The crane used to haul away the Francis Scott Key bridge had a secret role in the Cold War

The floating crane tasked with hauling shattered steel from last week’s fatal bridge collapse in Baltimore played a much different role in the Cold War. 

The crane, The Chesapeake 1000, nicknamed Chessy, has taken many roles over the decades but it’s most notable operation until last week was a secret mission to retrieve a sunken Soviet submarine. 

What happened?

Documents in the CIA online library show the story began in 1968 when K-129, a Soviet Golf II-class submarine carrying three nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, was lost in the Pacific Ocean north-west of Hawaii. 

The submarine left Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula to take up its peacetime patrol station in the Pacific Ocean north-east of Hawaii.

An old image of the Soviet K-19 submarine.  

An old image of the Soviet K-19 submarine.  (Supplied: Central Intelligence Agency)

After the Soviets abandoned their extensive search efforts, the US located the submarine about 2,896 kilometres north-west of Hawaii on the ocean floor 5,029 metres below.

The US recognised the immense value of the intelligence that could be gained on Soviet strategic capabilities if the vessel was retrieved. 

“It’s considered one of the most expensive intelligence operations of all time,” said M. Todd Bennett, a history professor at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, who wrote a 2022 book on the mission.

“And not only that, it’s certainly one of the most inventive or daring intelligence operations in US history.”

A sketch of the ship on water

The Hughes Glomar Explorer named after billionaire Howard Hughes. (Supplied: Central Intelligence Agency)

It was a daunting task for the CIA, which needed to figure out how it would lift a 1,750 tonne and 40-metre-long portion of the wrecked submarine from an ocean abyss 4 kilometres below. 

But the biggest challenge was that it had to be done in total secrecy.

The mission was called Project Azorian. 

Project Azorian

In 1970, after careful study, a team of CIA engineers and contractors determined that the only technically feasible approach was to use a large mechanical claw to grasp the hull and a heavy-duty hydraulic system mounted on a surface ship to lift it.

The specialised ship was called the Hughes Glomar Explorer, named after the billionaire industrialist Howard Hughes.

The Hughes Glomar Explorer sits at the Long Beach harbor dock in Los Angeles, March 19, 1975. 

The Hughes Glomar Explorer sits at the Long Beach harbor dock in Los Angeles, March 19, 1975. (AP: File)

The CIA wrote on its website that the ship “could conduct the entire recovery under water, away from the view of other ships, aircraft or spy satellites.”

To save time, a Philadelphia-area shipyard built the vessel’s heavy parts on the ground.

The floating crane, then known as The Sun 800, was needed to lift those assembled pieces into the new ship.

“The Sun 800 was built specifically to help us on the construction of the Hughes Glomar Explorer,” said Gene Schorsch, who was then chief of hull design for Sun Shipbuilding and Drydock Co.

Constructed during the next four years, the ship included a derrick similar to an oil-drilling rig, a pipe-transfer crane, two tall docking legs, a huge claw-like capture vehicle, a centre docking well (called the “moon pool”) large enough to contain the hoisted portion of the sub, and doors to open and close the well’s floor. 

To preserve the mission’s secrecy, the capture vehicle was built under roof and loaded into the ship from a barge submerged underneath. 

A large crane docked on land with a big blue sky above

The Chesapeake 1000 crane played a very different role in the Cold War. (AP: Brian Witte)

“While maintaining its position in the ocean currents, the ship had to lower the (claw) by adding 60-foot sections of supporting steel pipe, one at a time,” the CIA wrote.

Another piece of machinery assembled for the ship was a special platform.

It was used to keep the claw system steady — and on target — in the ocean currents.

“You want the ship to be able to roll or pitch without affecting that pipe,” Schorsch said.

In 1974, during the mission, the claw grasped the submarine section.

But about a third of the way up it broke, allowing part of the sub’s hull to fall away.

Former CIA Director William Colby later wrote that the most valuable aspects of the sub were lost.

The salvage, however, included the bodies of six Soviet sailors, who were given a formal military burial at sea.

A second mission was planned.

A billionaire cover story

To keep the true purpose of the vessel secret, the CIA hatched a cover story for the ship: a commercial deep-sea mining vessel owned by Hughes.

But journalists broke the story in 1975, led by Seymour Hersh, then writing for The New York Times, and columnist Jack Anderson.

News reports indicated that some manuals may have been recovered, while some of the hull pieces helped the US to refine its estimates of Soviet naval capabilities, Bennett said.

An old black and white photo of a man in a suit in front of an old style radio mic

 Howard Hughes in 1947. (AP: File)

Anderson’s sources told him Project Azorian was too expensive and sapped resources from other intelligence programs, Bennett said.

The submarine also was diesel-powered and generations behind the Soviet’s nuclear-powered subs.

“Anderson’s sources — and Anderson — argued that it was really a museum piece, a relic,” Bennett said.

American media outlets were heavily criticised for reporting on the project, which had a “chilling effect” as news outlets became less willing to disclose intelligence secrets, Bennett said.

A partial success

Although the second mission never happened, Professor Bennett said the mission itself was a partial success.

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