Above: Artist’s Concept of Permit-class missile firing
Below: Halibut is launched at Mare Island Naval Shipyard
When the Regulus missile program was cancelled
and deterrent patrols ended, the Regulus firing submarines faced an uncertain
future. While Tunny and Grayback began new missions as troop carrying,
special operations submarines for the SEALs, Growler would be decommissioned
and mothballed. The Barbero would be used as a target and sunk shortly
after the end of the Regulus era in 1964.
An entirely different fate awaited the Halibut,
the only nuclear powered Regulus boat. In 1964 it looked like a White Elephant.
Yet when it was finally decommissioned in 1976 it had become the most highly
decorated submarine of the post-WWII era.
The Cruise of the Halibut:
The Cold War’s Most Decorated Submarine
The USS Halibut was a nuclear submarine
of a different breed. Originally intended to be the first of five Permit-class
nukes capable of firing the Regulus missile, Halibut had everything
the diesel Regulus boats did not, including plenty of power, fresh water,
and even an ice cream machine. It never had to surface to snorkel and it
could travel at high rates of speed. Plus it packed a wallop that made it, for a time, the most powerful
warship on earth. In a gigantic hangar forward of the sail Halibut
was supposed to carry four Regulus missiles. After the crew discovered
an additional missile could be stowed on the launching trolley, it carried
five. Although the yield of the nuclear payloads the Regulus carried remains
classified, it is safe to assume each missile could deliver several megatons
of destruction. No wonder the Mare Island newspaper nicknamed Halibut
the “Grim Nuke Glamour Girl” of the submarine fleet.
Work on Halibut
began in 1957, and she slid off the Mare Island ways in January 1959. By
then the Regulus II program had already been cancelled and plans to build
the submarine’s sister ships scrapped. Halibut would be a one-off,
a totally unique submarine that few in the world ever get to see or hear
about. Aside from a brief public unveiling when she launched her first
Reg I in 1960 and a publicity trip to Australia soon afterwards, Halibut
was scarcely seen or photographed. At Pearl Harbor she took a special berth
far from public view and her crew painted out her number from the sail
to avert prying eyes.
From 1961 to 1964 Halibut conducted deterrent
patrols with the rest of the Regulus boats. In 1961 as part of a SEATO
exercise Halibut surfaced next to the USS Lexington and launched
a Reg I with mock nuclear components. It might have been the high point
of the sub’s career as a Regulus boat. In 1964, with the missile program
cancelled, Halibut was demoted to the role of nuclear attack submarine.
With her huge hangar she was slow by fleet boat standards, and by many
accounts very loud underwater. Still she was a formidable fighting machine.
OPERATION SAND DOLLAR
role as an attack sub ended the day John P. Craven, attached to the U.S.
Navy’s Special Projects office, toured the vessel. Craven, who had been
looking for a platform with which to conduct scanning, surveillance and
recovery operations at sea, apparently took one look at the submarine’s
gigantic hangar and decided this ugly duckling was in fact a swan. In 1965
a $70 million retrofit of the sub took place to convert it into the first
dedicated spy submarine in the fleet. Her sail was raised and equipped
with new monitoring equipment. Most significantly, a large triangular-shaped
mass was added to the roof of the hangar. This was a thrust/vector control,
which would allow the huge submarine to virtually hover in the water over
a given spot (see photos below).
The interior of the hangar was fitted with gear,
including a Univac computer and bunks for up to sixteen men. This “bat
cave” as it came to be called, would support two “fish”
— underwater camera and strobe light arrays that weighed two tons each.
With the fish, Craven hoped to scan the ocean’s bottom and with any luck
find Soviet hardware such as test warhead payloads and the like. It had
other uses as well. In the event of another disaster such as the loss of
the Thresher, or the hydrogen bomb accident a Rota, Spain, Halibut
could greatly aid in search and recovery.
Despite a lot of teething problems, Halibut
and its crew proved up to the challenge. The submarine’s early missions
had little significance however compared to the one that developed in 1968,
when it became clear to Naval Intelligence that a Soviet Golf II-class
submarine designated K-129 had sunk. Photos of the nuclear powered boat,
which carried three nuke missiles, represented a potential intelligence
coup. Craven and the Special Projects office began an effort to pinpoint
the lost sub’s location using data from the underwater listening system
known as SOSUS, and came up with a location roughly 1,700 miles from Hawaii
and three miles deep.
In a deployment called Operation Sand Dollar,
Halibut found the Russian boat and took photos using its fish. They
apparently showed the submarine’s sail with two of its nuclear missiles
exposed, their hatches blown off, with the corpse of a Russian sailor nearby.
The photos, which came to be known by the code name “Velvet Fist”
would have far reaching consequences when they were seen in Washington.
President Richard Nixon personally viewed the 8×10 glossies, and thus the
CIA got word of what had been, up until then, a project known only to a
special few within the Navy.
While the Navy had little interest in the technology
of the K-129, the CIA viewed the wreck as intelligence gold waiting to
be mined. But how? The Soviet sub lay three miles underwater, its hull
compromised by the pressure and whatever accident had caused it to sink
in the first place. Thus began one of the strangest, most daunting and
complex undertakings of the Cold War. Known as Project Jennifer, it involved
a gigantic cover story and an equally grandiose retrieval platform known
as the Glomar Explorer.
THE JENNIFER PROJECT
Built at huge expense through a Howard Hughes
front company, the Glomar Explorer (right) was supposedly constructed
to conduct undersea mining of manganese nodules on the ocean floor. Its
unveiling, accompanied by a host of false press reports and magazine articles
attesting to the viability of such an enterprise (one can only guess how
many high school kids chose oceanography as their course of study in the
wake of this publicity blitz) was sheer bluster. In actuality the Explorer
was built by the CIA with an eye to retrieve the Golf II.
The Explorer was a technological marvel
of the sort that appeared in an Ian Fleming James Bond novel. The huge
vessel was equipped with a towering derrick that stood above a central
“moon pool”. The pool, running about 200 feet long, could be
opened to the ocean. The ship had thrusters fitted on it similar to those
employed on the Halibut which allowed it to hover in place on the
surface of the sea.
Using lengths of huge pipe and a claw affectionately
known as Clementine, the Glomar Explorer attempted to raise the
sunken submarine in 1973. The effort was only partially successful. After
grappling the sub and lifting it almost 8000 feet off the sea floor, part
of Clementine failed and the rear section of the Russian nuke broke away.
According to informed sources, only about 10% of the submarine ended up
being recovered. A subsequent attempt to return to the wreck site was scuttled
after Seymour Hersh, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, got wind of
the story and published an account on the front page of the Los Angeles
Times. (Unlike the crew of the Halibut, who came from the silent
service, the CIA’s hired hands were disgruntled and apparently freely discussed
In the end, the entire
Jennifer Project appeared ill-conceived and ill-fated. Yet the sheer audacity
of the undertaking has made it perhaps the most infamous of all the CIA’s
schemes, and fodder for a whole series of books.
(Exclusive /images shown below — don’t ask where
they came from — show the workings of the “moon pool” board
the Glomar Explorer. The vessel was taken out of mothballs fairly
recently and for the first time in decades is back in business. Unfortunately
after extensive modifications the moon pool is gone, and the vessel will
be used for far less sexy ventures such as drilling for oil off the coast
of South America. Allegedly.)
Golf II-type submarine similar to
the K-129. Missiles are stowed in the vessel’s elongated sail. Unfortunately
they’re hard to see in this low-contrast image.
While the CIA busied itself with the Golf II,
USS Halibut continued its career as a “research submarine”,
apparently recovering various bits of Russian hardware including most of
a missile that had been expended in firing exercise. Then in 1971 the director
of the Office of Naval Intelligence James Bradley came up with a new mission
for the Glamour Girl known as Ivy Bells. Having grown up in Mississippi,
Bradley knew that underwater cables spanning rivers must be marked clearly
to warn ships against trying to anchor nearby. Based on a hunch, he dispatched
Halibut into the Sea of Okhotsk, adjacent to Kamchatka and the key
Soviet port of Petropavlovsk, to look for a communications cable he suspected
connected Petro with Moscow.
A new piece of hardware was added to Halibut’s
aft deck for this mission: a DSRV simulator. Or at least that’s what
the Navy called it, claming that the boat was involved in “testing
of the Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle mother submarine concept.”
Looking just like a DSRV, the cylindrical item on the rear of the sub was
anything but. In fact, it was a decompression and airlock chamber designed
to allow divers to work in deep water using techniques developed at SeaLab.
If Halibut could find a Russian cable, divers would have to be used
to tap it, and the fake DSRV provided the means.
By now Halibut was a beat-up submarine.
By the end of her days as a Regulus boat she’d logged well over 100,000
miles and over 450 dives. By modern standards the vessel was old, slow,
and still loud. Yet the boat managed to make it to Okhotsk and slipped
into the inland sea. In theory, the submarine was operating within Russian
territorial waters. If the intruder was spotted, there was a good chance
the Soviets would sink it. The trip was tense to say the least.
Miraculously, the Soviets didn’t notice Halibut,
and Bradley’s hunch paid off. A Cyrillic “do not anchor” sign
was spotted after over a week of searching and a scan with one of Craven’s
“fish” revealed an underwater cable. Soon divers breathing a
mixture of helium and oxygen emerged from the DSRV in special heated suits
to protect against the nearly-freezing water temperature. With them they
carried a cylinder. Specially designed for this mission, the device was
a tap which utilized induction to record data and voice transmissions.
It would do its work without the cable having to be cut or damaged in any
way. The Soviets wouldn’t know that anything was different, and all the
while the Pentagon would be listening to every phone call made between
Ivan’s Pacific Fleet and the Kremlin. (It didn’t hurt, incidentally, that
the Soviets didn’t encrypt most of their calls since they felt the line
to the Sea of Okhotsk several times to retrieve the cable taps and their
precious data, and replace them with new and more efficient units. The
trips were hairy to say the least. Allegedly devices were placed aboard
the sub so that it could be scuttled in the event of discovery. During
one trip Halibut was caught in a storm while her divers were working
on the tap, and the boat nearly broached after its sea anchors gave way.
The boat’s divers were left wondering whether they’d ever be able to get
back into the fake DSRV; fortunately they did. This led to one final modification
to the Glamor Girl, used during her 1974 and 1975 deployments: special
hull modifications that allowed the submarine to actually sit on the bottom
of the sea floor at Okhotsk.
After the 1975 deployment to Okhotsk, Halibut
was determined to be too broken up for continued use. If it’s any indication
how worn out the boat was, it’s mission was taken over by an even older
submarine, the USS Seawolf. Seawolf and then Parche
continued the gambit for six more years, when the amazing wiretap scheme
came to an abrupt end. A former National Security Agency cryptologist named
Ronald Pelton sold information about Ivy Bells to the Soviets for $35,000.
It was simply a matter of chance that the Russians found out about it during
a lull in the operation, or else a gigantic international incident might
have resulted. As it is, the tapping device is now on display in a Moscow
museum presumably near the remains of Gary Powers’ U-2 spyplane. (It’s
hard to believe but supposedly the tap actually has an identification plate
attached to it which clearly reads, “Property of U.S. Government.”)
During its career, Halibut was awarded
an unprecedented two Presidential Unit Citations and three Naval Unit Citations,
making it the most-decorated submarine of the Cold War era. Yet during
its lifetime the public never knew what the boat had done — it was all
top secret, classified. Thus on June 30, 1976 when Halibut was decommissioned,
the press barely noticed. When the boat was scrapped in 1986, only its
crew knew or cared. Yet since that time Halibut‘s reputation has
grown, and with the publication of the book Blind Man’s Bluff its
story has become part of the public record. What remains unknown is Halibut‘s
legacy. The capabilities its crew demonstrated and the missions they conducted
are doubtless repeated today by the submarines and crews that replaced
them; yet it may be a generation or more before we hear of their exploits.
For now, and possibly for all time, the Halibut and her crews remain
in a league of their own.