Red Star Rogue: Red Star Rogue, Part I -- a Book Review

Byron King reviews the recent book Red Star Rogue, a true story about a Soviet submarine that very nearly made a nuclear strike on the United States in 1968.

I LOVE A GOOD book about submarines. It was probably 40 years ago when I first read Herbert A. Werner’s spellbinding autobiographical account of his days in the German Navy of World War II, Iron Coffins: A U-Boat Commander’s War 1939-1945. Shortly thereafter, I followed it with Edward L. Beach’s classic, historical novel of the submarine war in the Pacific called Run Silent, Run Deep (on which the movie was based). Then and now, these are among the finest books ever written on the subject of submarines at war. Having been exposed to such a measure of excellence early in my life, I was hooked on that bubblehead segment of the genre of military writing.

There are a lot of books about submarines, and I will not say that I have read them all. But over the years, I think that I have read most of the great books about those remarkable ships. There is Lothar-Gunther Buchheim’s Das Boot, about a war patrol of a German submarine in WWII, and the source for the screenplay of the thrilling movie of the same name. And there is Thunder Below! by Adm. Gene Fluckey, about the exploits of the USS Barb while under his command during the conflict with Japan. It is great history and tells a great story.

If you want to know something about submarine operations of more recent vintage than the Second World War, there is Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage by Sherry Sontag, Christopher Drew, and Annette Drew. The book is filled with tales that will just plain blow your mind. How much is history? One of my Navy acquaintances, and one who is intimately familiar with the subject matter of the book, has this to say: “About 80% of the book is true. The rest is informed fiction. But I am not permitted to say which is which.” Such is the nature of dealing with the highly classified world of military operations beneath the seas.

Beyond the historical accounts or the history-based novels, there is also the submarine realm of technological fiction, which ofttimes approaches science fiction. Tom Clancy’s outstanding book The Hunt for Red October comes to mind, as does the remarkable detail of submarine operations discussed in his later work Red Storm Rising.

And while I am discussing fictional books about submarine operations, I should not neglect to mention Joe Buff, a prolific writer in the past few years. Buff’s futuristic accounts of submarine warfare, complete with ceramic-hulled vessels fighting low-yield nuclear battles at sea, are set in books with titles such as Crush Depth and Deep Sound Channel. Buff definitely knows his submarine technology, as well as his sonar equations and calculations of blast effects. But having mentioned author Buff and a couple of his books, I should also point out that I think his geopolitical vision of who will be fighting whom in the future is way off base. The main virtue of Buff’s writing, in my view, is his willingness to, as Herbert Kahn once characterized it, “think about the unthinkable.” In this politically correct age, somebody has to go there.

So now you know. If I pick up a good book about submarines, I most probably will have a hard time putting it down. And if somebody wants to “think about the unthinkable,” whether it is Peak Oil or submarine warfare, my mind is open.

Red Star Rogue: The Day We All Almost Died

With this as prelude, let me comment on recently published Red Star Rogue, by Kenneth Sewell and Clint Richmond. The subtitle of the book is The Untold Story of a Soviet Submarine’s Nuclear Strike Attempt on the U.S.

“Nuclear Strike Attempt?” Do I have your attention yet? These authors have reviewed mountains of evidence, much of which has only recently become declassified by the naval and intelligence establishments of both the United States and former Soviet Union. The authors have put together a remarkable synthesis of events that almost killed us all back in 1968 (or killed your parents or grandparents, as the case may be), the aftermath of which helped change the world. What is even more difficult to comprehend is how little almost anyone knows about it. In and of itself, this should tell you something about how much you really do not know about the world on which you dwell.


Much of what the authors say in Red Star Rogue is still controversial. In a recent issue of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings, a retired Navy admiral with over 33 years of service in the field of naval intelligence took the book to task on a number of points. Fair enough. There are plenty of things about the events that constitute the subject of the book that we do not and probably will never know.

But we are able absolutely to know a few things. In the late 1950s and into the 1960s, the Soviets designed and built a class of submarine that the U.S. Navy and its NATO allies designated as “Golf class,” (that is, after the phonetic alphabet — Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf…). The submarine was based on captured German technology from WWII and was powered by diesel engines, but ran on batteries when submerged. In the course of naval developments, the Soviets improved the ship design such that there were two classes, known as Golf I and Golf II.

In the early 1960s, and before a political-military rift developed between the two nations, the Soviets exported a small number of Golf I submarines to the People’s Republic of China. But hold this thought for a while.

When the Soviet Golf classes of submarines deployed on combat patrols, they carried three liquid-fueled intercontinental missiles. The missiles were located in launch tubes that were fitted directly behind the sail of the ship. The missiles were armed with nuclear warheads.

The interior spaces of a Golf-class submarine were quite small. Yet despite the cramped confines, the vessel carried a standard crew consisting of about 85 officers and enlisted ratings. One of these types of Soviet vessels, a Golf II-class ship, bore the rather unceremonious and very industrial Soviet name of K-129. In the mid 1960s, this particular submarine was assigned to the Soviet Pacific Fleet, and based out of Rybachiy Naval Base, near Petropavlovsk, on the Kamchatka Peninsula.

What else do we know? In January 1968, K-129 returned to Kamchatka from a long deployment. Almost immediately after docking, the nuclear missiles and other weapons were removed from the ship. Within a few days, most of the crew went on leave, while the vessel began a period of repairs and overhaul that was expected to last for about six months. Within weeks, however, the ship received an “alert” notice and was placed on combat status to sail on an “urgent mission.” While most of the ship’s senior officers were nearby and available for recall, many of the enlisted crew had scattered across the 11 time zones of the Soviet Union and were unable to return quickly to Rybachiy. The Soviet Pacific naval command identified replacements from other submarines stationed at the same base and transferred them to K-129.

Just a few days before sailing from the Rybachiy Naval Base, K-129 was rearmed with three nuclear missiles. Each missile carried a plutonium-core thermonuclear warhead with a nominal yield of one megaton, or about 83 times more powerful than the yield of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

Also, just before deploying, K-129 also received a load-out of newly refurbished torpedoes. This load-out included two torpedoes with nuclear warheads. It was standard practice during the Cold War for Soviet submarines to carry nuclear torpedoes. The intended targets of these torpedoes were U.S. and other allied naval battle groups. Soviet submarine commanders had standing orders to use these torpedoes to destroy any attacker, particularly in the event that the submarine was under threat of being captured.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963, for example, one Soviet submarine captain was mere seconds away from launching a nuclear-tipped torpedo at a group of American destroyers that were pounding his hull with sonar pings. In the case of K-129, the two nuclear torpedoes were loaded and locked into launch tubes in the most forward compartment of the vessel. This served two purposes. It shielded the crew from the otherwise dangerous levels of radioactivity emitted by the torpedo warheads. And it also served as a security measure, to keep unauthorized hands away from such powerful devices.

In addition to being rearmed before sailing, the ship’s roster increased dramatically with the unexpected arrival of a contingent of 11 extra crewmen. No one on K-129 knew these 11 new shipmates, or even recognized their names. They were complete strangers to the crew of K-129, which was, in and of itself, highly unusual within the very close fraternity of the Soviet submarine service.

On Feb. 24, 1968, and at the appointed time and tide, K-129 turned its bow away from land. The ship pushed through the coastal surf, submerged into the dark waters, and sailed southeast through the ice-cold depths of the northern Pacific Ocean. K-129 moved southeast for about a week, which included a Feb. 29, because 1968 was a leap year. On March 1, 1968, the ship crossed the International Date Line and sailed into its own version of “yesterday.” It was March 1, 1968, all over again. As per procedure, at various points en route, the ship reported its position to headquarters. The submarine’s presumed destination was a “patrol box,” an area of water about 1,200 miles northwest of Hawaii, at the extreme range of its load of three nuclear missiles. There, the nuclear-armed submarine would normally have cruised silently and awaited any further orders from the Soviet High Command.

On March 8, 1968, K-129 surfaced, which was highly unusual for a submarine on patrol, and almost unheard of for a ship armed with thermonuclear ballistic missiles. The location of K-129 was a spot about 350 miles northwest of Hawaii. That is, K-129 was far south of its patrol box, and hundreds of miles closer to American shores than it should have been. Shortly after surfacing, K-129 exploded amidships — in its middle. The vessel rapidly took on water and sank almost three miles deep to the floor of the Pacific Ocean.

The Soviet navy and High Command had lost track of the sub and were initially unaware that the vessel was not in the assigned patrol box, let alone that the ship had surfaced, exploded, and sunk, with the loss of all aboard.

Red Star Rogue: Circumstantial Evidence 

U.S. intelligence resources had tracked K-129 from the time it left the pier in Kamchatka. Orbiting U.S. satellites noted the departure of the submarine, both photographically and by tracking its wake. Other U.S. sensors intercepted every radio signal that emanated from the Soviet vessel, including its periodic burst transmissions that notified its naval headquarters of routine status information. A vast array of U.S. sound sensors, located on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, tracked the noise of the ship, both from its diesel engines and, on occasion, from other sounds that the submarine made as its five-bladed screws pushed the vessel through the water.

In 1968 a good Russian submarine captain would have known that his ship was being tracked by U.S. sensors. So he would have done everything possible to break off from detection, to cause U.S. sensors to lose the track, and then to evade surveillance. The submarine captain would have sailed along the thermoclines of the Pacific, the layers of water of differing temperature, salinity, and direction of current that make up the world’s oceans. He would have used these thermoclines to mask or distort the sounds from his vessel. On occasion, the tricks would have worked and the captain probably would have been able to cause the U.S. intelligence services to lose track of his submarine. Then, in the vastness of the open sea, the captain could operate freely. At least, for a while.

On March 8, 1968, an orbiting U.S. satellite spotted a fireball on the surface of the Pacific, about 350 miles northwest of Hawaii. The spectrum and thermal signature of the light was identical to that of the burning liquid fuel that the Soviets used in the SS-N-5 missile, which was the type carried by the Golf II-class submarine. However, for as fast as the fireball suddenly appeared on the satellite sensors, it almost instantly vanished. There was no telltale plume of rocket exhaust, the sign of a missile in flight. And absent evidence of a missile in flight, there was no U.S. alert at the incident.

At almost the same time, in an obscure office called a “naval facility” located on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor, a classified type of instrument noted what are called “sound transients,” the passing signal of a series of muffled explosions in the sea, on a bearing northwest from Hawaii. A few minutes later, there was a seismic event on the sea floor, on the same bearing. But the ocean is vast and filled with strange sounds and shudders. No one, at that time, had cause for alarm.

Red Star Rogue: The Climate of 1968

In early 1968, the war in Vietnam was raging. The Tet Offensive had occurred in January, and by March, it was winding down. Although the Tet Offensive was a military disaster for the North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong comrades, U.S. and Vietnamese casualties numbered in the many thousands. Also at the time, in late January 1968, the North Koreans had seized the American intelligence-gathering ship, USS Pueblo, and followed it up weeks later by shooting down an American intelligence-gathering aircraft. U.S. forces in the eastern and northwest Pacific region were on a state of high alert.

Despite these states of affairs with the North Vietnamese and North Koreans, there was no reason, at least based on military deployments and overall correlation of forces, to suspect the imminent outbreak of hostilities with the Soviets. Hence, the fireball and the sound transients from the middle of the ocean were no immediate cause for concern within the U.S. defense or intelligence communities.

The Soviets had problems of their own. Due to an ideological split with Mao Zedong in the early 1960s, there was a great deal of tension between the two nations. The Soviets had deployed upward of 120 division of the Red Army along their border with China. There were bloody clashes between Soviet and Chinese troops along the Amur and Usuri rivers. Casualties on both sides were well into the thousands. At one point in the late 1960s, the Soviets quietly approached U.S. diplomats and inquired as to what would be the U.S. view of a pre-emptive nuclear strike against certain Chinese targets. The United States discouraged any such action by the Soviets.

Suddenly, on March 21, 1968, and with no prior warning or notice to the United States, the Soviets launched a massive flotilla from naval ports near Kamchatka, and from Vladivostok. Soviet aircraft and vessels surged en masse and headed toward an area about 1,200 miles northwest of Hawaii. Hundreds of flights of aircraft flew at low altitudes across the waters of the Pacific. Dozens of ships sailed back and forth, pinging their active sonar systems.

At first, these activities caused a great alarm with U.S. military circles. Was this a prelude to the Soviets commencing a war against the United States and other Western allies? But curiously, for as busy as the Soviets were in the Pacific, their naval and air forces were quiet in the Atlantic and Mediterranean theaters. U.S. intelligence analysis rapidly concluded that the Soviet Pacific surge was characteristic of a search operation for a missing or sunken submarine. But as it turned out, the Soviets were looking in the wrong place.

Red Star Rogue: Physical Evidence

At about the same time, about 1,000 miles to the south from where the Soviets were conducting their search mission, an oceanographic research vessel was engaged in routine scientific operations. The vessel, operated by the University of Hawaii and named the M/V Teritu, discovered a slick of oil floating on the Pacific near the Hawaiian Leeward Islands. Upon analysis, the oil was determined to be a type of lightweight, smokeless diesel fuel known as D-37, which was used in Soviet missile-carrying submarines. Upon further analysis, the fuel was found to be radioactive. Later on, U.S. scientists determined that the radioactive particles were plutonium and of the type used in Soviet thermonuclear warheads.

The civilian oceanographers from the University of Hawaii contacted John Craven, one of the chief scientists of the U.S. Navy. No one within the U.S. Navy was yet sure of what was going on with the missing Russian submarine, but Soviet-type D-37 fuel contaminated with plutonium and floating in the open sea was not something that one encountered in the ordinary course of business.

In an autobiography published in 2001, The Silent War: The Cold War Battle Beneath The Sea, Dr. Craven wrote about what he did with this information from the Hawaiian mariners. Craven wrote that he “bluffed” and told the oceanographers that the U.S. Navy was aware of the issue and that the oil slick was the result of a spill that had occurred from an unnamed vessel. Craven asked for, and received, agreements of confidentiality from the civilian oceanographers. The University of Hawaii Oceanography Department subsequently was awarded a large number of Navy contracts for research.

The U.S. Navy began to piece things together, based on the evidence at hand. And although I am writing about the book Red Star Rogue, let me tell you exactly what Dr. Craven, one of the most senior scientists of the U.S. Navy, has written in his autobiography and stated publicly about the event:

“[T]here existed the possibility, small though it might be, that the skipper of this rogue submarine was attempting to launch or had actually launched a ballistic missile with a live warhead in the direction of Hawaii. There is also a small possibility that this launch attempt doomed the sub…something in the missile’s warhead may have exploded, causing the initial damage and possibly kicking off a chain of other events.”

When he was working for the U.S. Navy, Dr. Craven possessed one of the highest security clearances ever issued to anyone by the U.S. government. Dr. Craven was cleared to review information that was above the level of “Top Secret,” and even the name of his type of security clearance is considered classified information. Thus, reading behind the carefully written and highly edited prose of Dr. Craven, it appears that there is evidence to suggest that the Soviet submarine K-129 sank while attempting to fire a nuclear missile. Most likely, the target was the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor.

But the attempted missile strike was not part of a larger, overt military operation. It was a single submarine attempting to file one, maybe two, missiles at a single target. This submarine was acting alone. It was, as Dr. Craven states, a “rogue submarine.”

Until we meet again in Part II…
Byron W. King
January 19, 2006