GOD & SPIES
The Nuclear USS Halibut 587
Based On a True Story
Top Secret Operation
GOD & SPIES
Can be viewed on Amazon Prime. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09CCL1P9Y/ref=sr_1_12
Dedicated to my parents, Frank and Rita Matheny.
My dad served in the air force and met my mom in Belfast, Ireland, during WWII.
“Honour thy father and thy mother,
as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee;
that thy days may be prolonged,
and that it may go well with thee,
in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.” (Deuteronomy 5:16)
Author Garry and wife, Nancy
Garry Matheny was a navy diver on the nuclear submarine USS Halibut SSN 587 and received the Legion of Merit for a special operation. He graduated from Pacific Coast Baptist Bible College in 1979 and has authored eight books. He and his wife, Nancy, were called to the mission field, and they’ve served as missionaries in Romania since 1991 till 2021.
“If you like good old-fashioned American bravado, espionage
and American history, you will enjoy this book.”
Pastor Marvin McKenzie
“There was an espionage submarine called Halibut.”
John P. Craven, Chief Scientist of the US Navy Special Projects Office.
“Problems pale beside … (what) … Halibut would be involved in and the grave dangers she would face.”
John Pina Craven, chief scientist of the Navy Special Projects Office, The Silent War: p. 142
SORRY that the pictures and drawings inside the book did not copy.
But added the montage below with some of the highlights
Amazon sales GOD & SPIES in both eBook and paper back.
THIS BOOK IS IN TWO PARTS,
Here is GOD & SPIES I and when finished go to GOD & SPIES II.
I was privileged to have been attached to the nuclear submarine USS Halibut. I was on board during her second deployment in 1974 and her only deployment in 1975, the one in which this account is centered.
I had reluctantly joined the navy and become a diver to make my dad happy. But four years later, I was begging God to let me make top-secret dive in Siberia. (All Scripture quotations are from the King James Version of the Bible.)
Operation Ivy Bells
The CIA headed up a joint operation with the NSA (National Security Agency) and the US Navy, code-named Operation Ivy Bells. The CIA articles that are now declassified, and approved for release, will provide the classified portions of the operation.
There are books, TV, YouTube, and newspapers that have given information on Operation Ivy Bells, calling it “Undersea Espionage” and naming the USS Halibut the “Spy Sub”—and all prior to the declassification by the CIA. But these were written after the Russians found out about the operation.
Though others know about this mission, there are several developments that have never been covered. And I know of no other account given by the divers who participated in Operation Ivy Bells.
“Based” on a True Story
The mole in the KGB is speculation but there are good reason to believe he existed.
There were three water entries on the first saturation dive, but the problem that arose on the second water entry happened on the second saturation dive. Accounts of the briefings were conflated from different meetings.
The accounts of Ronald Pelton, the man who betrayed Operation Ivy Bells, and the “POD”, are accurate, but happened after 1975.
The account of the Soviet Destroyer did not take place in 1975 but there are accounts of it happing to one of the other subs in Operation Ivy Bells. See documentary, The Cold War Submarines-In Enemy Depths https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x7uc3a7
Starting at minute 27:10 to 28:30.
I will relay the storyline from my undocumented personal recollection and the CIA releases. I’ll differentiate between what I saw or did from what I was told or heard.
When one reads the word “thought”, what will follow will be the thought in italics and not in quotation marks. For privacy, I have changed the names of those on board the USS Halibut. The crew of the Halibut was not told the name of the other submarine that rendezvoused with us, so I have given her the name USS Stingray.
Pictures of the inside of the submarine are from POND5 and are not from the USS Halibut but are generic pictures of subs from that time period.
Grateful acknowledgment to the CIA for releasing this material, which gives the name of the operation, what we did, where we did it, how we did it, and the results. CIA releases are dated from 2011–2013. However, they were not available for viewing until the “Document Creation Date: December 22, 2016.”
In March of 2006, I sent a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) asking if I could write about Operation Ivy Bells. My request was denied, but they recommended I appeal to the Department of the Navy, office of the Judge Advocate General (JAG). This I did and acknowledged to them that I had signed a nondisclosure agreement. I asked why others who worked for the government on this operation and who had also signed nondisclosure agreements could publish books written in the first person (not hearsay) about Operation Ivy Bells. Their response was “Your appeal also poses questions concerning your nondisclosure obligations. This office’s authority is limited to appeals under the FOIA/Privacy Act (PA) for the Department of the Navy. Your questions fall outside my cognizance.” This was dated 22 May 2006, Department of the Navy, office of the Judge Advocate General.
Naval officer John P. Craven was the chief scientist of the Special Projects Office of the US Navy. He has a bachelor’s degree (Cornell University), a master of science degree (California Institute of Technology), a PhD (University of Iowa), and a law degree (George Washington University). He guided the navy’s undersea special projects operations during the Cold War, and we owe him a debt of gratitude for his service. He oversaw the conversion of my submarine the USS Halibut that equipped her with many of the features that she used in our special operation.
In his book The Silent War: The Cold War Battle Beneath the Sea, published March 15, 2001, he talks about the Halibut and our project. On pages 278–279, he said, “Pelton would betray how the navy had tapped Soviet underwater communications cables, including the crucial role of saturation diving in those operations.” I was grateful to naval officer John P. Craven for writing about this back then and giving an account of our operation that was more than hearsay. This gave credibility to our operation, as John Craven was personally involved, and it couldn’t be swept under the rug as some fantastic story.
I emailed John P. Craven a few times and received two emails back from him. One dated 22 March 2006, in which he talked about writing his book, he wrote, “I have to walk a very fine line.” How was he able to do this? Besides being a scientist, he was also a lawyer. He told me, “That is not to say you should not attempt to write a biography that publicizes the heroism of the men of Halibut in the conduct of perilous and important missions for the United States.” He then added, “You should also know that this letter to you is not off the record and you may use it or not use it as you wish. Best of luck, Craven.”
On October 2, 2017, I called the CIA and asked about their declassified information in the Freedom of Information Act Electronic Reading Room, which includes Operation Ivy Bells and Ronald Pelton, the man who betrayed it. During that conversation, I told them I had not been a member of the CIA but was involved in a classified operation the CIA headed up, but now their Electronic Reading Room listed this operation as declassified. I was told that everything on their site is in the public domain and I could write about it.
On October 16, 2017, I received a CIA response to my email: “Thank you for your email. You may freely link to the Central Intelligence Agency website or any of its content. We ask only that you identify that the source of the link is to a Central Intelligence Agency internet resource. Please visit the notice page on our website which addresses this issue.”
Their “notice page” that I was referred to said, “Central Intelligence Agency website is in the public domain and may be reproduced, published or otherwise used without the Central Intelligence Agency’s permission.”
Table of Contents
I Wanted the Party Life
Strategic Arms Negotiation
National Security Agency (NSA)
Planting a Seed
Navy Diving Schools
Soviet Embassy, Washington, DC
Mare Island Naval Shipyard
Sold Out in Vienna, Austria
New Diving Equipment
Only Eight Would Be Chosen
USS Halibut, En Route to the Sea of Okhotsk
Encouragement from Christians
KGB Headquarters, Moscow
First & Secondary Diver Control
Professionalism at Sea
God is Working
Struggling with a Decision
The Pressure Cooker
The Head of the KGB
Icing on the Cake!
My Gift to Dad
To Halibut’s crew, who brought us to the dive station and then home safely and worked professionally in all their responsibilities. Because of their service and the service of the crews of the submarines that continued this operation, peace was maintained.
“David therefore sent out spies.”
(I Samuel 26:4)
I Wanted the Party Life
“Is not this a brand plucked out of the fire?”
“Everett police officers and firemen worked for 40 minutes extracting the driver from his demolished car.” (Front page of the Everett Herald, a Washington State newspaper.)
I was 18, reckless, and I owned a brand-new 1968 Cougar with a 428 Cobra jet engine. And I thought, I look good behind the wheel of this car!
It was 3:00 a.m. I had just left a party and was headed home. I was driving 125 miles per hour, and at that speed the valves floated—otherwise, I would have been going even faster. I wasn’t in a hurry to get anywhere; I was just foolish.
I lost control as I approached the 41st Street Broadway overpass in Everett, Washington. The car spun out and skidded around sideways, leaving 80 feet of skid marks, and hit the corner of the bridge. The accident crushed the car’s body, springing its frame into the shape of a banana. At impact, the tires hit the curb and blew out. Fortunately, my head tilted to one side as the car tipped over. So when the bridge tore through the roof, it smashed my left shoulder, instead of my head, and pushed me into the backseat. The force of the crash embedded the car key, which was in the dashboard, into the floor of the car.
The roof had pinned me into the backseat, and I couldn’t breathe. My only thought was, I don’t want to die. With my right hand, I pulled myself up to a position where I could get air into my lungs. It took about 30 minutes for the police to arrive, followed by the fire department. Those who found my car thought no one could have survived, so the coroner was also called to the scene. It took 40 minutes for the fire department to pry the door open with their hydraulic rescue tools. Thankfully, I was alone that night; otherwise, someone else would have ended up hurt or dead.
I was taken to the emergency room in the Everett hospital. My tendons were snapped in my left shoulder and my left anklebone was broken. I still have an aluminum screw in my ankle to this day—a reminder of the foolishness of my youth. And there was one major problem.
During my first few days at the hospital, I lay unconscious most of the time and only occasionally woke up. On the second day I was awakened by a nurse taking my blood pressure—three time in a row. She then ran off and brought the doctor back, who also took my blood pressure. The doctor had me drink something that he said would show up better under an x-ray machine. After the x-ray, the doctor said I had internal bleeding in my left kidney and they weren’t sure they could stop it.
The doctor called my parents, and they came and spent the night with me. Sometime that night I woke up and saw my dad looking at me with an expression that said, What am I doing, raising these kids? He said nothing; he just wore that expression. This was the second wreck I had been in, in just two months. Both wrecks were my fault, my new car was totaled, and now I had hurt my dad.
I said, “Dad, I feel like I have let you down.”
“No,” he said.
But I had and it bothered me.
I loved my dad and I knew he loved me. He was a hard worker and paid the bills. He had told me years before how he was raised, that my grandfather would get upset for no reason and take him away from my grandmother to “teach her a lesson.” My grandmother told me that one time my grandfather took my dad away from her for a year and a half. When my dad came back home, he was wearing the same clothes he’d left in, but his arms and legs where sticking out farther from his shirtsleeves and pant legs because he had grown.
On a couple of occasions my dad told us kids he didn’t want us raised the way he was. But I had been going around doing my own thing, not concerned with, or even considering, others’ feelings. My only concern was making myself happy. But in that hospital room, my dad was looking at me and wondering if raising me had been worth it. I didn’t like seeing him look like that. I decided then to do something that would please him and not me. Without realizing it, I began to obey the Bible—“Honour thy father.” No, this would not save my soul, but there is a promise attached to this commandment, found in Deuteronomy 5:16, “that it may go well with thee.”
Three days after I was in the hospital, the doctors were able to stop the bleeding in my left kidney. A month later I was discharged, with a cast on my left leg, but as soon as I was home, my friends called and wanted to party. Which I did, and every night thereafter. One night my parents waited up for me because I came home late, and they were worried. When I walked through the door, my dad hollered at me. Later in bed, I thought about the decision I’d made in the hospital, to try and please my dad instead of myself.
A couple months later after the cast on my leg was removed, my dad said, “Garry, you ought to join the Navy Seabees.” (Navy Construction Battalion.)
“Okay,” I said.
“Really?” he asked.
He looked at me surprised but wasted no time in getting me into his truck and driving me down to the navy recruiter. It was something I never would have done on my own. My dad was concerned about me getting hooked on drugs, my circle of friends, and the direction I was going in, which was nowhere! I had wrecked my new car, and I felt like my life was going a hundred miles an hour down a dead-end street. Recklessness has consequences, but I was going to take my chances—until I saw how it affected my dad. So, I signed up for the navy, not because I wanted to but to make my dad happy.
I had fun in the navy, but not at boot camp. We woke up at 4:30 am and cleaned toilets, the same ones we had cleaned the day before. Drill chiefs hollered at you all the time, “Hey, you, get over here!” Most of the problem was my attitude, I’d forget to salute and say “Yes, sir.” on purpose. Not smart—they got that out of me. I did pushups all the time. By the end of my second week, I was saluting everything that moved.
The navy boot camp at San Diego shared one wall with the marine boot camp. This wall was at least eight feet tall—they didn’t want navy recruits and marine recruits to harass each other.
When I could find time for a break, I would lean against one wall of our base and look over to the other side. San Diego has a hill right next to where the navy boot camp used to be, with these nice homes on it. And I would look up on the hill and think how lucky they were, that they could enjoy their freedom and do whatever they wanted. But we were getting yelled at.
I heard that one navy recruit said, “They’re not hollering at me anymore.” So he climbed over the wall, but he climbed over the wrong one. He ended up in the marine boot camp! It was the biggest mistake of his life!
Our uniforms were completely different than the marines’, so he stood out like a sore thumb. Supposedly a marine walked up to him and asked, “What are you doing here?” He glanced around and saw all the marines staring at him and said, “Huh, well, huh…” The marine said, “That’s what I thought. Come with me!” He took the recruit to the colonel of the marine boot camp who called our navy captain and said, “We got one of your idiots over here. What do you want us to do with him?” Our captain said, “I don’t want him. You can keep him.” They kept him a week and then threw him back over the wall, with knots on his head. Ouch!
Strategic Arms Negotiation
American and Russian arm negotiators are seated at their respective tables, facing each other, behind them are the flags of their countries. The negotiators are wearing headphones listing to translators. The American team looks frustrated, and the Russians have smug faces.
They adjourn for a break, and the team leader of the American negotiators walks over to a CIA officer and says, “Look at them, they’re playing us. We need to know what they have, what they really have, not what they tell us they have.”
“Also reported was the tapping into undersea cables on the Soviet coast, along which the Russians sent military traffic too sensitive to entrust to the airwaves.” (Declassified and Approved for Release 2012/02/03: CIA-RDP91-00561R000100120051-2)
The CIA officer who was at the negotiations, is talking to the director of the CIA. “At the arms negotiations, the Russians were bluffing us. Our spy satellites can only see what is on the surface, not what’s inside of buildings. How are we verifying that their systems even work?”
Director of the CIA says, “Our subs and satellites are picking up their radio transmissions, coupled with our spy network and Russian assets, it gives us a well-rounded picture of what they have.”
Officer says, “Russians send their top-secret communications through cables, not through the airways. And it’s hard to verify what a spy or mole gives us.”
“Sir, we have a plan. It’s risky, but if we pull it off, it will be real information, better than anything we have ever had before and verifiable.”
“How would you like to listen to the politburo talking to Russian generals and admirals, 24/7, year after year? We would know the Soviet’s own assessments of their armament, and their plans in the event of war.”
The officer hands the director a folder stamped with “TOP SECRET, IVY BELLS” in red.
National Security Agency (NSA)
Fort Mead, Maryland
“Pelton, a former $24,000-a-year communications specialist at the NSA is on trial in Baltimore on charges of selling sensitive information to the Soviet Union … Pelton was suspected of giving away a highly sensitive NSA program, code-name Ivy Bells …” (Declassified in Part—Sanitized Copy Approved for Release 2013/05/21: CIA-RDP99-01448R000301220035-3)
“Pelton filed for bankruptcy in Baltimore. On his form, he listed having $64,000 in debts and less than $10 in cash assets.” (Declassified in Part—Sanitized Copy Approved for Release 2012/02/24: CIA-RDP91-00561R000100120038-7)
Six NSA cryptologists are in their cubicles, men in suits and ties, women professionally dressed. Ronald Pelton, mid-30s, brilliant cryptologist but poor at financial matters, is worried as he receives a call from one of his creditors. He looks around to see who might be watching him, and says, “How did you get this number?”
“The concern here is not about your phone number—it’s your debt.”
“Look, I’ll take care of this, but don’t call here again.”
Mr. Pelton hangs up, gathers his composure and courage, and goes to ask his boss for a raise. He passes his coworkers, and outside his boss’s office he hesitates, then pushes the door open and goes in. He stands in front of his boss’s desk for a moment and then says, “Sir, about that raise. The one I asked you about at the beginning of the month.”
His boss smiles and says, “Well, Ronald, we indeed do have something for you. You’re being given a promotion with more responsibilities and your own office. I’m sure you will like it better than your cubicle.”
“Really? Which office?”
“Second floor, room 33.” His boss then hands him a folder, stamped in red “TOP SECRET”.
Mr. Pelton looks at it for a moment, and his boss says, “There are several new Russian interpreters coming your way. You’ll read about it in your folder. Code name is Ivy Bells.”
Pelton laughs. “Ivy Bells—is this a joke?”
His boss shakes his head no.
“About the raise, how much is it?”
“As to the raise, that will come in due time. But for now, you can enjoy your new office.”
Pelton is frustrated and asks, “Did you say ‘several new interpreters’? To get them up to speed on our deciphering equipment will take time. How much time do I have for this?”
“Just get them ready, Ronald. Something is coming our way, and it has been given top priority.” Pelton walks towards the door and his boss says, “Ronald, you know anything about submarines?”
Pelton turns back towards his boss and says with indifference, “They go underwater.”
“They do more than that, Ronald. Go over your file.”
Planting a Seed
After surviving boot camp, I ended up at the Seabee base in Davisville, Rhode Island. I was assigned to Mobil Construction Battalion One, which had just returned from a tour in Vietnam. The base in Davisville had an air base, chow hall, theater, and barracks. I didn’t know anyone there, I had no car, no money, and no party life.
One evening when I was returning from the base theater, I saw some Seabees coming out of a small building, and I asked another Seabee about them. He told me it was a weekly Bible study. A few weeks later, one of the Seabees I had seen going to the Bible study was on a military bus with me. We had just come back from Camp Fogarty, a navy firing range where we practiced shooting the M60 machine gun and M16 rifle. This Seabee had been sitting on a bench seat in the bus, and while the bus was moving, for no apparent reason he came over and sat down next to me. In his hand was an open New Testament. I was very surprised he did this—the bus was almost full of Seabees. The situation felt awkward and some of the Seabees were looking at us. Then without any introduction or small talk, he just started with, “Did you know that God loves you?” He read John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” I thought, That doesn’t say anything about me. I turned my back on him and then a moment later I glanced over and he looked dejected.
Almost two years after the Seabee tried to witness to me, the thought, for whatever reason, came back to me: Maybe God loves me like someone loves a phone book with all those names in it, and I am part of the billions on the globe. So in that sense maybe it could be true that God loves me. But I still didn’t consider it a personal love that God had for me.
Back then I wasn’t sure God existed. And the only time I talked about God was to use His name in vain. But only believing that God exists doesn’t save; salvation needs to take place. The devils are not atheist, but neither are they saved. “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble” (James 2:19).
My car wreck made me realize I wasn’t “Mr. Indestructible.” This life, compared to eternity, is only a split second, and I had begun to wonder, After death, where am I going? All these thoughts were in my head, including, If God made me, then He should know how to make me happy.
I started to read the Bible. Though when I first read it, I was not sure the Bible was God’s Word, or even if God existed, still, “Seek, and ye shall find.” The Bible was different from anything else I had ever read. It boldly declared, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
The Bible was teaching a different way to heaven than what I had believed. My thought then was, I am no worse than anyone else, so if there is a God, He will let me go to heaven. Though there are many good things that the Bible tells us we should do, still things do not forgive sins or save one’s soul. “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” (Galatians 2:16.) The “law” refers to God’s law and His commandments which we are to keep. But keeping them will not save our soul or forgive the sins we have already committed.
I realized that if I was ever going to get to heaven, I would have to do it God’s way. I couldn’t expect God to change His plan of salvation for me, but I could change my beliefs and trust His Son, Jesus Christ to save me. One evening, in a navy barracks, I called upon Jesus to come into my soul and be my Savior. “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:13).
Navy Diving Schools
I didn’t want to become a diver, but I did, and for the same reason I joined the navy, I did it for my dad.
I joined the navy as a reservist and had a two-year active-duty obligation. But I kept extending my active-duty time so I could attend three navy diving schools. In all, I served nearly five years on active duty and more than a year reserve time.
The Seabees sent me to a 12-week steelworker school at Port Hueneme, California. While there I saw a guy filling in a request to become a navy diver. I asked him about it, and he said that if I was interested, I should put in for it. I wasn’t interested in diving (though now I am proud of it), nevertheless I put in a request for the navy diving school. My dad used to like watching the TV diving program Sea Hunt, starring Lloyd Bridges. He even said to me one time, “Garry, we ought to take up diving.” Well, he never did, but I did for him, thinking this would make him proud of me and put a smile on his face.
Author at navy second-class dive school,
Second-Class Dive School
Once a request for diving school was accepted, the first thing all applicants did was to go to the naval submarine base in Groton, Connecticut. There we made 60-foot chamber dives, they had us lay flat on our backs and not move while we breathed pure oxygen for 30 minutes. This was to see if we were susceptible to oxygen toxicity. One can breathe pure oxygen on the surface, but under pressure it can cause convulsions.
The navy then sent me to second-class dive school in Washington, DC, a ten-week diving and salvage school. We made most of our practice dives in the Potomac and Anacostia River and a few in Chesapeake Bay. All the schools I attended in the navy had between 10 and 20 students.
I liked this school and the Washington, DC, area was a fun place. I lived off base with some other navy divers, and I visited the sites: the US capitol, Arlington National Cemetery, Lincoln Memorial and the US Marine Corp Iwo Jima War Memorial.
Decompression Chambers & Bends
Second-class dive school also had dive chambers inside their facility, and they could “press us down” by adding air pressure inside the dive cambers. These chambers were also used for decompression.
The deeper one dives the more pressure that is exerted on his body which requires more air from the scuba tanks to fill one’s lungs. This is then forced into the diver’s bloodstream. If a dive is deep and long enough, it will require decompression.
The bends (decompression sickness) is when the tiny nitrogen bubbles from air come out of a diver’s blood and block arteries or veins in his joints, lungs, or brain.
When a soda bottle is opened, the fizz that is heard is from the carbon dioxide bubbles that come out of the liquid. But if a soda bottle is opened very slowly, then no fizz is heard and no bubbles are seen. Similarly, we decompressed slowly, letting the pressure off to give time for the gas to come out of our bloodstream.
The bends can be treated either by pressing a diver back down again (recompression) so that any bubbles will go back into his bloodstream, or by having him breathe a different gas to help in the exchange rate of the built-up gas in his blood. But this is not an exact science, and if the damage is too great, no amount of treatment will help. Bends can cripple a diver, or be fatal. Anyone who wants to scuba dive needs to be trained by a certified instructor!
Even when following the decompression tables, not everyone’s metabolism will handle this. In all the diving I did in the navy no one was ever bent (had the bends), until our saturation dives on the nuclear submarine the USS Halibut. Two or our saturation divers were bent, one completely recovered, but one did not completely recover.
From Second-Class Dive School I spent eight months on the Island of Diego Garcia in the middle of the Indian Ocean. We were the second Seabee battalion to arrive there, and we lived in plywood barracks with only screens for windows. In fact, there was no glass anywhere on the island, and the only inhabitants were us Seabees, 1,000 of us, and no women. It was very hot, coconut trees were everywhere and countless crabs, some very large, skittering across the sand. Thankfully, us divers could go diving for fun. Diego Garcia provided the best scuba diving, with coral reefs and an assortment of sea shells. The water visibility at Diego Garcia was the best, on occasions up to 200 feet, but much less during bad weather. The wind would cause the waves to stir up the seafloor and decrease the visibility.
I and four other navy divers made most of our dives from a barge and a 30-foot motor boat. While there we put in an underwater sewer line (not fun). But our main job was to make 60-foot dives in the harbor to connect the hoses of fuel ships to an underwater pipeline. The fuel was then pumped to shore for the aircraft that landed on the island.
We saw sharks and eels almost daily. Usually the sharks would circle us one time and then swim off. However, on one dive, I and two other divers stayed topside while two divers made a 60-foot dive. Ten minutes passed, and both divers surfaced early. One climbed up a ladder, and the other diver was ditching his tanks when we pulled him up out of the water. Shark fins were suddenly on the surface, moving fast through the water. The divers said that these sharks didn’t circle them as usual but passed between them at close range, and they felt threatened.
Fear of Diving?
I don’t have aquaphobia, or a fear of diving. However, I do have a fear of heights. (Though it was not enough to keep me from skydiving once.)
On Diego Garcia, when we were putting in the sewer line at a depth of 50 feet, the sea floor took a sheer drop of about 100 feet, then a ledge of five feet, and then a sheer drop again, and who knows how deep after that. I felt as if I was standing on the edge of a cliff, which gave me some anxiety. I did what I believe most people do—I focused on something else, which was putting in the sewer line.
The dive I liked the least was a hull search of the USS Halibut at Mare Island. This was not the first time I had made such a search. One other time I did this off the California coast, but there we could see up to 100 feet. But the water visibility at Mare Island was zero! Oil and sludge mixed with the water, and even one foot below the water I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face.
My diving buddy and I were roped together so as not to lose each other. The other diver was to lead and I was to follow as the rope pulled me around. I kept my left hand on my face mask throughout the whole dive because in such a situation it’s easy for the lead diver’s fins to kick your face mask off or kick the regulator out of your mouth.
In water with no visibility and no sea floor to touch, it’s very easy for vertigo to set in and not know where the surface is. I kept my bouncy slightly positive so if my head rammed into one of the skids (explained later) and I became unconscious, I would at least float to the surface.
The purpose of a hull search is to look for a mine or tracking device that some adversary might have placed on our sub’s hull. I hope there’s a better way of doing a hull search today, but then we simply used our hands to feel along the bottom of the sub. Of course, we didn’t search every area, and as we couldn’t see, the chances of finding anything were slim at best, and if our hands did find a mine, BOOM! So what was the point?
First-Class Dive School
At first-class dive school, which was also in Washington, DC, we were taught underwater welding, underwater demolition, and mixed-gas dives, called “heliox” (helium and oxygen), for deep dives.
Breathing air in a deep dive will make one drunk (called nitrogen narcosis. The effect it has on a person has nothing to do with how much alcohol he can drink.)—a dive of 200 feet is dangerous! The US Navy recommends that safe diving be less than 130 feet. And breathing pure oxygen, even at shallow depths is deadly (called oxygen toxicity). Because we could neither breathe air or pure oxygen for our deep dives, we used heliox.
First-class dive school lasted 17 weeks, and one of the more fun projects was raising a ship they had purposely sunk in the Potomac River.
It was while I was in First Class Dive School that I heard the navy had a school for saturation diving. The navy had been training divers to live in underwater habitats at deep depth for days at a time. I thought it was interesting but I couldn’t understand what the need was.
Island of Guam
From first-class dive school, I was stationed on the Island of Guam for three months. What stood out the most about Guam was how humid it was there. In the morning I would walk down a hill from our Seabee base to where the dive locker was, and the air was so thick it seemed as though one could cut it with a knife.
The diving was good, not as good as Diego Garcia, but at least Guam had “civilization” and wasn’t just military, as on Diego Garcia. Our main diving responsibility on Guam was to help the navy dive locker in Apra Harbor at the US Naval Base.
One of the things I did at this dive locker was read diving accident reports the navy sent out. This was done in hopes we could learn from the mistakes of others. Some reports were of those who had the bends, crippled or fatalities.
On our days off, we had the liberty to dive where we wanted on the island, and we came across a WWII Japanese plane in 50 feet of water. Someone had removed the propeller from it, and the coral was starting to engulf it. Guam saw major battles in WWII, with both the Japanese and Americans forces taking the island.
Saturation Dive School
My heart’s desire on Guam was to be accepted to the navy’s saturation dive school. But despite having graduated top of my class from all three schools, the navy sent me to…steelworker school, second-class dive school, and first-class dive school—saturation dive school wasn’t open to me.
I was rejected because my job classification as a Seabee was steelworker, and the navy had no openings for this skill in saturation diving. I was determined to appealed it. I thought that if I just explained the situation that they would understand and approve my appeal. I contended that they did have openings for shipfitter, which was basically the same thing as a steelworker, but my appeal was also denied. I had been fighting this since I arrived on Guam, and had begun to believe it was never going to happen. It made me upset.
I stood inside of the main dive locker at the US Naval Base at Apra Harbor, proudly wearing my first-class diving pin and talking over the phone to my mom, who was in the States. “Garry, your dad is out and will not be back till later.” But she added, “Your dad is sure proud of you, son. He brags about you everywhere he goes.”
“Good,” I said, because that was the reason I’d joined the navy and became a diver, to make him happy.
Then I shared with my mom how frustrated I was because I couldn’t get the navy to approve my request to be a saturation diver. My mom wanted to know who made the decision on the appeals. I told her the decision-maker was the highest-ranking chief in the navy.
My mom said, “Son, he would have a secretary, and you should send her a box of chocolates and a big bouquet of flowers. And then ask her to get it approved.”
My first thought was, That’s not going to do anything. But I had no other recourse; there was nothing left for me to try. So I followed my mom’s advice, and a week later I received orders for saturation dive school.
My mom gave me the key to unlock the door to this problem, and my request went through. Her solution seemed too easy, but I simply listened to my mom and it worked. It’s good this worked out, because sometimes I had the impression the cards were stacked against me. Thanks, Mom, and thank You, Lord, for using her.
Point Loma, California
I graduated fourth in my class from the navy's saturation dive school, a fourteen-week program, at Point Loma, California.
It’s called saturation diving because in a dive of more than 12 hours (in a chamber or underwater habitat), the bloodstream becomes saturated with whatever gases (in our case helium and oxygen) a diver breathes, and he cannot take any more into his bloodstream unless he goes deeper. This is one of the advantages of saturation diving, that the time required for decompression remains the same regardless of how many days a diver stays at a particular depth. If a SAT diver stays one day at 200 feet, it will require two days of decompression. But if he stays at this depth for a month it will still only require two days of decompression. SAT divers stay at their work depth pressure, whether in the water or in their dive chamber, till a job is accomplished. Thus requiring only one decompression when the job is completed and therefore less risk of the bends which is more likely through multiple decompresses.
I wasn’t a Navy SEAL—I was a saturation diver trained to live in underwater habitats. Saturation divers are not trained for combat—as are SEALs. Most people assume that if one is a navy diver, then he is a SEAL, but this is not the case. We are all proud of our Navy SEALs, but they are not one and the same as the navy saturation divers. Some SEALs have become saturation divers, there were two in my saturation class, but this is not common. We were told there were more SEALs than saturation divers (200 saturation divers in 1975, and I heard figures of 300–400 Navy SEALs).
While at the navy saturation dive school, I made two training saturation dives from the USS Elk River, which was originally used as a support vessel for the US Navy SEALAB program. The SEALAB programs I, II, and III were experimental, testing the viability of saturation diving. On SEALAB III (depth of 600 feet), diver Berry Cannon died and the program was ended. We were shown the film of this at saturation dive school, a reminder that it was not a game. After SEALAB III the USS Elk River was used in conjunction with the saturation dive school at Point Loma.
Our saturation training dives were 190 feet for three days. Being divided up with one day at depth and two days of decompression. We stayed in a diving chamber on the USS Elk River, and to make our water entries, we were moved to a personnel transfer capsule that was then lowered through an open well in the center of the ship.
While at 190 feet we were in the water for less than an hour, with the water visibility about 90 feet. This was by San Clemente Island just off the Southern California coast.
Upon graduation from saturation dive school us divers received an increase in our base pay. They told us that saturation divers received the highest professional pay in the US Navy. The majority of navy saturation divers went to either the Navy Experimental Diving Unit in Panama City, Florida, or to two ASR 21 submarine rescue ships.
Whispers of Something Secret
I thought, I’ve arrived! I’ve gone as far as anyone can in the field of diving. But I was wrong.
During my time at saturation dive school, in the evening when I was at our barracks, I had heard the word “projects,” and another time “special projects” come up in conversation. And both times it was from a group of SAT (saturation) divers assigned to the nuclear submarine the USS Halibut, which had docked at Point Loma.
I asked one of the SAT divers, “What were you divers talking about when you mentioned the projects?” He was visibly afraid and walked away without saying a word. The next time I asked another SAT diver, he responded, “You need to ask someone else.” This only made me more curious. I asked a diver friend who had been in the navy longer than I, and he said, “It’s the secret stuff the navy does, and to know more you will have to be cleared for it.”
Surprisingly, upon graduation from SAT school, I received orders to the “projects,” even though I had applied for the Navy Experimental Diving Unit. Looking back now, I believe God had His hand in this and was working in my life. However I was not sent directly to the USS Halibut. Instead I went to a support barge for special projects, at Point Loma. I signed a nondisclosure agreement and was on this barge for several months, and bit by bit things were revealed. That’s when I realized why the government had spent so much money training us for saturation diving, “secret stuff.”
More Than Defense
During the Cold War much of what the military did was for defensive purposes. Being prepared for something you hope never happens—war. This is not in vain, as an adversary is far less likely to attack you if he knows you have the capabilities to respond. But this project wasn’t defense, it was offense. Going to the enemy’s territory to get something of value for the USA. They needed saturation divers for this, and I wanted in on it. I liked the espionage part, but mainly because it was by all measures something important.
Soviet Embassy, Washington, D.C.
“Mired in debt, Pelton declared bankruptcy … Called the Soviet embassy in Washington and asked if he could come by. Although that call was intercepted by the FBI (tapes of the two conversations were played at the trial last week), the bureau at the time did not or could not identify Pelton and intercept him.” (Declassified in Part—Sanitized Copy Approved for Release 2012/02/24: CIA-RDP90-00965R000402680002-3)
Two blocks from the Soviet Embassy, three FBI agents are in a van eavesdropping on their phone lines. Then they hear Ronald Pelton’s voice on the phone.
The lead agent says, “Hey, guys, this is him. Trace it.”
Pelton is arguing on the phone about payment. “I told you I have something you will want to know about, but I need help now, not sometime in the future.”
The Russian says, “Yes, of course, but you know this is a two-way street. You have your concerns, and we have ours.”
Pelton butts in, “You didn’t check on my credentials?”
The Russian responds, “Yes, yes, we’ll need to discuss this more, but not over the phone.” And then Pelton is told to meet with them at a prearranged location.
But Pelton raises his voice. “What about the payment? I have creditors!”
“Of course, and we want to help, but we need to talk about this face to face.”
Pelton hangs up.
The FBI agent asks, “Have you got this traced?”
“It’s from a nearby phone booth.”
“Go see if he is still there. We want this guy.”
The Washington Metro
Pelton enters a subway car and sees his contact. They both glance around. Pelton is nervous and argumentative about being paid. The Russian says, “We told you not to call us at the embassy. In fact, it would be better if you visited our country, where you would be treated hospitably, and of course, with all the comforts.”
“No!” responds Pelton. “I want money! What is it with you people? What aren’t you getting?”
The Soviet responds, “If you don’t feel comfortable with meeting us in Mother Russia, then you must understand there are concerns we have. And these sort of things works better in a foreign country. How about Europe? Say, Vienna?”
“Sure, I’ll go on a vacation to Vienna. Just give me the money!”
“We’ll call you at the place and time we talked over before. But don’t call us again at the embassy!”
Mare Island Naval Shipyard
Bay Area, California
In 1974 I received orders to the nuclear-powered submarine the USS Halibut SSN-587. Her name, Halibut, a somewhat bland name for a nuclear submarine, came from the unusual looking sea fish halibut, also called a flat fish. Unlike other fish that continuously swim, the halibut spends most of its time lying on the ocean floor. Similarly, the USS Halibut also had an unusual look and often would sit on the ocean floor during her special operations, sometimes for as long as two months.
Love at First Sight
The USS Halibut was tied up at dock at Mare Island Naval Shipyard. She was 350 feet long, made of HY-80 steel (able to withstand 80,000 pounds psi), was painted all black, and the American flag fluttered from her stern. The guard on the Halibut had a .45 caliber sidearm and registered all who came aboard. I was standing on the dock with two other saturation divers, smiling and looking at the USS Halibut.
“Matheny, what do you think of the Halibut?” asked one of the divers.
“As a child, I saw the Disney film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and ever since, I’ve been fascinated by the mystique of submarines. To me this is love at first sight.” They laughed.
Another diver, Rich, told me a story, “When subs were being assigned to navy captains, our captain, Captain Larson, didn’t smile when he was given command of the Halibut. Of course, the best captains want the newest and fastest subs. Dr. Henry Kissinger was said to have been in the room when Captain Larson received his orders. And Dr. Kissinger took him to one side and told him enough about the Halibut and her mission that it put a smile on his face.”
Tom, the other diver, said, “Matheny, here comes the COB. He probably wants to assign you your bunk.”
COB (Chief of the Boat) is the highest noncommissioned officer on a submarine. He was fiftyish, knew the entire sub and had lots of sea stories. “You must be the new diver, Matheny. Follow me.”
COB and I, after signing aboard, went down through the hatch and narrow ladder into the sub. At the bottom of the ladder was the area where the periscopes were. The duty officer was sitting on a chair and looking at us, and there were three technicians calibrating equipment.
From POND5, sub pictures of that time period.
I was immediately struck with how many components were crammed into this space and all the way down the narrow hallway. The entire ceiling was covered with electrical cables and pipes, and the curved walls had more pipes and hundreds of valves and switches. I stood there wondering how anyone could know what they were all for.
From POND5, sub pictures of that time period.
From POND5, sub pictures of that time period.
From POND5, sub pictures of that time period.
From POND5, sub pictures of that time period.
“They call this area the CONN,” COB said. “It’s the main control area of our sub. Follow me down the stairs to the lower level.”
The stairs weren’t much more than a narrow ladder at a steep angel. I held on to the railing to keep from falling, but a month later, I could almost run down them. Then we entered a narrow passageway that was lined with bunks on both sides, three bunks high.
“By the way, you will bunk in the aft torpedo room, bunk three,” said COB, and then asked, “Where are you from?”
“I grew up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. My closest neighbor was four miles away.”
“I was raised on a farm in Kansas, and there were no kids my age anywhere around. So I had no one to teach me how to be ‘cool,’” said COB, and we both laughed.
As we went through the narrow passageways, I asked COB, “What’s that smell? I smelled it the moment I came on board.”
“That oily machinery smell is something all subs have. You’ll get used to it after a couple of days. Lot of things are different here.” COB stopped and pointed to a small room and said, “That room is for us chiefs. It’s off limits to you.”
COB seemed to enjoy talking about the sub, which he referred to as “our” sub or “my” sub. “There will be an orientation in a couple of days for you and two other new sailors. For all you landlubbers, I have to bring you up to speed on the living conditions in a boat. And it’s proper to call a submarine either a boat, sub, or ship.”
“First, the longer you’re out to sea, the more you wish you were in port. Yes, one gets bored and homesick. After a long deployment, when you get off the sub, you will notice how tanned everyone else is compared to you.”
“Oh, look to the right. That hole in the wall is our galley (kitchen on a ship). Next to it is the chow hall, which is too small for all of us, so we eat in shifts. The chow hall is where we hangout, play cards, or read a book. They show us movies here sometimes. Let’s take a seat and have coffee.”
“We use the power from our nuclear reactor to produce fresh water by desalinating seawater. Subs also have dehumidifiers to prevent the buildup of humidity that will condense on our steel walls and equipment. We remove all the carbon dioxide we exhale with chemical filters. And we produce our own oxygen by ‘burning oxygen candles’ (sodium chlorate and iron powder). I know, it sounds strange, but it works.”
“Names are given to each group on our sub: ‘bubble-heads’ are submariners, ‘nukes’ work on the reactor, the God squad are Christians, ‘spooks’ are the NSA cryptologists, and you divers are called ‘prima donnas.’”
“Hey! Why do they call us that?”
“Some of you divers think you’re special because the Halibut is basically a diving platform. Our sub exists for you divers, to bring you to and from the site of the dive. And you divers are known for getting all upset when you’re not picked for a dive.”
“And who picks which divers will make the dives?” I asked.
“Glad it’s not in my hands,” said COB. “Anyhow, on a sub the only way one can tell if it’s night or day is by looking at his watch, unless one happens to be by the CONN, when they ‘rig for red.’ The normal lighting is turned off, and red lights come on so that if we need to surface, we can see immediately without the need to adjust our eyes to the darkness.”
“Subs have eighteen-hour days—we sleep six hours, work six hours, and study or relax six hours. And it works OK, but the food schedule is on a 24-hour day—every six hours we eat, first breakfast, then lunch, then dinner, and then a snack. However, this doesn’t correspond to how we sleep: when a person wakes up one morning, it will be breakfast, and two days later when he wakes up, it will be dinner.”
“In short, submarines are an alien world with no phones, no TVs, no sun, no windows, no women—and no one ever asks you how the weather is. Welcome to the Halibut!”
“Oh, and Matheny, you’re to report to Security.”
“Matheny, what do you think of the mission?” Asked the security officer, who was sitting at a desk with papers in his hand.
“I think it’s smart.”
“Really? Take a seat.”
“Sure. You know the Russians are trying to get information from us. It would be irresponsible not to do the same.”
Security Officer nodded in agreement. “We finished your background investigation, and your top-secret clearance has been approved. I see you’ve already signed your nondisclosure agreement.”
“You’re not to travel to any foreign countries. Nor are you allowed to go into electronics stores, like Radio Shack, because of the possible connection with the operation.”
“There are only 30 people on the sub who know what the mission is and where it will be going. While in port all of you divers will be staying at the far end of the base in the old World War Two barracks. This way there will be less mixing with others and less chance of inadvertently giving away our operation.”
“Your navy service folder which has all of your records will not contain any information about this project or even the name of the project. We don’t want those in admin, who handle your records, to read about it.”
“Our government has sent out teams to try and find out what the mission is. The thought being that if our guys can figure it out, then our enemies could also, and security will need to be beefed up. The navy has planted some sailors among us who will try and get us to talk about the operation.”
“When someone asks you about the project, whether on or off base, you will respond with a simple, ‘No comment.’ It is important to keep the same response no matter how ridiculous a question might be. A newspaper reporter asked a skipper of one of the subs a question he knew was ridiculous and the reporter received the response he deserved, but was actually hoping for. The captain told him, ‘That’s absurd!’ But the reporter followed up with, ‘I understand you’re carrying out covert operations.’ Whereupon the captain became silent. The next day the newspaper headline was, ‘Sub Captain Denied Some Missions, But Not Covert Operations.’”
“If anyone pesters you for information about the operation, then give us their name and we’ll take care it.”
Through the Years
After I was discharged from the navy, people have asked me what I was doing as a diver on a nuclear submarine. When I told them it was still classified, some would take an offense, as though I were personally against them. But if they were in my position, they would have done the same.
Only Three Categories
Sometimes TV programs, books, or films will say something like, “Top Secret or above.” But at that time, and as I understand it today also, there are really only three categories: confidential, secret, and top secret. These can, however, be compartmentalized—in other words, top secret for NATO is different from top secret for the US Army or top secret Crypto. And if someone has a top secret clearance for a program he is working on, this would not in itself allow him to view information of another top secret program, except on a need-to-know basis.
Sold Out in Vienna, Austria
“To contact Pelton, the Soviets had him wait for a call at the pay phone of a suburban Virginia pizzeria … the caller directed him to another pay phone, where he picked up $2,000 in a hidden magnetic box and received instruction to travel to Vienna.” (Declassified in Part—Sanitized Copy Approved for Release 2012/02/24: CIA-RDP90-00965R000402680002-3)
“The Soviets uncovered the U.S. operation, which involved the use of American submarines, after debriefing Pelton during two extended sessions in Vienna …” (Declassified in Part—Sanitized Copy Approved for Release 2012/02/24: CIA-RDP91-00561R000100120053-0)
Soviet Embassy, Vienna
At the Soviet embassy, Mr. Pelton meets the man he had talked to in the States. He introduces him to two other men who would do the debriefing and assures him that if all goes well, each day he will be walking out with “proper compensation.” In the debriefing room there is a third man, a KGB intelligence officer named Lieutenant Mirgayas Volkov. Pelton is introduced to him, but the KGB officer only nods his head and says nothing during the whole interview. There they ask Mr. Pelton many questions about the inner workings of the NSA.
Pelton becomes frustrated and says, “That’s not the important thing. What is really important is where we are getting our information from—we’re getting it straight from you!”
The KGB officer, who is in the background, is studying Mr. Pelton. Pelton walks over to a world map and points to a location, saying, “You’re losing information to America here.”
“The location that Pelton pointed to on the map was the Sea of Okhotsk between the Kamchatka Peninsula and the eastern Soviet coastline ...” (Declassified and Approved for Release 2011/12/19: CIA-RDP9000965R000706870011-5)
The Sea of “O” (Okhotsk)
Mr. Orlov, who is in charge of the KGB security, is in his office in Moscow when he receives a phone call from Lieutenant Volkov. “The two men who did the debriefing are still suspicious that Mr. Pelton might be a plant trying to gain our confidence. But because he checked out as being an NSA cryptologist, I don’t see that we have any choice but to follow up on this.”
“Well, if you do find anything let me know,” says Mr. Orlov, and hangs up.
There was a large drawing of the Halibut, and COB briefly explained the different compartments and which ones were off limits. COB pointed to the drawing with a pointer stick. There were three new sailors to the Halibut, including myself.
“Gentlemen you are on a one-of-a-kind submarine. No other sub in the world has the unique silhouette of the USS Halibut. There is the huge metal bubble on the deck of the sub, named the ‘bat cave.’ It’s the largest door on any submarine that I know of. Designed originally for cruise missiles before she was converted to a special project boat.”
“The project officers love this huge door because they can load large items onto our sub without taking them apart. You will learn more about the project officers later, but they are not the same as the other officers on our sub. Project officers are not involved in the guidance or control of the Halibut but are solely for the oversight of our special ops.”
“On the tail end of Halibut is something that looks like a mini sub, with ‘DSRV Simulator’ written on its side.”
COB smiled as he told us a short story. “One time when we were on the surface and coming into San Francisco Bay, a newscaster who was in a helicopter reported seeing our sub. He described her as looking like she was pregnant”—COB points to the bat cave—“and carrying a baby on her stern, the DSRV Simulator.”
“We are proud of our sub. I want to give you a brief history. The USS Halibut was commissioned on January 4, 1960, and was originally designated SSGN. (SS is submarine, G is guided missile, and N is nuclear powered.) She was designed to launch Regulas I and II cruise missiles. On March 25, 1960, she became the first nuclear-powered submarine to launch a guided missile. She continued in this role until replaced by the Polaris submarines.”
“In 1965 Halibut underwent a major overhaul for special operations and was designated attack submarine SSN-587. Submarines are normally classified into two categories: boomers and fast attacks. The boomer is a ballistic-missile submarine, and fast attacks either protect carrier groups or go on special missions.”
“In 1968 the Halibut was again given a major overhaul and equipped with side-look sonar, a mainframe computer, and much more, but still classified equipment, for her special project.”
“Now let’s cover some basic facts. The Halibut has two levels in the middle section, with the upper level being made up mostly of the officers’ quarters and the CONN.”
“The Halibut also has side thrusters. With these, she can maintain a stationary position while hovering over the ocean floor. And albeit slowly, she can even move sideways! Halibut wasn’t overhauled so she would be fast, but to find things. And her capability to maneuver like no other submarine has made her the sub of choice for the projects.”
“Next is the aquarium. This is a sea lock for lowering a towed 12-foot-long underwater search vehicle called the ‘Fish.’ This Fish comes with lights and is equipped with cameras for searching the seafloor. Its purpose is to find ‘stuff’ in the water.”
“Then there is the ‘Swimming Eye Ball,’ otherwise known as the Eye. This is also let down through the aquarium. Its purpose is to film ‘stuff’ in the water.”
“Halibut has four very large skids, for sitting on the ocean floor. Something rare for a submarine. I believe the divers call these skids ‘tennis shoes.’”
“Submarines come with their own unique dangers. If an explosion or collision occurs on a ship, or in the event of war, a mine or torpedo hits a surface vessel, the sailors at least have an opportunity to enter their life boats. And though depth charges can bring a sub to the surface, if a sub is struck by a torpedo or mine, it would most likely not make it back to the surface.”
“Now the following areas are off limits: the computer room, display room, NSA room, and the officers’ quarters. And only the divers are allowed in the aft torpedo room.”
One of the new sailors interrupted. “COB, I’m a torpedoman’s mate. I’ll have to go to the aft torpedo room.”
“What for? All the torpedoes have been taken out.”
“Why aren’t torpedoes there?”
COB responds, “If you don’t know, don’t ask! Don’t you just love spy subs? Besides, your bunk is in the forward torpedo room, which has plenty of torpedoes.”
“Now it’s time for chow!”
New Diving Equipment
Classroom at Mare Island
Our instructor liked to teach at full throttle.
“Okay, all you hotshots. I know you think you’re lean, mean machines, but if you flunk my class, you don’t dive, so listen up!” We wanted to dive and sat up straight in our chairs, giving him our full attention.
The classroom had diving equipment and 20 saturation divers. There were charts, diving rigs, face masks, wet suits, and a three-foot-long section of five cables bundled together. On the wall were diving emblems, an American flag, and a sign: “Keep America strong—little old ladies get mugged, not prizefighters.”
Our instructor was a qualified saturation diver and knew the new diving equipment on the Halibut. He was going over procedures and differences between that of saturation dive school and those of our sub.
Westinghouse diving rigs.
Courtesy of Gary Lynn
“Today we’ll explain the Westinghouse diving rig, called the Abalone or Mark 11. It comes with all the whistles and bells, all of which will be explained. You will be working in groups of three, taking it apart and reassembling it.”
He then took the diving rig and held it as though it were a baby. “I know of only six of these dive rigs, so if you drop one of them, it will be the end of your diving career. And you will be lower than whale puke anywhere in special projects! Can I hear a hearty Yes, Sir?”
A chorus of “Yes, Sir!” rang out.
“You have all been through three navy diving schools by now, however, Halibut’s system is like none other.”
He held up a section of a diver’s cable. “Attached to each diver are five hoses and wires in a cable that is 350 feet long. It’s true you’re not able to swim around freely, as in scuba, because we have you on a leash with all these cables connected to you. But by now the average diver in this room has made more than 200 scuba dives and 100 dives using a cable. And at a depth of 400 feet, if a diver’s blood stream is saturated, even if he was to swim only halfway to the surface, he would die. The truth is, at the site of the dives the visibility is so poor that without your umbilical cable you could easily get lost and not find you way back to the Halibut.”
“The heliox will be supplied to you through these two hoses, called the push-pull system. One hose will push the mixed gas to you and one will pull it back. So no bubbles will go into the water and reach the surface, and ‘Ivan’ won’t know you’re there.”
“Then there is the hot-water hose. In Siberia the sea temperature is twenty-seven-degree Fahrenheit. It would be frozen solid if it wasn’t salt water. You will be wearing two wet suits, the thin liner one-eighth-inch thick, and the outer suit three-eighths-inch thick, with hot water pumped between the two to prevent hypothermia. The hot-water hose will supply you with 140-degree water, which is why you need the inside liner, so as not to be scalded.”
Diver asked, “If for some reason we were to lose our hot water, would the one-eighth-inch liner be enough to get us back in the freezing water?”
Groups of Three
We formed into groups—Rich, Bates, and myself—and started taking apart the Mark 11 dive rig.
Rich said, “Guys, I’ll start by taking out the canister that scrubs the carbon dioxide. You two hold on to this rig. We don’t want to drop it and be ‘lower than whale puke.’”
Bates laughed and asked, “Can you imagine how low that is, the very bottom of the ocean?”
Rich asked, “Did you notice this rig has no regulator like scuba. You don’t have to breathe to have the gas come to you, instead there is a constant flow of heliox. If we pass out, it will still send the gas to us and, in theory, keep us alive.”
“Did I understand the instructor right?” I said. “That there are only six of these in the world. What do you think one of these cost?”
Rich replied, “The rumored price is half a million apiece.”
“No way!” I said.
Rich responded, “Figure the development, testing and all the hoses that go with it. Also this rig will keep us alive at 400 feet with no bubbles going into the water.”
Bates asked, “Do you really believe the Westinghouse engineers who made these, tested them in 400 feet of water?”
The briefings were about our project, what we were doing, why we were doing it, the risks involved, and security. These briefings were sometimes informal and sometimes tense, about high stakes. We had some briefings on the sub and some in an auxiliary building at Mare Island.
Don’t Disappoint Us!
There were 30 men crammed into a small room, waiting for a briefing. The security officer stood before us and said, “Find someplace to sit on the floor. My apologies about the room, but because of security reasons we thought it best to meet in a room with no windows.”
He then introduced us to a Commander Wilson. It was explained that the commander wouldn’t be in uniform because he was the navy liaison between us, the CIA, and the NSA. We were told to give him our full and undivided attention.
Commander Wilson came in wearing a suit and tie, and looked worried. He seemed pressured by higher-ups in the CIA, as though he had been told he will lose his job if the mission gets out into the open or we don’t get results.
“Good day.” said a troubled looking Commander Wilson.
All in the room responded, “Good day, Sir.”
“I don’t need to tell you how important it is that we don’t let slip what we are doing. ‘Loose lips sink ships.’
“Under the wrong set of circumstances, this is the sort of thing that could start World War III, but it’s also the sort of thing that may help end this Cold War. Obviously, the more we know of their operations, the less of a threat the Russians are to us, and lack of intel makes us vulnerable.”
“As you know, to have even one saturation diver on a submarine is unheard of, but 20 saturation divers makes for a very large red flag. Therefore, a plausible cover story has been created. The Soviets are presently testing their cruise missiles and have a splash zone in this same sea. The story will be spread that you’re going there to try and recover what is left over from these missiles. You will not need to circulate this story—we will. And when asked about it, only give our standard ‘No comment.’”
“Our intelligence community keeps using words like ‘the intelligence gold mine,’ ‘pure juice,’ and ‘the mother lode.’ In short, it’s the best thing we’ve ever had. It’s invaluable to us! But there is a problem. It lacks two-way communications because the signal in one direction is too weak to pick up. Last year on Halibut’s second deployment, though there were no dives and no recordings. What she found, the amplifier, was the most important piece to the puzzle. We must have two-way communications, and without this amplifier, with the mode we are using, it’s simply not possible.”
“Gentlemen, if you walked into a room, unawares to your girlfriend, and overheard her saying on the phone, ‘I love you. And I can’t wait to see you and have you hold me,’ you’d be upset. But when she turns around and sees you standing there in the room and says, ‘Oh, dear, please say hi to my mom,’ you would have a different feeling about it. Well, we want to hear all that mother Russia has to say. There are too many things that we don’t understand in these communications because we are only getting one side of a conversation. We are doing a lot of guessing, and sometimes it’s wrong. Our analysts tell us it would be five times more valuable to them if they knew who was on the other end of these communications and what they were saying.”
“Are you listening? A lot of money, training, and planning, has gone into this, but it still depends on each individual to do his job. Now every project has its problems, and we are sending you there to solve problems, not to come back with excuses. You fix it. You solve it. You make it work!”
Commander Wilson momentarily pauses. “And we know you will come through for us and bring back what we want. Won’t you?!” The commander looked as though he had been pressured to get this point across, and he looks at each one of us.
A few said, “Yes, Sir,” and then more, and then all of us.
“See that you do it!” Said Commander Wilson, and then left the room.
An officer hollered out, “Admiral on deck!”
All in the room stand and snap to attention. Admiral McKenzie entered and said, “At ease.”
“Look around you. Everyone in this room has had the necessary background checks, you have all signed your nondisclosure agreements, and everyone here has received a top-secret clearance. Out of 130 men on the Halibut, only the divers, these officers, and two NSA analysts will know what the mission is, and where we are going. Even some of the officers on the Halibut don’t know what the mission is.”
Admiral McKenzie walked over to a map and pointed to the sea of Okhotsk. “You are being sent out on a three-month mission. You are going to the Sea of Okhotsk, which the Soviets claim as their territorial waters. The underwater amplifier that the Russians have there, has been found by the Halibut and we are going to tap it.”
“Halibut will be entering in through the Kuril Islands. This is one place we are certain that the Russians have an underwater acoustic range listening for foreign submarines. But our subs are quieter than theirs, and we have done this before and we can do it again.”
“We all know that the Halibut isn’t fast, but no sub would be if it had to push through the water giant skids and a fake DSRV. Halibut was chosen for her maneuverability, not her speed. Besides, at the point of entry, there will be a friend waiting for you, she is faster than anything the Russians have, and she will be your decoy and watch out for you.”
“Though we would like to send our subs to this sea on a regular basis, to get updated intelligence, it is just too risky. Therefore, a device has been developed, called a POD, to do the recordings. You divers will be positioning this device at location. This POD will be left behind and be retrieved once a year.”
“Every diver who gets in the water will be put in for the Legion of Merit. It’s one of the highest medals that our nation gives.”
One divers asks, “Admiral, you said this POD would be left at the site of the dive to record for a whole year. Just curious, but no batteries I know of would last more than a couple of weeks.”
“True, but these are US Navy batteries; they last longer.” Laughter from those in the room. “You divers will be briefed on this at location.”
When the operation faced exposure because of Ronald Pelton’s trial, both president Ronald Reagan and CIA Director William Casey tried to stop the leaks.
“President Reagan personally telephoned Washington Post Chairman Katharine Graham to ask that her newspaper not print an article on ‘Ivy Bells,’ the U.S. eavesdropping operation in Soviet harbors ... ” (Declassified and Approved for Release 2012/02/28: CIA-RDP90-009658000504130034-5)
“But Casey has gone public in recent weeks with strong criticism of the press … one of NSA’s most sensitive secrets, a project with the code name Ivy Bells … a top-secret underwater eavesdropping operation by American submarines inside Russian harbors.” (Declassified and Approved for Release 2012/09/25: CIA-RDP90-00965R000302100006-3)
“CIA Director William J. Casey has asked the Justice Department to consider bringing criminal charges against NBC-TV for its mention of the intelligence program and its identification of the code-name as ‘Ivy Bells.’” Declassified and Approved For Release 2012/02/03: CIA-RDP91-00561R000100120047-7
The newspaper Philadelphia Inquirer, May 21, 1986, which was quoted in the above CIA release, said, “NBC Story on Spying Called Old News”. This “old news” was the justification that NBC used to write about Operation Ivy Bells.
The Philadelphia Inquirer went on to say, “NBC told the Kremlin nothing new by reporting about underwater eavesdropping … the New York Times published more detailed articles … the 1975 articles said … tapping into undersea cables along the Soviet coast on which the Russians sent military information too sensitive to be broadcast … ”
Charges were never brought against NBC. My motive is to show that newspapers during Ronald Pelton’s trial (1986) used “old news” (1975 New York Times article) to justify writing about what we did.
The following article was written two months before our sub left port for the operation. On Sunday, May 25, 1975, the New York Times, on their front page, said, “Submarines were able to plug into Soviet land communication cables strewn across the ocean bottom and thus were able to intercept high-level military messages and other communications considered too important to be sent by radio or other less secure means.” There were only two places where such a tap was possible and it would have been easy for the Russians to figure this out.
“Pelton … admitted to FBI agents … that his disclosures might have placed in jeopardy ‘a few men who needed to go to and from’ the project.” (Declassified in Part—Sanitized Copy Approved for Release 2012/02/24: CIA-RDP90-00965R000403270006-3)
I would add that it could have put our nation at risk. We won the Battle of Midway because we had good intel, but we were knocked to the ground at Pearl Harbor because we didn’t.
We divers had read this May 25, 1975, New York Times article about our operation only a few days after it was written, and when we asked about it, the navy told us that if the government confronted the newspaper, it would give credibility to their article and draw the attention of the Russians. So the government chose to ignore the article in hopes it would die of its self, but the mission was still on.
Were there dangers? Prior to Operation Ivy Bells, when a spy reported back with information on an enemy project, often there was no way to verify it. But this mission provided us with the conversations of Russian admirals and generals themselves, and that on a daily basis. This definitely grabbed the attention of our intelligence agencies. To hear Moscow, year after year, discussing war plans with the strengths and weaknesses of their equipment and troops was just too great an enticement to pass up. Yes, there were dangers but the importance of this mission overshadowed the dangers. The risks were considered greater if we deed not try. We either find out in advance what their plans are, or, wait till they surprise us. All one had to say was, “This sub gives me claustrophobia,” and he was off the Halibut.
“Your Wife is Sending Coded Messages”
When we were out to sea, wives would send family grams to their husbands. Those who were Christians would sometimes receive a Bible verse from their wives. These family grams were limited in length, and in order to get as much in as possible, a wife would sometimes send a Bible reference and not spell out the verse. Then her husband could look it up in his Bible. This got the attention of security, who feared that these were some sort of code, and they wanted to know “Who is John 3:16?”
I heard that our security got to the point that those saturation divers (or anyone) who asked about this project, in the hopes of coming to it, were not accepted. The thought being, that if we were ever infiltrated, it would be by a spy who would ask to join us.
While on the Halibut and out to sea on our 1975 deployment, one of the Nukes decided to write a book about our mission. Of course, the mission was still classified at that time. Had his book gotten out into the open, it would have been either the end of the operation, or at the least, put in danger the sailors on the other submarines that took Halibut’s place. It was purposely leaked that he was mistaken about our mission, which he was. Most of the crew didn’t know what our mission was, and this sailor wasn’t privy to this information.
This sailor’s book was found, and he suffered the consequences: for the rest of the mission, he was confined to his bunk and had his food brought to him.
Leaving port with loved ones standing on the pier sad or crying, is hard. Many sailors say their goodbyes at home as it’s easier to deal with. But when you come home after a long deployment and see your family and loved ones waiting on the pier and waving to you, it’s one of the greatest feelings. Everyone on our sub looked forward to this, and we all had smiles, except for one Nuke.
The Halibut had radioed security about the situation with the Nuke before we made port. I had forgotten about him because he had been restricted to his bunk, and I hadn’t seen him again until the day we got back to Mare Island. His wife met him at the dock, and they walked away from the rest of us. She was very upset about something, and he became visibly despondent with the news she shared. I found out a week later that the government had searched his home while we were still out to sea. I was also told that this was just the beginning of his problems and this sailor didn’t even know what the mission was.
There were Serious Consequences
Our government wasn’t going to play around with security, nor should they, it was our national security that was at stake. Ronald Pelton, the man who betrayed our operation, was tried and convicted of espionage and sentenced to three concurrent life sentences at the Federal Correctional Institution of Allenwood, Pennsylvania. After thirty years in prison he was released and is presently under house arrest.
I heard that our NSA analysts, with their computer-deciphering capabilities, could decipher even what was encrypted, as long as we had enough recordings to give them.
“Pelton case: He told the jury about the NSA’s ability to exploit, process and analyze coded Soviet communications ...” (Declassified in Part—Sanitized Copy Approved for Release 2012/01/25: CIA-RDP90-00965R000201370001-1lq)
Soviet Naval Base
KGB officer Lieutenant Mirgayas Volkov, who was at the Vienna debriefings with Mr. Pelton, goes to Siberia seeking answers, trying to verify Mr. Pelton’s story. Volkov meets Admiral Anatoly Gorshkov in his large office overlooking their naval fleet at anchorage.
“Welcome to Siberia, Lieutenant Mirgayas Volkov,” says Admiral Gorshkov, the 63-year-old commander of the Soviet Pacific Fleet. “Lieutenant Volkov, isn’t it a clear, beautiful day?” says the admiral as he sips his coffee spiked with vodka.
“Well, I thought it a little windy,” Volkov says.
The admiral’s voice raises, “I was told by Moscow you were coming out here. Something about Americans spying on us, on one of our underwater cables.” As he says this, he walks over to a large map on the wall of his office, which includes the Sea of Okhotsk. Admiral Gorshkov stands in front of the map without pointing to any location and turns toward Volkov. “And I understand you didn’t get this information from one of our spies but from a man who sold out his country.”
“Well, yes,” Volkov says.
“And you believe him?”
“I have no choice but to make sure. It’s possible the Americans may have figured out a way to listen to our phone conversations between our eastern military bases and Moscow.”
Admiral Gorshkov turns back toward the map and then asks, “And where on this map did the American say they have penetrated?”
Volkov points to the Sea of Okhotsk.
“Yes, but where in this sea?”
“Admiral, don’t you know if we have a cable in this sea?”
“Of course I know! But does the American know?”
“He didn’t give us anything more specific than this. He is an analyst, not a naval officer. Admiral I know we have an underwater military cable in this sea. I must ask, are all communications sent through this cable encrypted?”
“And why should we encrypt some phone call from a peasant mother who scolds her sailor son for not calling home more often?”
The admiral cuts him off. “Yes, there is more than that going through the cable, and yes, some of it is encrypted.”
“Admiral, what percentage of our classified transmissions though this cable is encrypted?”
“OK, not much. It takes time and money to encrypt message traffic. Besides, I don’t see this being the problem you believe it to be. I did some calling before you came, and those I talked to said it wasn’t possible to tap our underwater cable without shorting it out. And I know it’s not easy for anyone to come into the Sea of Okhotsk without us knowing about it.”
“Look at these islands.” He points on the map to the Kuril Islands. “This is the only way into and out of this sea, and these islands are ours, and we have an underwater acoustic range here. Its only purpose is to listen for submarines entering our sea, and it’s manned 24 hours a day. The moment a sub enters here, they notify us, and we check our records and confirm if it’s one of ours or not.”
“So have any foreign submarines come through these islands?”
“No! And what is more, our acoustic range has only missed one of our subs coming through in more than a year.” Admiral Gorshkov stares at Volkov and says, “I can tell by that look on your face that you’re thinking that if one of ours made it through, then perhaps the Americans could also.”
“Admiral, I am only trying to verify the story that the American gave us. If an American sub entered in through the Kuril Islands, she would be long gone before a destroyer came. It makes sense to have destroyers ready in that area. Plus, destroyers would have active sonar, something our underwater acoustic range wouldn’t have.”
Irritated, the admiral says, “One month out of the year, we station a destroyer at the main point of entry into this sea. It’s the most probable channel for a foreign submarine to attempt to enter. There is heavy ship traffic in the sea lane between the islands there, and a sub who wants to enter undetected will try to mask its noise by following under a freighter or oil tanker. A destroyer is due to be stationed there starting next week. I’ll inform her captain of your concerns.” Admiral Gorshkov laughs. “The captain of this destroyer is new, a Lieutenant Nikolay. He wants to make a name for himself. But at least he will be vigilant.”
Lieutenant Volkov insists, “But, Admiral, there are many channels here, and you only want to keep one destroyer there, and that for only a month?”
“Yes, you’re right. There are many islands here, and many of these channels are deep enough for a submarine to enter through. So, were you expecting me to give you half a dozen destroyers? And for how long? And by whose word—a traitor’s? I am telling you, neither the Americans nor anyone else can get into this sea without our knowledge, and even if they could, they wouldn’t be able to tap our cable.”
“Now, Lieutenant Mirgayas Volkov, would you like a drink?”
“I’m sorry, but I have to go. Just one more question, Admiral. If the Americans did come into our sea, could you bring them to the surface?”
“With depth charges, I could bring them to the surface, but why bring them up? It’s easier to just torpedo them. These are Soviet territorial waters. They shouldn’t be here!”
Only Eight Would Be Chosen
“Your face mask is doubled sealed, one seal around your face and one around your mouth and nose, so if the face mask gets flooded, you can still breathe.”
Modified Kirby Morgan band mask
Courtesy of H I Sutton, Covert Shores.
“You also have your communication cable. This face mask has a headset and speaker for communications, which is connected to the helium speech descrambler in the dive chamber. You will need this because the helium will make you sound like Donald Duck—an effect brought on by the helium on your vocal cords.”
“Your diving rigs are semi-rebreathers, which means you rebreathe your mixed gas. Only one in six breaths will be a fresh supply of gas. This rig will scrub the carbon dioxide that you exhale, and the fresh gas mix will be supplied by your hoses. Our semi-rebreather also heats the mixed gas you breathe, as the freezing water makes the gas so cold it will give you a headache. This is even a bigger problem with helium because of its poor thermal properties, which takes heat away from your body.”
“There are pockets in this outer wet suit for your weights. Keep your buoyancy slightly negative. Also, each diver has a flashlight and two knives. One is the standard issue K-bar knife with an eight-inch blade, plus this smaller knife with a one-inch sharp blade.”
“In the event of an emergency, say you get the wrong gas mixture and pass out, your umbilical has a one-quarter-inch wire cable so we can pull you back.”
Our instructor held up a one-foot-long, four-inch-wide metal cylinder. “Listen up, what I have here is your come-home bottle for emergency return. It’s filled with a premixed heliox gas for the depth of your dives. In the event of an emergency and your gas supply is cut off, this come-home bottle will automatically start releasing gas into your dive rig. It’s actuated by a small sensor when the pressure of the mixed gas falls off. At 400 feet, this emergency bottle would only last a few breaths. But because your dive rig is a semi-rebreather, if you go straight back, it should last long enough to get you back to your dive chamber.”
Diver asked, “But how long will it last?”
“It depends on the person, his lung capacity and what he is doing. If a diver is not moving, ten minutes. But if he is swimming, at best seven minutes.”
“In the event your mixed gas somehow gets blocked, you will know this by a red light that will come on. This red light is on the inside of your face mask. If this comes on, you immediately return to your dive chamber and inform diver control that you have a red light.”
The master diver came in and asked for a word with us. He was a sharp guy, not braggadocios, and knew the entire system. We trusted him.
“Regardless of the fact that you have all made saturation dives before, no one will be picked who has not made a saturation dive from the Halibut. On a previous training saturation dive on the Halibut, a diver who was saturation qualified became scared at depth, froze up, and had to be brought back in. Obviously, we are not going to experiment on location to find out who can and who cannot do this.”
“Also, most of you have only made saturation dives to 190 feet, but these practice dives will be to 420 feet. You will be in a diving chamber during this period and in the water for a few hours each day while at 420 feet. All this will prepare you and give you confidence for the actual mission.”
“With the three days at depth plus the four days of decompression, once you leave the sub you will not be able to get back in for seven days.”
I made two training SAT dives off the San Francisco coast. The first one was cut short because of a problem in our sub, so we rescheduled for a second SAT dive.
On this second SAT dive I entered the water with Nolan, who was lead diver, as he had made a SAT dive from the Halibut before. When we were both in the water at 420 feet, he reached out and shook my hand. As though I had officially qualified as part of the elite group that made these dives from the H-boat (the name the divers gave for the Halibut).
During the four days of decompression on the training dives, one of the divers made comments about a small birthmark I have on my left leg. He claimed it looked darker in color to him and I should take care that it wasn’t the start of the bends.
The navy dive schools in Washington, DC, had told us it was possible to talk a person into believing he had the bends. By simply asking a diver how his joints felt or saying he looked pale, implying he had bubbles in his blood stream. There are some who would become overly sensitive and focus on how they felt and some would even rub a knee or elbow to make sure they had good blood circulation in their joints. A diver could then share with others his “concern” for your health and say “He was rubbing his knees.” If a saturation diver felt pain in his joints, real or imagined, and the SAT dive had to be altered to treat the diver, even if healed, his chance of being chosen for the dives in Siberia was over.
The diving officer came to our class and explained who would be diving. “Guys, I’ve gone over all of your service records, and I am proud to be working with you.”
“We are scheduled to have two saturation dives at the site. I know you want to make these dives, that’s why you were chosen. However, only eight of you will enter the water. But all of you will be necessary to man the two control stations, which will run nonstop during the dives.”
“You in our dive team have been called daredevils, jockeying to make a top-secret dive. But remember, our purpose is to give our country the edge in the Cold War, not to inflate your egos.”
“So, do your best and have a team spirit. We’ll be evaluating each of you to determine who will be chosen.”
Williams, one of the diver asked, “When will we know who the eight of us are that will be making these dives?”
“We’ll let you know after we leave port for the mission, when we’re two weeks out to sea. You’re dismissed.”
As we left the class, Williams leaned over and said to me, “The reason they won’t tell us now is because if were not chosen they’re afraid some of us will pretend claustrophobia to get off the sub.”
“I’m not doing this to ride a sub, it’s boring, the only fun thing is making the dives.”
En Route to the Sea of Okhotsk
Surfacing at Night
While in the Pacific Ocean, Sonar Room detected an intermittent noise, metal against metal, and they knew the area of our sub it was coming from. They figured it had to be a metal toggle that was not properly secured. These toggles secured the sub to a pier when in port. In order to enter the Sea of Okhotsk, we needed to get through the Kuril Islands undetected, which we wouldn’t be able to do if making this noise.
Nuclear submarines remain submerged during their entire deployment. A submarine’s greatest advantage over other ships is its stealth. In all the time I was assigned to the Halibut, this was the only time I remember her surfacing while out in the ocean. But it was night, and there was a cloud cover, so satellites couldn’t see us.
I was fortunate to have been picked for a three-man team to go topside for a night surfacing of our sub. The other two were a lieutenant who was in charge and a boatswain’s mate who was given the job of securing the toggle.
Normally when topside on a submarine underway, there was a harness we wore with a safety line running along the deck. But this didn’t reach the area the boatswain’s mate needed to go, leaving him without this safety feature. My job was to cast out a long rope with a life preserver on it so in the event he fell over, he could grab on to it and the sub wouldn’t have to circle back and look for him. The boatswain’s mate was able to secure the toggle, and no life preserver was needed.
There was a brisk wind that night, but it felt good to breathe the fresh air. Though it was past midnight, the moon still shone through the clouds and lit up the ocean. What impresses me as I looked around in a 360-degree circle, was that as far as I could see in every direction, there was no land, just water. It made me feel insignificant and small compared to the vastness of the ocean. But I didn’t have long to contemplate the sea’s enormity; the task only took a few minutes. And once we were back inside our sub, the outer hatch was closed and Halibut dove back under the waves.
From POND5 sub pictures of that time period.
The galley, where our food was prepared, was incredibly small and almost always busy.
Sailors were waiting in line to get into the chow hall (also called mess hall). A new sailor, named Tom, came in thorough the hatch, holding his head and obviously in pain.
“You OK?” a submariner asked.
“I just found another valve. Am I bleeding?”
We couldn’t help but laugh as he stuck his forehead out for us to look at.
“Let me see,” said one of the divers, still laughing. “You’ll live.” And he added, “It took me a week to learn where all the valves were.”
“But why do they have to put these valves in the passageways sticking out like that?” Tom asked. “It’s not like we have wide passageways.” He then went into the “head” (bathrooms on ships) to look in the stainless-steel mirror at his forehead.
A submariner raised his voice, “Hey, Tom, we’re having steak and lobster for dinner.”
“Ha-ha” was the new sailor’s response.
“It’s true,” said an NSA analyst. “Once a month they feed us steak and lobster in the same meal. There is no recreation on a sub, so the only morale booster is the food.”
Tom stuck his head out from the water closet, still holding his forehead, to see if we were serious, and said, “Well, if that’s true, it will be nice, but whoever thought of those powdered eggs needs to be shot.”
The cook hollered out, “Make a hole!”
When this was heard, people tried to get out of the way, but it wasn’t always possible. These passageways were, in some cases, not even wide enough to walk down normally, and one had to go through them sideways. Some were lined with bunk beds on both sides. Sometimes a sailor’s foot or elbow stuck out into the narrow passageway. And when someone wanted to get around you in a passageway, you were shoved and pushed into a wall.
From POND5 sub pictures of that time period.
There is, however, advantages to submarines: They serve the best food and our sub was the only place in the navy I had been where they brought the food to you. One may have to wait in line to get into the chow hall and be seated, but there is no waiting in line for the food. There is so little room to stand in that your food is brought to you.
Submariners had entered the chow hall and were sitting down at their tables.
Tom asked, “Hey, Spook. Why is your room off limits to us?”
NSA analyst grinning, said, “It’s classified.”
“Hmm,” said Tom.
A submariner entered the chow hall and hollered, “Everyone has to get their film badge checked today. Be sure and see Doc.”
“What?” asked Tom.
“That is the little badge they make us wear on our belts. It checks the dosage of radiation we receive from the reactor.” explained a submariner.
Radio Man entered the chow hall and hollered, “Family grams for Robert Thompson and Tom Bentley.”
Tom Bentley, the new sailor, scrambled out from his seat to grab his family gram. But then asked, “Where is the rest of my gram?”
Radio Man said, “These family grams are limited to 25 words and only one a week.”
“But I can respond back, right?”
Radio Man laughed, “Sure, when we get back in port in three months.” (Though we could receive satellite and radio transmissions, we couldn’t send out any signal or we risked giving away our position. These family grams were also censored. The navy thought it best that we received no discouraging news while out to sea.)
NSA analyst asked, “Tom, is that letter from your girl?”
“Yes!” Tom said smiling.
“You going to share that with us?” asked the NSA analyst.
“Sorry guys, it’s classified!”
Encouragement from Christians
I was a weak Christian, needing encouragement just to show up at the Bible study. I wasn’t trusting God with my decisions and was too concerned about what other people thought. Thankfully, God had His faithful witnesses on our sub, who were more concerned about the Lord.
The first time I went to a prayer meeting, I was sitting at a table in the chow hall, when a Christian named James, also called Chief, came up to me and tapped me on the shoulder. “A few of us want to meet for prayer at 1900 on the forward port side below the forward torpedo room. Hope to see you there, and bring your Bible.” I nodded my head, but I was such a weak Christian, I didn’t want others to see me go. Still, when the time came, I put my Bible inside my jumpsuit (everyone on the sub wore these) and I made my way forward through the narrow passageways and up to a hatch doorway that I needed to get through. But it was blocked by two sailors.
On the Halibut (before all the electronic games), entertainment was mostly thinking of ways to play practical jokes on someone. And a favorite pastime was to find someone to poke fun at. The two sailors who blocked the hatch doorway wanted to talk. But I was in a hurry and trying to figure out some way to leave without their asking where I was going. But they kept on talking without giving me a chance to speak. I finally caught on that they were doing it intentionally because, somehow, they had figured out where I was going.
“I’ve got to go,” I said.
“Well, don’t be late for your prayer time!” They got a laugh out of it.
“Yeah, and I’ll pray for you,” I responded as I pulled out my Bible that I had “hid” in my jumpsuit, and I went to find the prayer group.
Those who made the decision on who would make the dives did not go to either the prayer group, or our Sunday service. And I was concerned if this would affect their decision. But I was wrong, it didn’t affect their decision, still, at the time I worried about it.
Making the dives had become more important to me than living for the Lord. I was basing all my decisions around making the dive, it had become an idol to me. But God had Christians who were pulling me in another direction.
At the prayer group there were five men crammed into a small space. I was surprised to see a couple of them, and no doubt they were surprised to see me. Still, all of us seemed to enjoy the fellowship, and then they shared a few prayer requests. Chief asked for prayer that God would use us to shine for him and reach others for the Lord. One of the submariners asked for special prayer for his daughter and wife.
I could see that for the submariners and divers who were married, being away from their wives and children weighed heavily on them, and I knew they wished to be home with their families. But I was single and didn’t have to endure being away from my family. Now, as a husband and father, I understand better what they were going through. The military is necessary, and though it’s not easy for anyone to be out to sea or at a base for long periods of time, still it’s hardest on those who are married.
One of the sailors said, “Chief, there is something I was hoping you could help me with. I have always thought that if I become a Christian, I couldn’t go to war, or spy for my country. What do you think? Doesn’t the Bible say we are not to kill?”
Chief said, “Those are certainly good questions. I do know that both Moses and Joshua sent spies into Canaan. Where the Bible says, ‘Thou shalt not kill’, it’s talking about murder. We cannot take the law into our own hands. I am certainly for peace, but if an enemy invades and starts killing and raping, then the main purpose of our government is to protect us. You can find that in Romans chapter 13.”
“The Bible has many heroes, such as Samson killing the Philistines, which he did when ‘the Spirit of the LORD came mightily upon him’ or David who killed Goliath. There is a passage in Hebrews 11:33–34 that says, ‘Who through faith subdued kingdoms … out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens.’”
Christians Helping Christians
The world can discourage you. Christ sent his followers out two by two. Christians should always seek out the encouragement and fellowship of other believers. This is one of the reasons we have church (Hebrews 10:25).
I was with Wayne, a diver friend, on our way to a Sunday service, when Bill, a submariner, asked us where we were going. I told him and asked if he wanted to come. He smiled and said, “No, I read books!” The thought being, he was too smart to believe in God. I didn’t like his comment, but I wasn’t sure how to respond. We left and went through the hatch, and Wayne said to me, “I didn’t know Bill could read.” I started to laugh and kept laughing most of the way through the passage ways. I’m sure there are better ways to handle such things, still my friend had lifted my spirit.
There was a man on our sub named Davison, but I called him the Preacher, he gave the messages for our Sunday services. Both he and James (Chief) were greatly used of God to encourage me, as well as other Christians. Unlike me, they based all their decisions around the Lord and His Word. Though they had their dreams, they love the Lord more. Their happiness was in pleasing Him, not in getting their way.
The first time I met Chief was in a work detail on the Halibut, and after working with him for only five minutes he asked, “Garry, are you a Christian?”
I had trusted Christ a few months before being assigned to the Halibut and said, in almost a whisper, “Yes.”
But Chief said out loud, “Praise the Lord!”
I looked around to see who might have heard, wishing he hadn’t advertised it. But he was genuinely happy he had found another Christian.
Chief explained a lot about God and His Word, and I always had questions for him. Of the many pastors I have known and teachers at Bible college that God has used in my life, the two Christians I owe the most to were not in the ministry. One was Chief and the other was the young man on the Seabee bus who had the courage to witness to me.
I admired Chief’s faith and vision to reach others. Chief was good at organizing things like the prayer time, and he formed a weekly Bible study, also he and Preacher started the Sunday services on our sub. I looked up to Chief because he was especially good at dealing with anyone who tried to poke fun at him—something I wasn’t good at. If someone tried to make fun of him, he saw the humor in it, laughed, and then turned it around on the one who started it. And that person would run off. One sailor jokingly asked, “Chief, being how you like to preach to us, if someone dies on the Halibut, will you do their funeral?”
Chief laughed, “Sure, and I’ll do yours for free.”
I was in the Aft Torpedo Room when James came in through the hatch. “Hi Chief. I have something I want to ask you about.” We found a place to sit down and I said to him, “You said that God was in control. So why couldn’t I play sports when I was a kid? I wanted too, but we lived too far from town to go to practice, because after practice the school bus didn’t run. When I asked my mom about it, she said I should just stay after school, then go to practice, and that she would talk my dad into picking me up. Well, at practice they put me in right field because I didn’t know what I was doing. Hardly anyone ever hits a ball out there anyway. You just have to stay awake. Still, it didn’t matter to me, because I was playing baseball.”
“Now my dad, when he would get upset, would slam the door on his pickup truck. I was standing out in right field when I heard something that sounded familiar. As I turned towards this sound, my dad hollered out in front of everybody. ‘Garry get over here!’ I didn’t say goodbye to the coach or anyone. I just ran over to my dad’s truck, and all the way home he was upset. When we arrived home, my dad went into the kitchen and told my mom what he thought of her idea of him picking me up. But I walked down the hall to my bedroom and laid down on my bed, and thought, Other kids get to play sports, why can’t I play sports?”
“You’re upset because you couldn’t play baseball?” Chief asked.
“No. I went out the next day and went fishing. But that’s the point—it didn’t work out as I had planned, as also some other things, so why? I’m not upset. I just don’t understand why I couldn’t do that.”
Chief responded, “I’m not sure, but I do know God doesn’t have to give an account to us. (Job 33:13) And ‘all things work together for good to them that love God.’” (Romans 8:28)
“Chief, my motive in asking you is because I want to make this dive. I don’t want to be blocked from it like I was from baseball. There is nothing else I have ever wanted to do as much as this. And God is both the one who can let me do it or keep me from it. Is this just my pride and I need to accept whatever comes my way?”
“Garry, sometimes we are just not ready for things, or God has a better plan. But sometimes our desires come from God. It was Joseph in the Bible who boasted to his older brothers he would rule over them. And they were upset at him for it. But it was God who gave Joseph that dream, even if he was prideful. Maybe your desire is from the Lord. I would ask God why you want to do this.”
KGB Headquarters, Moscow
Lieutenant Volkov enters the basement section of the KGB headquarters and walks up to a long counter with three staff personnel. Most people in this area are wearing work clothes and either receive or place orders for equipment.
One of the ladies at the counter asks, “How may I help you?”
“I understand that a Mr. Khodjakov works in this area.”
The lady at the counter points to a room where Mr. Khodjakov’s workshop is.
Lieutenant Volkov opens the door, and Mr. Khodjakov, who is sitting at his desk, recognizes him and stands up. He is surprised and somewhat startled that Lieutenant Volkov has come down to the basement to see him. The room has a large desk but is more of a workshop than an office, with charts and short wooden benches with electrical equipment.
Lieutenant Volkov introduces himself, and Mr. Khodjakov says, “I have seen you in the cafeteria a few times. Do you not work on the sixth floor?” (The section where spies are debriefed.)
“Yes, that’s right. Mr. Khodjakov I need to ask you a few questions about wiretaps. I understand you’re an expert on this sort of thing.”
“It’s my job, but what specifically?”
“Well, for starters, tell me how you tap someone’s telephone.”
“All one has to do is cut into the phone line and splice a wire to it. It’s child’s play.”
“But, Mr. Khodjakov, what about cables? Tapping into a cable.”
“Oh, let’s sit down. Yes, communication cables can be more difficult because they most often have a number of wires in them with multiple conversations. But one can still find what he wants; it just takes longer.”
“What about underwater cables?” asks Lieutenant Volkov.
“You mean like transatlantic cables?”
“So, you don’t want to tap a person, but a country?”
Lieutenant Volkov only smiles.
“Well, I have never tried this. My first thought is the salt water would short out the cable the moment you cut into it.”
Lieutenant Volkov insists, “But is there any way you know of to tap a cable or wire without cutting into it?”
Mr. Khodjakov pauses and says, “Well, there is such a way; it’s called the inductive mode. When a wire, or in this case, cable, gives off, from its electrical current, an electromagnetic field. We can pick this up by another wire that is wrapped around it. But we don’t like to use it, because it’s harder to hook up and to take off. Requiring several wraps around a cable to get a good readout. And unless this type of tap was right by a repeater, it wouldn’t likely get a strong enough signal through the cable.”
“Very good!” says Lieutenant Volkov. “It is possible, therefore, to do a tap on an underwater cable without cutting into it and shorting it out.”
“Yes, but again, only if the taps are by the repeater that amplifies the signal and sends it out, so the signal will be strong enough.”
“Thank you, Mr. Khodjakov. You have been most helpful.”
Lieutenant Volkov, in a rush, steps out of the room and passes the long countertop and personnel who are taking orders. He doesn’t notice Mr. Orlov, the security expert, who is standing at the counter. Mr. Orlov is talking to one of the ladies there about his new promotion making him the fifth inline to be the head of the KGB. But Mr. Orlov’s presence there is not a coincidence, and he is not smiling when he sees Lieutenant Volkov leave Mr. Khodjakov’s workshop.
Naval Reference Book
Lieutenant Volkov is in his office and has been looking at drawings of the inductive type of wiretaps. He also has a copy of Jane’s Fighting Ships, a public reference book with pictures of all the different types of warships, including the USS Halibut. And Volkov is particularly interested in the DSRV “Simulator” on the fantail of the Halibut.
Lieutenant Volkov receives a call from the diving office on the Kamchatka Peninsula. “I have found what you asked for. Our cable on the seabed of the Sea of Okhotsk runs for several hundred kilometers. These repeaters you were interested in are on our cable every six kilometers. The cable is eight centimeters in diameter, and the repeaters themselves are three meters long by 30 centimeters wide. These repeaters pick up the signal, amplify it, and send it out to the next repeater and so on, till, through the cable, it reaches the far side of the Sea of Okhotsk.”
“But, Lieutenant Volkov, it couldn’t be as you have thought—divers leaving a submarine to tap our cable. For none of these repeaters would be in a suitable depth for divers. There are some in shallow water, but too shallow for a submarine to operate in, and the others are too deep for divers.”
Volkov asks, “How deep?”
“According to the chart, the only possible one is 125 meters on the seafloor—far too deep for a working dive.”
“Look, I am not a diver,” says Volkov, “but how deep can our divers go?”
“Not that deep, not on air—it would kill them. And if our divers breathed a mixed gas that would support them, then literally days of decompression in a chamber. The Americans had something like this called SEALAB, but it didn’t turn out so well for them, with the death of one of their divers. I was under the impression they had ended it.”
“Last year I made a request to Moscow for us to develop such a deep-dive system. But they said unless I could give a practical purpose for one, they wouldn’t allocate the money.”
Lieutenant Volkov frowns when he hears this and says, “Perhaps the Americans have found a practical purpose for it.”
“Well, if they have, then can’t you just pull the cable up and see if anything is hanging off of it? If this inductive mode is what they are using, they wouldn’t be able to take it off quickly.”
“I’ll make a recommendation that we do just that,” answers Lieutenant Volkov, and he hangs up.
First & Secondary Diver Control
On the tail end of Halibut was the DSRV simulator, tubular shaped and approximately eight feet in diameter by 50 feet long. The DSRV (Deep Submergence Rescue Vessel) was designed to rescue sailors from downed submarines (though most of the ocean is below the crush depth of submarines). There were many articles circulated for the public about the DSRV program. However, our DSRV wasn’t used for submarine rescue but was bolted to our sub and had no motor. It was labeled a “simulator” to give the impression we were testing it. But its real purpose was to hide our diving chamber.
The diving chamber, also called a habitat or hyperbaric chamber, from which the dives were made, was in the DSRV simulator (hereafter referred to as the DSRV). It was situated directly next to the secondary control room and had space for four divers. We slept, ate, took sponge baths, and made our dives from this small three-room, tube-shaped diving chamber. We couldn’t completely stand up in it because the ceiling was too low. The first room, called the “outer lock,” was for “pressing down” more divers or a medical officer in the event of an emergency. The second room, called the “inner lock,” was for sleeping and housed a toilet and sink, and the third, called “dive station,” was the area from where divers prepared to enter the water. Each compartment of the habitat was separated by round metal doors more than one-inch thick.
The chamber itself was made from aluminum and other metals that wouldn’t spark. Even one spark in a chamber under pressure could cause an explosion or, at the least, a fatal fire. All the clothing and other materials inside our habitat, including our towels, were made from an itchy brown fire-resistant material.
The third room, dive station, where we entered the water, was open to the sea on the bottom part of it. At 400 feet, the pressure on one’s body is 12 times (or 12 atmospheres) greater than on the surface. The inside of a submarine is kept at one atmosphere (what we have on the surface), so if a door were opened to the sea at a depth of 400 feet, including a door on the bottom of a submarine, the seawater would rush in faster than any fire hydrant and flood the sub. However, our diving chamber was kept at the same pressure as the outside water—in our case 12 times greater than on the surface—and the room from which we entered the water was pressurized and this kept the water from entering in.
This extra pressure in our diving chamber meant divers were breathing 12 times as much gas in one breath as one would on the surface. All this “extra” gas went into our lungs and was forced into our bloodstream. This is why we had long days of decompression. So the built-up helium in our bloodstream had time to come out and we would not have the bends.
Main Diver Control
The saturation dives were manned from two control rooms. Main Diver Control was by the CONN, where the master diver, diving officer, and medical officer monitored the dives. During the dives, we communicated with the Main Diver Control by referring to it as “Topside,” even though it was not on the surface but underwater.
It will be hard for anyone who has not been on a submarine before to imagine just how little space there is. But to add 21 divers, NSA analyst, project officers, plus their food for three months, and then to add display and computer rooms, plus huge mixed-gas cylinders, meant that something had to go. Therefore, the torpedoes had been taken out of the aft torpedo room to make room for our diving equipment.
Secondary Diver Control
The location of the small secondary control room was inside the DSRV (depicted in the last drawing), from which we controlled the gas mixtures and depth of the dive chamber. We entered both the secondary control room and dive chamber by climbing up a ladder from the aft torpedo room.
US Navy Saturation Control Room
Alamy /Military Collection
This control room looked like the inside of a space capsule, and I loved it! It seated two people and contained more than 60 valves, plus pressure gauges for the different gasses, and depth gauges for the pressure inside the different compartments in the habitat. This cramped control room housed about two dozen small lights on a display console that blinked if there was a system failure or problem, such as sudden loss of gas pressure or the need to change a gas supply. In addition, two TV monitors were squeezed into this space, as the navy monitored most everything we did on camera, both inside the diving chamber and, when the diving officer wanted, outside in the water (explained farther on).
We manned this control station nonstop during the dives, pulling four-hour watches. It was a lengthy procedure to start up the secondary control room and have it ready for the chamber dives. It took a couple of hours to get it online, requiring more than 60 steps that had to be in the right order. The navy didn’t want this left to our memories. Therefore, we followed a check-off list. One diver would read out loud each step while the other diver would open the valve or verify a setting and holler “Check.”
There was a very small window between the diving chamber and this small control room. It was made from Plexiglas and was only three inches in diameter by three inches thick, to withstand the extreme pressures. And besides using the intercom to speak to the divers inside the chamber, you could knock on the metal door to get their attention and then look inside the habitat to see what they were doing.
In addition, there was a small (two-by-one-foot) chamber between the secondary control room and the diver habitat. Those in the secondary control room would use this to convey the food and dishes back and forth to the divers.
One reason I liked this small two-man control room was because it was private. In our sub, there was almost no place you could go where others were not right there by you. And it was the divers’ own place; no one else was allowed. When the saturation dives were not going on, I would sometimes go up there just to be alone. You could also spend time with divers and fellowship with them.
There were no personal radios or record players on board the Halibut, but someone had brought an eight-track stereo and left it in this small control room. It only had one tape, and the main song was “Yellow Bird, Up High in Banana Tree.” (I am laughing out loud while I write this, but that was the song, and the rest of the songs were downhill from there.) And we would play it over and over again, because there was nothing else to listen to. In submarines you are always surrounded by steel, and this song made me think of being on an island somewhere with my girl, palm trees, and lots of sunshine. It was the only way to get my mind off the monotony of being underwater for three months.
At a briefing we were told the navy found the Soviet cable by searching up and down the shore of the Kamchatka Peninsula, where major Soviet military bases were known to be. They had looked for a sign on the sea coast (through a periscope) that said in Russian, “No mooring in this area.” Because Russia, as all countries that lay cables in the sea, put up such signs where their cables enter the water.
After a briefing about the operation, I met Rich in the aft torpedo room to play chess.
“Garry, you been thinking about who is going to be picked? You know, for the dives,” Rich asked.
“Hey, it’s your move,” Rich said.
We talked about our hopes of being chosen to be one of the eight divers, and then he said, “You seem preoccupied.”
“I am. There is something. Something I don’t understand about that briefing we had today and the cable being *shielded. They said the purpose of shielding a cable was so no one could make recordings from it, not even by how we plan to do it. And though this should have stopped us, it doesn’t. Are you getting this? Their whole cable is shielded except where we are going to make the taps.”
“The story we were told last year was that our guys figured this all out because of what they saw through one of our spy satellites. The Russians brought up their cable because, apparently, it must have had a defect in their amplifier. Anyhow, the Russians replaced it with a new section of cable and a new amplifier. And that even though we knew the rest of the cable was shielded, we waited till they replaced this one section, thinking ‘perhaps’ the Russians didn’t bother to shield this section.”
“So?” said Rich as he moved his bishop to threaten my rook.
“Well why were we told they found this cable by searching up and down the Russian coast for a sign that read, ‘No mooring’? If we originally saw by a satellite a section of the cable replaced, why look for a mooring sign? This sub could find anything if given the satellite coordinates. And the same spy satellite that saw the Russians replace a section of their cable must have seen them when they first laid the entire cable. We have known all along the cable was there. Perhaps this is why they change their stories, about seeing a sign on the shore. To avoid explaining why they waited to tap the cable till one section was replaced?”
“But they were right.” said Rich. “The rest of the cable is shielded, and this one section was replaced, and it’s not shielded. You should play chess, not detective. Are you going to move?”
I pushed a pawn and said, “But, Rich, doesn’t it all seem a little too coincidental to you? We are to believe that the Russians who knew they needed a shielded cable, made one, but forgot to use it? And it just happens to be a section of the cable that is at a depth our sub can operate at and we divers can make with the capabilities we have?”
“What are you saying?” asked Rich.
“Was looking for a ‘No mooring” sign only a cover story? Did we turn someone? Is someone in Russia working for us and facilitating all this so we could finally get real information 24/7?”
Rich said, “Maybe they simply ran out of shielded cables.” Rich smiled. “I got your rook!”
*(Undersea cables at that time had copper wires in the center, then hard white plastic covering the wires, and then rubber insulation around that. I have heard that shielding a cable can be done by covering the hard white plastic with wire mesh [or a pipe] that is then grounded back at the point of transmission so that the electromagnetic field that the cable gives off will go to ground instead of to the outside of the cable.)
PLEASE GO TO "FREE BOOKS" FOR SECOND HALF, UNDER GOD & SPIES, Part two.