming each other; U2s were being shot down; spies caught and exchanged, and every day citizens were being shot by communist border guards as they tried to flee East Berlin. These made sensational headlines in the western press.

1968 - Two nuclear submarines disappear mysteriously - There were two incidents in 1968 that were a "wake up call " for the US and Soviet navies – the mysterious disappearance of a Soviet missile submarine – the K129 (an OSCAR II nuclear submarine) near Hawaii on 7 March 1968 followed by the equally mysterious disappearance of the USS Scorpion in the Atlantic – a short 52 days later. A coincidence? Hardly.

K129 sinking - The U.S. Navy had tracked the K129 during its transit from the USSR to Hawaii and it’s subsequent sinking on 7 March,1968. Most bets were that the sub and its crew of 98 perished when they either collided with an uncharted sea mount or from an internal explosion (battery or torpedo) which was detected by the Navy’s SOSUS (Sound Surveillance System). We knew exactly where the K129 had gone down, but the Soviets didn’t have a clue. This would eventually lead to a much ballyhooed CIA recovery operation involving the Glomar Explorer research ship.

Scorpion sinking? - All available evidence now points to a carefully planned trap and attack by the Soviets – in retaliation for the perceived sinking of the K129 by the USS Swordfish. KGB port watchers reported Swordfish entering the port of Yokosuka, Japan 10 days after the K129 went missing. She was badly damaged and the KGB concluded that the American nuke had sunk their nuke. The truth was that Swordfish departed Hawaii on 3 February under urgent orders to check out the USS Pueblo which had been seized by North Korea on 23 January and taken to the port of Wonsan, North Korea. Swordfish made a beeline across the Pacific in early February and was attempting to look at the Pueblo on the night of 24 February when it ran into a glacier ice pack. Swordfish had lost their eyes and ears – an attack scope, an ECM mast and a special operations mast were all severely damaged. They were forced to leave Wonsan and make a slow transit to Yokosuka for repairs. KGB port watchers saw the Swordfish limping into Yokosuka on 17 March and reported to Moscow that they had sunk the K129 off Hawaii ten days earlier.

The American Mole - Now it really got strange. Enter a U.S. "mole " by the name of John Anthony Walker Jr. Walker had been selling his soul to the KGB since 1967. A submarine communications specialist who had easy access to what the KGB wanted the most – high level codes and ciphers. Especially the codes being used by U.S. submarines – such as the USS Scorpion. The KGB had been receiving the codes from Walker since 1967 and then they got a KW 7 crypto machine from the USS Pueblo. In fact – this was a primary reason for grabbing the USS Pueblo. By April 1968 – the KGB’s Department 16 (the Soviet NSA) was reading high level, naval messages as fast as the Scorpion or its headquarters in Norfolk.

According to two recent books on Scorpion – "Scorpion Down" by Ed Offley and "All Hands Down" by Kenneth Sewell – the Scorpion was lured into a carefully contrived trap resulting in its destruction by a Soviet torpedo while transiting westward in the Atlantic near the Azores. Offley has the torpedo coming from an Echo II submarine. Sewell, in "All Hands Down" has the torpedo coming from a KA 25 ASW helicopter which had been launched from a nearby Soviet surface ship. I tend to believe the Sewell version (KA 25 helo) because I have too much respect for Scorpion as a very cagy, reconnaissance sub. I do not believe another submarine could sneak up on Scorpion. But, a high speed, airborne attack at close range from a KA 25 helo? This was credible – when you know all the other "linkages " – the K129; USS Pueblo; KW-7 crypto machine and the John Walker treachery.

At this point… I think both sides could see where these Cold War submarine incidents were heading in the wrong direction. They had to be controlled. By 1971 the two sides were talking and in 1972 the U.S. Secretary of the Navy John Warner and Soviet Admiral Sergey Gorshkov met in Moscow to sign the INCSEA Agreement. The "words " in the treaty said little about submarines. They spoke of surface ships, spy ships, aircraft safety, appropriate international signals, and inappropriate activities (e.g. hurling of objects at each other or the blinding of ship personnel with lights etc.). But, the leaders of both navies knew that dangerous, undersea incidents were included.

St. Petersburg, Russia - Spring 1993

I sat in the Winter Palace (Hermitage Museum) looking across Palace Square where the Bolshevik Revolution had begun in 1917. The Soviet Union had ceased to exist a mere two years earlier. The Cold War was supposedly over. I was traveling with a senior Navy Department official. We had just come from a meeting with senior Russian Navy officers and scientists at a former Soviet, submarine Design Bureau. The meeting was held in a small non-descript, dimly lit conference room and the atmosphere was very Cold War–like. A large Soviet era portrait hung over us as if supervising. Eight Russians sat on one side of a long table covered with a green cloth. Two Admirals, four scientists and two men who I was told were KGB (now FSB – Federal Security Service). After introductions, the senior Russian Admiral began to speak. He would be brief. We were probably aware of the Soviet nuclear submarine "Komsomolets" which sank in the Norwegian Sea in 1989 with nuclear weapons on board. The Russian Navy wanted to know if the U.S. Navy would assist in the recovery of this submarine. My companion said that he had discussed this matter with senior representatives of the U.S. Navy’s submarine service prior to the visit and had to respond " Thanks, but no thanks." The atmosphere in the room turned very Cold War-like and the meeting was over as quickly as it had begun. We were shown the nearest exit and as we walked back towards the Winter Palace I thought "The Cold War may be officially over for most, but for submariners – it lives on."

In Memoriam – John W. Skipper

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