Russian Navy

Has the "Fire!" Command Sounded in the Compartments of the Cold War?

The nuclear submarine Scorpion was destroyed by a torpedo salvo from a Soviet nuclear-powered vessel that was taking part in the testing of a mysterious weapon in the Azores Islands region. This was the Soviet submariners’ retaliation for the demise of the nuclear submarine K-129 in the Pacific Ocean. Such is the conclusion reached by the author of the new book published in the US. Is there any truth to this allegation?
It turns out, the USA and the USSR were engaged in a submarine war. Military analyst Ed Offley, presenting his new book Scorpion Down in Fairfax, suburb of Washington, claimed that on May 22, 1968, a very short and very secret fight took place between our submarine forces. The author of a 500-page investigation, which he, by his own admission, has conducted over quarter of a century, asserts that the US and Russia, under a mutual agreement, have for almost 40 years been carefully covering up the fact of the American nuclear submarine Scorpion’s destruction by a warhead torpedo, launched by a Soviet submarine. Is the secret admiral conspiracy still valid? Or has it never existed?

The first months of 1968 were, like never before in the time of peace, saturated with mysterious losses of submarines from different countries in different parts of the world. Besides the American Scorpion in the Atlantic and our K-129 in the Pacific Ocean, the French submarine Minerve and the Israeli Dakar sank in the Mediterranean for unknown reasons.

On January 21, 1968, DPRK patrol ships boarded the American intelligence ship Pueblo in the open sea and took it to their port Wonsan. The 98 US military personnel were thrown in the Pyongyang prison. The Pueblo turned out to be a real gold-mine of Top Secret documents and equipment, the most valuable being the 19 cryptographic teletype devices Orestes.

Some of them were immediately at the disposal of the Soviet KGB, others, later on, came to the Chinese intelligence. The National Security Agency convinced President Lyndon Johnson that the Soviet Union would never be able to break the encrypted radio communications of the American Navy without the “keys” that were regenerated daily.

Only 18 years later it was discovered that Lubyanka was regularly supplied with access codes directly from the General Headquarters of the US Atlantic Fleet. Warrant Officer John Walker, shift supervisor of the cryptographic staff in Norfolk, personally brought them to the Soviet Embassy in Washington in the fall of 1967. The USSR, as claimed by Ed Offley, immediately put to use the obtained information regarding the naval activity of the USA. As a result, the nuclear submarine Scorpion (SSN-589) met its end from the torpedo salvo of the nuclear-powered submarine of Echo-II class – supposedly, the American submarine seriously interfered with the Soviet ship unit that was testing some state-of-the-art weapon in the region of the Azores Islands. But in reality, it was the Soviet submariners’ retaliation for the demise of the ballistic missile submarine K-129 in the Pacific Ocean, for which the Americans were supposedly responsible.

Ed Offley published this theory for the first time in the newspaper Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1998. The article made quite a bit of noise, but the author of the sensation, for some reason, quickly left Seattle. Offley, ordinarily a provincial journalist, never worked for the nationwide mass media, and for that reason only could have hardly had access to the Federal secrets or to their carriers.

Why are Ed Offley’s suppositions unrealistic? To begin with, due to the actual reason for the K-129’s urgent departure, with nuclear weapon on board, from the base in the Kamchatka's bay Tarja on February 24, 1968. This was a tense time of escalation of the War in Vietnam, but that war did not start yesterday. So why was the ballistic missile carrier with three nuclear warheads of megaton class on board so hastily “pushed out” into the winter ocean?

Not aware of the fact that their most important secrets were now accessible, the Americans, nevertheless, immediately suspected Moscow of organizing the seizure of their spy ship. But Washington had no choice, and they asked the Soviet government to influence its North Korean allies to free the crew and return the AGER-2 Pueblo without delay. The official Moscow found itself in a complicated position. It looks like for Yuri Andropov, who in 1967 became leader of the Committee for State Security (KGB), it was exceptionally important in the first year of his chairmanship to have a large intelligence success of principal breakthrough significance. And that’s exactly what the breaking of the No. 1 enemy’s encryption system was. And since everything was accomplished by the hands of the North Koreans, it was not necessary for Andropov to inform the Politburo. The Soviet MFA refused the American Ambassador Llewellyn Thompson assistance.

Unable to bear the insult from the government - for the first time in a century and a half, the military ship hauled down the colors before an enemy! - Lyndon Johnson declared mobilization of the reserves and ordered three aircraft carrier battle groups to Wonsan (located only 100 miles from Vladivostok!). The operations plan Formation Star included an air strike against the Korean port, while three destroyers with marines on board had to break through into the harbor and lead Pueblo out into the open sea at any cost. Willing or not, Moscow had to act as peacemaker, and, at the last moment, the American President rescinded the order to attack.

Next, Moscow was treated to a surprise by Kim Il-sung. He was very inspired by the plan of unification of Korea, and not on a “peaceful democratic” basis but following the Vietnamese example. On January 30, 1968, the “Iron Marshall” made an official inquiry to the Soviet government if it was ready to fulfill its duty (military included) as an ally under the mutual aid agreement. It got to the point of the Koreans suggesting that the Soviet Ambassador opens a bomb shelter right in the Embassy’s courtyard. Leonid Brezhnev reminded the Korean leader that the agreement included mandatory preliminary consultations. The former Pacific Fleet Commander, Admiral Nikolai Amelko, in his notes confirms the fact that the secret summit between Brezhnev and Kim Il-sung did take place in February of 1968 in Vladivostok. The one-on-one talks took place on board the missile cruiser Varyag, without translators – the Red Army captain Kim spoke excellent Russian. Brezhnev managed to convince him of inexpediency of paying such a high price for the country’s unification. Kim agreed, getting, as is customary, forgiveness of old debts, new credit lines, and “brotherly” supply of arms in the bargain. But no one knew how everything would turn out, and so it was decided ahead of time to promptly get the K-129 ready for military service; it left the Avacha Bay at dawn, on the opening day of the talks. It’s obvious that only the Guam Island could have been the target of its warheads. The overseas territory of the USA was used as a springboard for the Vietnam War but could also very well be used for the Korean one.

On March 8, communications with the K-129 were lost; Americans name a different date of the destruction – March 11, 1968. It could be that they know for sure, since in 1974, special vessel Hudges Glomar Explorer lifted the tragic Soviet loss from the depth of 5,450 meters. But, who knows. One can sometimes read the following in the American sources: “Lifted or not - whatever one wants to believe.” Incidentally, it’s with this story that the Department of State launched its universal answer: “the CIA can neither confirm nor deny.” The American mass media calls it the “Glomar response”.

The cause of the mysterious demise of K-129 is not known to this day, although plenty of theories, at times quite improbable, exist. It’s very doubtful that at a time of one very serious international crisis and on the verge of another, the superpowers would have allowed themselves any unfriendly moves. Even though the whole affair of the spy crew return ended in it returning on the very eve of Christmas, Johnson and Kosygin exchanged messages more than once, and Thompson and Dobrynin, the Embassadors to Moscow and Washington, were closely involved in resolving the conflict situation. It ended with the Soviet Union finally putting the squeeze on its “younger brother,” but it’s nonsensical to suppose that in such a tense atmosphere there could be any kind of talk of retaliation with the use of torpedo arms.

It is nonsense also because at the time of the American Scorpion’s demise in the Atlantic, the biggest search and rescue operation in the history of the Soviet Navy was still taking place in the Pacific Ocean. The search for the K-129 lasted for 73 days and ended on June 1. The government commission worked under the assumption of “disappearance” and no other, and in the list of probable causes, exclusively navigational in nature, any possibility of even an accidental contact with the US ships was not considered at all! Any conspiracy theory suspicions appeared only during the period of “glasnost.” As for the Scoprion, the US Navy Command officially accepted the theory of the submarine being destroyed by its own torpedo, its engine spontaneously activating within the tube. The commanding officer released it from the tube but could not avoid it in time; the torpedo locked itself onto its target and had not missed.

One cannot call the Offley’s book a bestseller, the big press of the US refused to publish reviews. The readers are ready to accept the possibility that the US Navy Command knows more about the tragedy of the 40 years ago than it says. But, they reproach the author for the prolixity (the book just short of 500 pages), and, more importantly, for the lack of convincing evidence for his “Russian trace” theory. One Paul Boyne’s comment in the reader’s forum of the expresses the general opinion most explicitly: “Mr. Offley has done a disservice to the men of the submarine force to put forth a fictional account of what he wants to believe happened to the Scorpion. He has no facts to even suspect that the Soviets had a hand in the loss, yet he has managed to get a book published in a historical context. For the readers who are interested in the demise of the Scorpion, it is a true waste of paper and ink. There is nothing here to even hint of journalistic competence, merely fictional fantasy. A true disgrace to submariners on both sides of the Cold War. Relegate this prose to the rubbish heap and move on.”


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