Wednesday, September 10, 2008


The recent brutal invasion of Georgia by the KGB dominated Russian government reminded me of a book I read about a year ago. I immediately put aside Elizabeth George’s latest mystery and trundled off to my bookshelves to find and re-read it. The author, Kenneth Sewell, is a nuclear engineer who served five years aboard the USS Parche, a fast attack submarine that was involved in a number of Cold War escapades. (Check out Blind Man’s Bluff for that story.) Sewell held top secret security clearances with the Departments of Defense and Energy and in 1991 gained access to recently declassified intelligence files of the US and Soviets. From these and interviews of many of the parties involved, Sewell wrote The Red Star Rogue, The Untold Story of a Soviet Submarine’s Nuclear Strike Attempt on the US. It is, without a doubt, a sobering tale and should serve as a warning to those who do not think the KGB is alive and well in Russia and capable of anything. It ain’t a novel, folks. This really happened.

On 7 March 1968 at a precise intersection of latitude and longitude some 350 miles from Honolulu, the nuclear equipped Soviet submarine, K-129, surfaced in the dark of night, blew up and promptly sank to the ocean floor some three miles below. While many of the details of this incident still remain classified, Sewell unearthed enough facts to paint a very convincing picture of what occurred. But first, a few words about the geo-political situation in early 1968.

· The US was heavily involved in the Vietnam War, devoting much blood and treasure to that conflict while the populace at home became increasingly disenchanted.
· The Soviets were spending 50% of their GDP on their military and facing the prospect of financial ruin in the process. Supporting communist insurgencies around the world also helped drain their coffers.
· The KGB led by Andropov and the Soviet central government led by Brezhnev struggled for power.
· The KGB had control of all nuclear weapons held by the Soviets.
· China had emerged as a new military power with nuclear capabilities.
· China and the USSR were at each other’s throats for dominance of International Communism. They were fighting each other on their long mutual border and the Soviets had one half of their total forces arrayed along that border.
· Mao Tse-tung had China in turmoil with his Cultural Revolution and became increasingly belligerent with both the Soviets and the US. He had threatened all out nuclear war with the US, contending China with its huge size would survive and the US would not.
· All branches of the Soviet military had their own special operations troops known as “spetnaz”. The KGB had them as well and they were known as “osnaz”. The Osnaz were especially nasty lads who specialized in “wet ops” (kidnapping and murder). They were also trained in the handling of nuclear weapons and all types of military equipment, including submarines. They operated in ten man teams.

On February 24, 1968 the diesel-electric Golf Class Soviet submarine K-129 sailed on an unscheduled mission from its homeport at Vladivostok. At the last minute an additional 11 men boarded the sub making the cramped boat seriously over crowded. The Soviets, always anal about the chain of command, required that all subs report in to Moscow at predetermined locations along their course. After the first check point K-129 was never heard from again. When the Soviets finally launched a massive sea search for their sub they concentrated on an area some 800 miles north of where the sub actually sank. That was where K-129 was supposed to be patrolling.

A US satellite had noted the explosion off Hawaii and had not deemed it of strategic importance. A few days later a U of Hawaii research ship discovered a radioactive oil slick and alarm bells went off. The US, not wanting to tip off the Soviets, utilized their own sub towing a deeps submersible equipped with lights and cameras and found the K-129 in short order. Of course, they snapped lots of damning photos and used the mechanical arm of the submersible to recover the nuclear bombs and who knows what else from the wreckage.

It soon became clear what had happened and why. The K-129 had surfaced to fire a nuclear tipped rocket at Honolulu and although they possessed the launch codes, they were unaware of the super secret fail-safe device installed on the weapon. The US had given Soviet scientists the technology for the fail-safe device to prevent a rogue group from an unauthorized firing . From the damage to the sub it was evident that the nuclear device had self destructed, igniting the rocket fuel below and in the one next to it in a massive explosion that broke the back of K-129. It went to the bottom in seconds.

It quickly became obvious what had been intended and how it had been accomplished. The Captain and crew went to their deaths locked in a forward compartment, so the sub had been in the control of the 11 mysterious men who boarded as the sub set sail. The location of K-129 also offered some clues.

The Golf II was capable of firing from underwater and at ranges of 800 miles. The Chinese subs had to be on the surface to fire and within 400 miles of the target. They also had to be at the precise intersection of latitude and longitude lines to successfully navigate to the target. Obviously, the intention was to obliterate Honolulu including the vast military presence there, plus the residents and tourists, and blame the whole thing on the Chinese. The plot had been hatched by the cynical KGB trolls in Moscow to take out two enemies at one shot by starting a nuclear war between China and the US. The KGB lads knew that in the aftermath, the US would have no means or intention to occupy a country the size of China, so they would just march across the border and take over.

The info was damning and volatile. A Johnson Administration exhausted with the Vietnam debacle wanted no part of it. The newly installed Nixon Administration and the aggressive Henry Kissinger had no such reservations. A copy of the report and photos got slid under the door of the Soviet Embassy in Washington one dark night. Heads rolled in Moscow and the nuclear weapons got taken out of the hands of the KGB.

Kissinger also began negotiations with China. If you ever wondered how the hawk Nixon ever managed to be the guy to make the historic break through in US Chinese relations, you can be pretty sure the photos and report on the sinking of K-129 played a major part. “And now,” as Paul Harvey likes to say, “you know the rest of the story.”

Post Script:
During the Cold War the Soviets employed what is known as the “Brezhnev Doctrine” as exemplified by the brutal invasion of the Soviet satellite, Czechoslovakia. Forty years later here we are again with Russian tanks rolling. You have to ask yourself: If the KGB was willing to instigate a nuclear war to further their ambitions, of what is the current KGB boss, Putin, capable?


Mark said...

Just finished reading Red Star Rogue, and as a child of the 50's am flabbergasted that this kind of thing COULD have happened. I remember doing "duck & cover" drills under my desk in elementary school, and hearing the air raid sirens going off every day. The US population needs to know that THEIR Govt. (CIA) has covered up things that should be revealed. (But why start now, they killed Kennedy!)

Miguel Vargas-Caba said...

As an author of a Cold War Historical Fiction novel, it gives me great satisfaction to see a blog article about the K-129. I also read Sewell's "Red Star Rogue" and found it to be fascinating. I'd like to keep in touch with you to exchange ideas about this subject. Please contact me at miguelvargascaba at hotmail dot com.