Red Star Rogue: Letters to the Editor

Byron King responds to missives concerning his review of the book Red Star Rogue .

THANK YOU ALL, for taking the time to write. I appreciate the complimentary emails, and I do not mind the critical emails. Just to prove it, I will lead off with a knock from a reader named Robert, location unknown:

Robert wrote: “This is pure fantasy. The LORAN story is non-sense, the radioactive fuel oil is also non-sense. Anyone knowledgeable about LORAN and radioactive materials can spot the fantasy.”

Byron replies: Fantasy is what you read in books like Lord of the Rings , or Chronicles of Narnia . But even fantasy can convey important life lessons and moral messages, which is certainly the case with the books by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Red Star Rogue is far from fantasy, and about as well documented as one could expect for a book on a subject that still remains, at root, one of the great secrets of the Cold War.

Red Star Rogue discussed the radioactive fuel oil at length. But I also cross-checked the story with the autobiography of Dr. John Craven, whose book I cited in Part I. In the 1960s, Dr. Craven directed the U.S. Navy’s submarine ballistic missile program, and was instrumental in developing and fielding the Polaris Missile system. Dr. Craven thus knows a few things about submarines, missiles and nuclear warheads. Dr. Craven’s book, published several years ago, was the first public acknowledgment I ever saw that a research vessel had located “highly radioactive” fuel oil floating on the surface of the Pacific. This remarkable event occurred not long after Soviet submarine K-129 sank. There is no “nonsense” about it at all.

Red Star Rogue: Byron Responds to Reader’s Claims of Fantasy

Couple Dr. Craven’s authoritative account with the knowledge that the Soviet ballistic missile nuclear warheads were thermonuclear, for which yield the Soviets used Plutonium. So there is another piece of evidence in the “radioactive fuel oil” story.

What would a sunken submarine story be without the proverbial “oil slick” floating on the surface? This is basic, “Antisubmarine Warfare 101” kind of stuff. Sighted-Sub-Sank-Same-Saw-Slick. It just so happens that the chemical properties of fuel oil make it a scavenger for small particles with the chemical properties of radio nuclides as well. So it does not surprise me that there was evidence of a radioactive oil slick on a track along the surface currents, away from the site of the sinking.

My article did not get into the nuclear containment issues aboard the Glomar Explorer, but according to several accounts those issues were significant. A good deal of the Soviet metal recovered from the sea floor was “hot.” The radioactivity had to originate with the destroyed nuclear warhead from the missile that exploded, because the two torpedo nuclear warheads were recovered intact, still in the launch tubes.

As for the LORAN issues, LORAN has been a staple of navigation in and around the Pacific Ocean basin since the Second World War. The Hawaiian Islands were most definitely covered by LORAN, starting in about 1940. Just to be sure, I looked at a chart published by the U.S. Defense Mapping Agency that showed the range of LORAN coverage around Hawaii in the late 1960s, and there is no question but that the doomed Soviet submarine surfaced in an area of LORAN coverage. Back in 1968, LORAN would have fixed the vessel’s position to within 500 yards or better. This is not quite as good a position fix as you can get from today’s Global Positioning System, but when you ate out on the high seas, and your intent is to lob a nuclear missile at a target, what difference does a few hundred yards really make?

Sean Brodrick, prolific financial writer and former guest columnist for Whiskey & Gunpowder, had this to say: “Why, why, why would we name a submarine the ‘Halibut!?’ What the hell is that? What’s next? The Flounder? The Sea Cucumber? Who’s afraid of a Halibut?”

Byron replies: U.S. submarines were named after fish for most of the 1940s, 1950s and into the early 1960s. It was tradition. In the late 1960s, as the U.S. submarine fleet was in transition to becoming all-nuclear, Admiral Hyman Rickover made the decision to begin naming the newest vessels after cities. First of the new class of fast-attack boats was USS Los Angeles . When asked why he wanted to name submarines after cities instead of fish, Rickover replied, “Fish don’t vote.”

Sean also asked: “If Soviet missiles explode in their tubes, why were we ever afraid of the Russians?”

Byron replies: In the case of K-129, the missile was destroyed by a fail-safe device on the warhead because the crew on board the submarine had failed to enter the correct launch code. The correct launch code would have had to come via encrypted message from Soviet High Command. The crew must have thought that they had the correct launch codes, or they probably would not have attempted to fire a missile. So what you do not know really can kill you.

Also, there is no denying that the Soviets designed, constructed and maintained a very robust system of intercontinental ballistic missiles. I am glad that the world never had to find out exactly how good those Soviet missiles were. And I hope that we never do find out. See the next email from a reader named Rod.

Red Star Rogue: Doomsday Doctrine, Remember ’68, and Personal Reactions to Destruction

Rod passed along a recent posting from Moscow News , which is of such interest that I will copy it in its entirety:

“20.01.2006 13:18 MSK (GMT +3), Updated: 13:18 MSK — Retired Russian colonel Stanislav Petrov received a special World Citizen Award at a UN meeting in New York on Thursday. Petrov was honored as the ‘Man Who Averted Nuclear War.’ In a meeting held at the UN’s Dag Hammarskjold Auditorium on Jan. 19, the Association of World Citizens (AWC) presented the retired officer with his award.

“The inscription on the award, which has a granite base with a solid glass hand holding the earth, read: ‘The single hand that holds the earth symbolizes your heroic deed on September 26, 1983 that earned you the title: The Man Who Averted Nuclear War.’ The back of the award read: ‘May the hand now symbolize humanity united to save our world by eliminating nuclear weapons from the face of the earth.’

“Back in 1983 Petrov made a decision that prevented a war that could have destroyed the planet. He was the duty officer at Russia’s main nuclear command center in September 1983 when the system indicated a nuclear missile attack was launched by the U.S. on Russia. It was just after midnight, Sept. 26, and 120 staff were working the graveyard shift in Serpukhov-15, the secret USSR command bunker hidden in a forest 30 miles northeast of Moscow. In the commander’s chair was Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, 44, looking down from his mezzanine desk to the gymnasium-sized main floor filled with military officers and technicians charged with monitoring any U.S. missiles and retaliating instantly.

“Petrov was highly aware that Cold War tensions were acute, as USSR fighters had shot down a Korean airliner on Sept. 1, 1983. But he was completely shocked when the warning siren began to wail and two lights on his desk console began flashing MISSILE ATTACK and START. ‘Start’ was the instruction to launch, irreversibly, all 5,000 or so Soviet missiles and obliterate America.

“A new, unproven Soviet satellite system had picked up a flash in Montana near a Minuteman II silo. Then another – five, all told. Petrov recalls his legs were ‘like cotton,’ as they say in Russian. He stared at the huge electronic wall map of the United States in terror and disbelief. As his staff gawked upward at him from the floor, he had the thought, ‘Who would order an attack with only five missiles? That big an idiot has not been born yet, not even in the U.S.’

“The Soviet procedure manual was inflexible, and it demanded he notify his superiors of the attack immediately. But relying on his intuition, Petrov disobeyed. For almost five minutes, he stalled, holding his hotline phone in one hand and his intercom in the other, barking orders to his personnel to get back to their desks.

“Then he made the decision that saved the world. Summoning up his firmest voice, he called his Kremlin liaison and said it was a false alarm. But today he admits, ‘I wasn’t 100 percent sure. Not even close to 100 percent.’

“Months later, it was determined that sunlight reflecting off clouds in Montana had caused a faulty satellite computer assembly to report a missile launch flash. But by that time, Petrov’s excellent military career had been sidetracked. He wasn’t fired, but he was transferred – and never got any medals or recognition. When his wife was found to have a brain tumor in 1993, he retired to take care of her. When she died, he borrowed money to give her a funeral. Today, Petrov, 67, lives in Moscow on a monthly pension of less than $200.”

Byron replies: This one should send a shiver up your spine. In 1983, which was not so long ago when you think about it, the Soviets had the equivalent of a “Doomsday Doctrine,” right out of the movie Dr. Strangelove. If they were attacked, the standing order was to “launch, irreversibly, all 5,000 or so Soviet missiles and obliterate America.” We can only thank Colonel Petrov for his cool head, good judgment and firm presence of command. “Who would order an attack with only five missiles?” he thought. “That big an idiot has not been born yet, not even in the U.S.” Petrov’s logic was sound, at least as to U.S. military doctrine. It is probably a good thing that Petrov had no experience with the people who make U.S. monetary policy, but that is another story for another time. And finally on the topic of Petrov, perhaps the Government of the Russian Federation will take some of its earnings from the sale of oil and natural gas to the West, and supplement the rather small pension of this good and faithful servant of both Mother Russia and mankind. He has earned it.

Another reader named Ron had this to say: “1968 was a ‘memorable’ year for several other things as well. The Arab-Israeli war had only occurred but 9 months earlier. The Soviet Union was supplying North Vietnam with SA-2 Guideline missiles openly through the Tonkin Gulf with ‘untouchable’ status from the US Navy. Egypt was a virtual Soviet Republic with large contingent of the Soviet Air Force stationed there. The Soviet Navy had, over the recent years, gone from a green water navy to a true blue water navy, conducting fleet exercises all over the Mediterranean, Atlantic and Pacific (under the watchful eye of the US Navy, of course). In fact, ‘encounters’ between the two navies were rather common, with ‘buzzings’, tailing, snooping occurring on a regular basis. Just thought you might like to know … from one who was there …”

Byron replies: It is too easy to look at the world today, and think that we have all of the problems. People in the past had problems of their own, and had to deal with them in their own way. 1968 was such a year, of course. Thank you Ron, for helping us to remember the tensions of the time.

As to the Glomar Explorer, the ship that recovered elements of the sunken Soviet submarine K-129, a reader named Steve wrote to say that: “I scrapped the navigational computers from Glomar Explorer. They were huge cabinets, with less computing power than a notebook computer has today.”

And another reader named Peter wrote to say: “The Glomar Explorer sat for several years in Suisun Bay near Benicia, California in the Delta, with the mothball fleet. (The battleship USS Iowa is there at the present time, ed.) One could see it easily from the Benicia Martinez bridge. Then one day it was gone. At that time we knew from the news it had been involved in the submarine recovery but that news said they were unsuccessful. The truth came to be known years later. It was fun to see that bit of history. Now to read the role it played makes having seen it more historical. Thanks for the article.”

Byron replies: No, thank you Steve and Peter for taking the time to write with your personal recollections.

And finally, a reader named Jon, from Virginia, forwarded this very interesting message: “You might be interested in a life-defining event during this time. (It was) … some time in March of 1968, but I wonder if what happened to me relates to this Red Star Rogue event that I only learned about recently.

“I was a very young pastor in Lincoln, Nebraska, just out of seminary. I was praying late one night in our church office when I felt a tremendous terror: it was like I could “see” a Satanic figure entering the front doors of our church, walking down the main aisle of the sanctuary getting ready to turn left toward our offices. I have never, ever experienced such utter horror and fear. I was praying frantically, confessing any sin, but suddenly found myself desperately screaming in prayer for the safety of our country. After a long time, toward about 2 AM, as I remember, I felt it was over and that we were OK. At the time, I had the strong impression (and had told others later) that some nut case in Russia was about to pull the nuclear trigger. I naturally had doubts about my discerning such an event, because it all sounded so implausible. But at the same time I couldn’t account for my prayer experience that was so unspeakably real and powerful.

“That week I told friends about this prayer experience. Five of them told me that they had felt it necessary to pray for the safety of the country that week, something that was very unusual for them, so I felt that I wasn’t the only one that sensed the danger. I have had a few other similar experiences like this (like for personal protection or healing), that proved to be valid, but never, ever anything so intense and terrifying.

“I always wondered what in the world was going on during that time, but never had any possible answer until Thursday of this week, when I read a summary of Red Star Rogue.”

“So, ya gotta wonder, Who ultimately controls the destinies of nations!”

Byron replies: Yes, you gotta wonder! Wow, what a story. Red Star Rogue has a section about the wife of the submarine captain. According to the authors, at the exact same time that the submarine K-129 exploded and sank, the captain’s wife was at some social event in Vladivostok. She was mingling with her friends, in a “Navy Wives’ Club” sort of way. All of a sudden, she just went nuts. She had a complete breakdown, collapsed on the floor, and started babbling incoherently and sobbing uncontrollably. There was no organic medical reason for this. It just plain happened. Looking back, she came to realize that her breakdown occurred, to the day and hour, when her husband’s ship exploded and sank, and everyone died. According to Red Star Rogue , there were witnesses and medical records to back it up.

Along the lines of Jon’s note, I was talking with an acquaintance of mine about the Red Star Rogue events. He said something similar to Jon’s point, that it was “the Hand of God” preventing the destruction of mankind. I replied that the Soviet fail-safe mechanism probably had something to do with it as well. My acquaintance and I agreed to a philosophical compromise, that it was the Hand of God that made sure that the Soviet fail-safe mechanism worked as intended.

We can only hope that the military forces of the nuclear armed world are designing good fail-safe mechanisms that work as intended, and that they are promoting the best of men (and women), such as the above-noted Colonel Petrov, to senior positions of command and control. And it does not hurt to pray. On that note, best wishes to all…

Until we meet again,

Byron W. King
January 30, 2006