Why Is the CIA’s Biggest (and Most Storied) Ship Going to the Breaking Yard?

by Owen James Burke


Above: A drawing of the Hughes Glomar Explorer, which gave birth to the CIA’s infamous “Glomar Response”: “The CIA can neither confirm nor deny the existence of these documents. . . .” Image: American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

The CIA built the Hughes Glomar Explorer was in the 1970s by the  for one mission only: to retrieve the sunken Soviet submarine K-129. They expected a “treasure trove” of intelligence information on nuclear ballistics and torpedoes, but if the Soviet Union found out about their intentions, the Cold War might have become World War III.

So how did they hide it? This is where Howard Hughes enters the picture.

The CIA knew that the sub lay 3 miles below surface, northwest of Hawaii in the middle of a turbulent part of Pacific Ocean Vessel had to be stable and technologically advanced enough to locate and retrieve a submarine–of course, even they couldn’t hide a project this large.

Instead, millionaire madman and business tycoon Howard Hughes agreed to slap his name on the operation and declare that he was in search of heavy metal deposits. For a while, the diversion worked. And why not? Who else would do such a thing at the time?

HMB Barge

Image: Historic Naval Ships Association.

Once completed, the Hughes Glomar Explorer was too big to pass through the Panama Canal, so it was taken around Cape Horn, and “Project Azorian,” as it was known top-secretly, was underway.

The Hughes Glomar Explorer eventually reached Hawaii in 1974, but not without turning the heads of both journalists and Soviets. Even still, the CIA might have gotten the wealth of information they were after, had the submarine not buckled on its way to the surface. With only half of the submarine recovered and neither money nor time left to invest (the whole world was watching by now), the project was considered a failure.

The $1.84 million ship (almost $2 billion in today’s dollars) was decommissioned and mothballed, later sold to Transocean, an oil exploration company, with whom she served until recently as the GSF Explorer.

Today, she’s being sold for scrap.

But I’d like to get a look at this thing, and I’m thinking some other people would too, and I’m hoping someone with the right mind and money will heroically jump in last minute and place a bid to turn her into a floating museum.

Read more at PRI. –OJB


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