In the late 1960s the US military noticed a good deal of Soviet naval activity in an area they rarely patrolled between Hawaii and Russia. The ships were cruising in substantial numbers for several months then abruptly stopped.
Somehow the information leaked that a Russian diesel sub with nuclear armed torpedoes had disappeared in the Pacific, and after a thorough search of Gilligan’s Island by the Americans turned up nothing, it was determined that it sunk in the northwest Pacific. But where? A careful review of sonar recordings showed an implosive sound signature and we were able to pinpoint the spot some 16,500 feet deep where the submarine rested.
We wanted that sub bad as we would have their code books, Cold War nuclear technology and several cases of Russian vodka. But how to retrieve it? The CIA concocted a wild plan which consisted of building a ship from scratch costing (in today’s money) 1.5 billion dollars and claim it was a deep sea mining ship. The idea was that there were magnesium nodules rolling around on the ocean floor just waiting to be scooped up. The project was named Azorian and the ship was the Glomar Explorer. Anyone with a cursory glance at the economics would realize that there was no way this would be profitable. And, with a clever choice of a patsy, they dressed up the cover story to even greater heights (much like stuffing a back-alley drunk in a Saville Row suit) and the public bought it. More importantly, the Russians bought it.
They needed a businessman, preferably a machine tool guy who didn’t give a damn about the bottom line as long as the scheme was exciting and make him look like a genius. The perfect person was Howard Hughes. Howard was no genius but he was colorful and he was famous for failing at most everything he invested in so one more disaster wouldn’t be out of step.
Most folks know that he built the world’s largest airplane, the troop carrier Spruce Goose, which was useless because jut as it was finished after the war ended. He also spent millions developing a plywood fighter plane which was also a failure. Hughes’s life story is amazing and the biography Howard Hughes: His life and Madness is a great read. Howard inherited his father’s company which made oil drilling bits. These knarly rotating bits dominated (and still do) the industry with a 75% share and Hughes Sr. became rich and his son became a billionaire.
A board of trustees dispensed a fortune to Hughes over his lifetime which he used for his many endeavors—all of which failed, or at least failed when he was alive. Hughes developed a helicopter which, like his fixed wing planes, the military failed to buy. The Hughes Charitable Foundation was a tax dodge even if it later became a real charity. Hughes Las Vegas hotel empire was another fiasco. He bought (and crashed) the RKO movie studio, mainly to have a reason keep a harem of starlets on the payroll. He had as many as a dozen on ‘retainer’ and they were kept under tight control by an army of minders. This while he was dating Katherine Hepburn. He also dated Jane Russell and starring her in The Outlaw. In the film he made liberal used of a brassiere he invented and the push-up bra is perhaps his only real success.
Hughes eventually evolved from swanky to creepy, spending his days taking drugs and stretching out naked on layers of Kleenex in a hotel bed for years, saving his urine in jars and letting his fingernails grow to ghastly lengths. This sure took the focus off submarine retrieval. Hughes was considered by many to be a maniac with crazy ideas and he was happy to lend his name to the project, though he was prevented from taking a leadership role.
Six years after the sub sank the Glomar Explorer cruised the Pacific, stopping along the way for days or weeks to give cover to its eventual several weeks over the sub. The sunken vessel was located and a series of 400 foot long steel pipes were joined as they lowered a 250 foot beam with a series of giant grappling claws. Eventually all was in place. The claws closed as planned around the boat (subs are called boats for some reason).
A slow lift commenced. But half way to the surface the beam failed and only about 36 feet of the boat was recovered. Exact details are hard to come by as much is still classified and for decades the CIA denied the whole affair. Eventually it was revealed that several bodies of the crew were recovered and then reburied at sea. The Soviets were given the footage of the funeral.
The Glomar Explorer ended up on the Sacramento River joining the Mothball Fleet.
The ship was eventually refitted for deep sea drilling at 150 million but it was never profitable and finally it was broken up for scrap in early 2015.
Some consider this attempted snatch an act of piracy. Certainly the Russians did. Other say finders keepers. Today with the Russians are hacking our networks so grabbing a sunken sub seems petty minor. Subs, planes and even missiles all seems so 20th century. Now their main weapon is interrupting our smooth flow of toilet paper and Skittles.