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Above: Artist's Concept of Permit-class missile firing submarine

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.


Halibut's 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 8x10 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.


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 their exploits).

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 was secure.)

Halibut returned 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.



You can find out more about the Halibut, Operation Ivy Bells, Sand Dollar and the Jennifer Project in these books:








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