From Cold War Espionage To Baltimore's Crisis: The Crane Cleaning Up Bridge Collapse Is LEGENDARY

By Victor Smiroff | Friday, 05 April 2024 08:30 AM
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The Chesapeake 1000, affectionately known as "Chessy," a floating crane, is currently tasked with the somber duty of removing the wreckage from the recent fatal bridge collapse in Baltimore.

However, this is not the crane's first significant assignment. In the past, it played a crucial role in a covert CIA operation to retrieve a sunken Soviet submarine.

In the early 1970s, the crane barge, then known as the Sun 800, was instrumental in the construction of a specialized ship that lifted a section of the submarine in 1974. The crane was responsible for hoisting heavy machinery into the ship, machinery that was essential for the Cold War operation. This included a mechanical claw, tons of steel pipe, and a robust hydraulic system, all designed to operate at a depth of approximately 3 miles below the Pacific Ocean's surface.

The CIA stated on its website that the ship, named the Hughes Glomar Explorer after the billionaire industrialist Howard Hughes, "could conduct the entire recovery under water, away from the view of other ships, aircraft or spy satellites." To expedite the process, a shipyard in the Philadelphia area constructed the vessel's heavy components on land, requiring the floating crane to lift these assembled pieces onto the new ship.

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"The Sun 800 was built specifically to help us on the construction of the Hughes Glomar Explorer," said Gene Schorsch, who was then the chief of hull design for Sun Shipbuilding and Drydock Co. The covert mission was codenamed "Project Azorian."

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The mission was reported in the news in 1975, but the basic facts were not confirmed by Washington until 2010 when the CIA released a partially redacted report. "It's considered one of the most expensive intelligence operations of all time," said M. Todd Bennett, a history professor at East Carolina University, who wrote a 2022 book on the mission. "And not only that, it’s certainly one of the most inventive or daring intelligence operations in U.S. history."

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The submarine, K-129, was lost northeast of Hawaii in 1968. After the Soviets abandoned their search, the U.S. located the vessel. "To discover it, that's one thing," Bennett said. "But to have the wherewithal to try to devise a way to recover that piece of hardware is really remarkable. It's been compared — and rightly so — to an underwater moonshot."

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The submarine held a wealth of potential intelligence, from details on Soviet nuclear-weapons capabilities to military codes. By 1970, the CIA had devised a plan and a cover story for the ship: a commercial deep-sea mining vessel owned by Hughes. The agency aimed to retrieve a 132-foot section of the sub, weighing 1,750 tons.

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"Another piece of machinery assembled for the ship was a special platform. It was used to keep the claw system steady — and on target — in the ocean currents," Schorsch said. However, during the mission, the claw broke about a third of the way up, causing part of the sub's hull to fall away.

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Former CIA Director William Colby later wrote that the most valuable aspects of the sub were lost, Bennett said. However, the salvage did include the bodies of six Soviet sailors, who were given a formal military burial at sea.

A second mission was planned, but journalists broke the story in 1975, led by Seymour Hersh of The New York Times, and columnist Jack Anderson. Anderson’s sources told him Project Azorian was too expensive and diverted resources from other intelligence programs, Bennett said.

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The submarine was also diesel-powered and generations behind the Soviet's nuclear-powered subs. "Anderson’s sources — and Anderson — argued that it was really a museum piece, a relic," Bennett said. The media faced heavy criticism for reporting on the project, which had a "chilling effect" as news outlets became less willing to disclose intelligence secrets, Bennett said.

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The professor said the mission itself was a partial success. "Sadly the ship itself no longer exists — it was scrapped years ago," Bennett said. "But it was a significant piece of hardware. And this was a really important mission in U.S. intelligence history, in part because it was one of the first major underwater operations that we were aware of."

Today, the crane that helped build the Hughes Glomar Explorer is often touted as one of the largest of its kind on the East Coast. Engineering News-Record, a magazine that covers the construction industry, wrote in 2017 that Donjon Marine Co. Inc., bought the Sun 800 in 1993. The salvage company increased the capacity to 1,000 tons and renamed it the Chesapeake 1000 to reflect its capabilities.

Since then, it's helped to construct bridges and buildings. But few projects have been as urgent as the one in Baltimore. Officials are scrambling to clear shipping channels for one of the East Coast's busiest ports and to erect a new Francis Scott Key Bridge.

"To go out there and see it up close, you realize just how daunting a task this is," Maryland Gov. Wes Moore said Friday after the Chesapeake 1000 arrived at the collapsed span. "You realize how difficult the work is ahead of us."

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