The Spies Next Door

You just never know what your lawn-mowing neighbors are up to.

Arlington may not sound like Spy Town USA, but my street is a three minute drive to the main gate of the CIA. Those folks have to go somewhere after five o’clock. For sixteen years, I’ve craned my neck driving by that entrance, each time hoping to see something other than a disappearing road. Years ago, I remember, it was summer and a few of us were sitting around on the lawn trading stories. One neighbor told a story involving his days in the Coast Guard. I followed with the time I made three cross-country flights in a single day, one of those flights in a tanker accompanying a squadron of F-117 stealth fighters from Sacramento to Plattsburgh, New York in a KC-135. The stealth fighters were brand new in 1990, the Gulf War was looming, and I was working as a wire service photographer. For someone who hates to fly, it was a good day.

Until, that is, an older neighbor spoke up.

“Back when I was at the Agency…”

Boom. I knew my stealth story was DOA. Whatever the next words to come from his mouth, they would certainly be better than a flight in a KC-135. And they were.

“Back when I was at the Agency,” he said, “we once pulled a nuclear-armed Soviet submarine from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.”

You did what? Who’s we? The U.S.? From where?!? I didn’t want to be the guy in the movie theater who asks a million questions before the title sequence has finished, but he had me from “Agency.” I had lived a house away from Rod and Pat Carlson and it never dawned on me to chat them up about their spy days. Now, a different neighbor was talking about recovering submarines from the bottom of the Pacific and I would not make the same mistake again.

Close your eyes and think back to the summer of 1974. President Nixon is inching closer and closer to resignation. Turkey has just invaded Cypress. The Cold War is still icy. You’re wearing bell bottom pants, every guy has a mustache and the transistor radio crackles out the hits of the day. Rock the boat, don’t rock the boat baby. Rock the boat, don’t tip the boat over. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, some 1,500 nautical miles northwest of Hawaii, a huge commercial ship, the Hughes Glomar Explorer, bobs up and down. Is it a drill ship? A mining operation? Hard to tell, though whatever they’re doing isn’t very exciting. A hundred and fifty feet away, a Soviet tugboat, SB-10, bobs right along, watching. The mutual admiration goes on for two whole weeks. But time is relative. To really grasp the story my neighbor told that night you need more than two weeks.

More like six years. Because that’s when this story truly begins.

***

Dawn was still a few hours away on February 25, 1968 when the the ballistic missile submarine K-129 skimmed out of its berth at the Rybachiy Naval Base in Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula heading due south. With a crew of ninety-eight, a Ukrainian commander (yes, hard to fathom these days) and three 1-megaton nuclear warheads, her upcoming patrol would have been considered routine. And that’s pretty much how things went for the first two weeks.

Then, on March 11, most likely during a drill, an explosion. In those days the Soviets used liquid fueled rockets, a risky practice the U.S. Navy had abandoned. “Very nasty stuff,” someone will later explain to me, and nasty is exactly what results. K-129 loses propulsion, can’t blow ballast. First comes crush depth, then the bottom of the ocean. In a matter of seconds, 2,700 tons of steel capable of launching a nuclear attack on the United States turns instantly impotent, tumbling three miles out of control. At the bottom, wrapped inside her imploded, fire-ravaged hull are her codes and code books, those nuclear missiles and nuclear-tipped torpedoes, the Soviet technology of the time, and, most tragically of all, a crew of ninety-eight, men with names like Motovilov and Kostyushko and Chichkanov. All never to be heard from again.

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