Man In the Sea – A Hidden Cold War Victory
She had a shark’s mouth hatch in her forward deck. To most submariners, that hatch screamed: “Flooding!” On her stern she carried the first Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle – at least that’s what the public thought, as did the ever-watchful Soviet intelligence agents manning a myriad of “trawlers” stationed unobtrusively off the California coast.
But the USS Halibut (SSN 587) was something else, something else entirely.
Under the shark’s mouth hatch loomed the Bat Cave – 28 feet wide, 50 feet long, and 30 feet high – containing three levels of sophisticated technology, including a state-of-the-art Univac 1124 computer (about as powerful as a modern top-of-the-line hand-held programmable calculator).
Halibut carried two aluminum tethered “fish” that were launched from the bottom of the Bat Cave that could descend to 20,000 feet. These fish were outfitted with lights, recorders and all kinds of sensors.
The miniature submarine that appeared to be moored atop her stern, announced publicly as the first of several DSRVs – Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicles – was actually welded to the deck. In fact, it was a pressure chamber designed to hold several saturation divers who could lock out of the chamber to retrieve objects from the seafloor more than a thousand feet down.
This is not a trailer for the latest sci-fi technothriller. It’s real. It happened. And nobody knew about it – well almost nobody.
The dramatically modified Halibut and her equally mysterious sister submarines USS Seawolf (SSN 575) and USS Parche (SSN 683) were the final products of a fantastic dream of Navy scientist John P. Craven, who wanted to do nothing less than surreptitiously retrieve Soviet missile pieces from their oceanic splash zone, and somehow tap into their underwater communications cables.
Like his arch-nemesis and close colleague, Adm. Hyman G. Rickover, Craven instinctively knew how to get things done inside the vast government bureaucracy and its CIA and Navy subsidiaries. Hidden within the budgets of a dozen or so innocuous projects, and blazing its own deep cover trail inside the Man-In-the-Sea and the DSRV Programs, Craven’s project was born and grew to maturity in total secrecy. There were no leaks – absolutely none – until January 1980, when for a measly $35,000, NSA employee Ronald W. Pelton told the Soviets about the “Ivy Bells” cable-tapping project.
Back in the Summer of 1965, Astronaut Scott Carpenter joined the SeaLab II project 205 feet deep off La Jolla just north of San Diego. He spent 30 days living and working on the seafloor at ambient pressure as the team leader for two ten-man diving teams, helping to establish the foundation for the ambitious program that still lay in the future.
In 1967, he was assigned to the Navy’s Deep Submergence Systems Project (DSSP) as Director of Aquanaut Operations, where he supervised the diving activities on SeaLab III shortly before his retirement in 1969. SeaLab III used the shell from SeaLab II, but in every other way it was dramatically different. Situated on the bottom off San Clemente Island in 600 feet of water, this experiment was top secret, designed to test procedures that would ultimately lead to the fantastic exploits of Halibut and Seawolf. Low-key public announcements only described in a superficial way the nature of the deep-sea living project, never mentioning anything else.
SeaLab III was not without problems, despite its pioneering triumphs. Dive team member Berry Cannon died when a control problem caused him to exit the habitat without a fresh charge of carbon dioxide absorbent. This effectively ended SeaLab III as a project followed by the public. In fact, most of the senior Navy personnel with peripheral oversight for SeaLab III also believed that the project had ended.
In actuality, Cannon’s tragic death came near the end of the on-the-bottom-operate-out-of-a-habitat phase of Craven’s grand plan. The next phase was the outfitting and employment of Halibut, first as an underwater platform for the 20,000-foot capable “fish,” and later as the on-site platform for divers using the simulated DSRV to conduct underwater operations first proved on SeaLab III.
At the same time, volunteer Navy divers assembled at the submarine base at the foot of Point Loma in San Diego. They received extensive theoretical and practical training in the esoteric subject of saturation diving. Their practical training took place on Elk River (IX 501), the vessel that had supported the earlier SeaLab experiments off the California coast. Some of these sailors received shipboard assignments on USS Pigeon (ASR 21) and USS Ortolan (ASR 22). The best, however, underwent incredibly thorough background investigations, and those who passed reported to the Special Operations Group – assignment to Halibut, and later to Seawolf and Parche.
These guys in their rickety relic submarines (Halibut and Seawolf) and later in the relatively modern Parche, pulled off the greatest intelligence coup in history. They repeatedly entered the Soviet missile test range splash zone, located missile parts, and using saturated divers, retrieved these parts and brought them back.
And if that wasn’t enough, they located several Soviet underwater communications cables and tapped them. At first, the pods they attached recorded information which divers retrieved during the following trip. Later, with the more modern Parche, they were able to get the tapped information real-time. This activity went on for years in both the Sea of Okhotsk and the Barents Sea, even after the Soviets found the Okhotsk taps revealed to them by Pelton.
These courageous men endured unimaginable hardships during several of their clandestine voyages. On at least two occasions, a submarine became mired in the bottom muck, once nearly killing one of the divers in the process of trying to free itself. More than once they were detected, narrowly escaping. All the while, each submarine was outfitted with self-destruct explosives, so that, in the worst possible scenario, they never were there in the first place.
As I said, this reads more like a sci-fi technothriller than real life, but nothing in real life ever matched the bravery, the heroism, the blood-and-guts courage of the men who carried out John Craven’s fantastic dream. It was a Cold War victory the nation should have celebrated, but its essential secrecy made that impossible.
Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor