The K-129 the Sub that Almost Started WWIII

The last half of the 20th century saw a world with 3 superpowers. US, USSR and China.  After WWII the superpowers became more active in developing nuclear power, each to supposedly to protect themselves. It appeared they were each waiting for the other to start WWIII.  In school they taught us to climb under our desks in the event of a nuclear attack from Soviet Union. Looking back, I am not sure what they thought it would protect us from, maybe light falling debris. Certainly it would not protect us from radiation or the major destruction that accompanied the blasts… There was a time where it almost happened, and it was prevented by one unlikely hero…

The year was 1968, and there were these Soviet submarines called Golf Class subs. They were diesel electric ballistic missile submarines and one in particular nearly pushed the nuclear button, K-129.   It was cruising the Pacific Ocean waiting for orders in case the cold war turned to actual war. When the sub stopped sending signals back to the USSR, they went looking for her, but could not locate her. A US ship near Hawaii did get a faint signal of a submarine-blowing up.

So why was this sub so close to Hawaii? The submarine was not out patrolling but attempting to launch missiles when she exploded. Upon researching the incident, it was discovered she had 12 extra people on board, at that time there was no known scenario for that to occur. It was suspected there was a highly trained KGB commando team that had boarded before take-off.  It was further surmised that they took over the command of the submarine and were near Hawaii to send nuclear missiles to Pearl Harbor. Soviet Uri Andropov was leader of the KGB at that time, and thought WWIII was inevitable.

One theory is that the KGB was going to force the explosion of the missiles to Pearl Harbor and make the Americans think that China did it. So then China and US would go to war, and then the Soviets would stand back and watch them destruct, therefore becoming the only super power left standing. Why was the particular theory appearing so strong? The K-129 sub was located 400 nautical miles from Hawaii, it was the exact distance the Chinese missiles could fire and hit the target.  So American missiles would have been in the air headed for China immediately thinking the Chinese fired the missiles. Soviet missiles on their subs could go 800 miles at that time. So it would not occur to the US they were Soviet missiles.

The theory continues to say that the captain of the Soviet sub must have realized this was not sanctioned by the government and was some rogue faction. Here is the hero part. It is believed the captain made a decision to not fire the missiles.  So when he entered the code to launch the missiles, he purposely entered the wrong code.  The missiles stayed in the chamber and basically blew up the sub. That one captain made a decision sacrificed the 98 men of the K129, but probably prevented a world war…That was Captain First Rank V.I. Kobzar.

Interestingly, 7 years later the US tried to retrieve the submarine from the ocean floor. The CIA commissioned eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes to build this ship the Hughes Glomar Explorer. It was masquerading as a deep sea drilling vessel but was actually a salvage vessel. The whole CIA mission was very James Bond like…. They tried to bring up the submarine, saying they would prove that the Soviets tried to attack the US. However, the K-129 broke in two and the part they needed dropped to the bottom of the sea.


  1. “629 GOLF – Russian and Soviet Nuclear Forces”.Federation of American Scientists. 2012. Retrieved 11 September 2012.
  2. Craven, John(2001). “The Hunt for Red September: A Tale of Two Submarines”. The Silent War: The Cold War Battle Beneath the Sea. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  3. Sewell, Kenneth (2005).Red Star Rogue: The untold story of a Soviet submarine’s nuclear strike attempt on the U.S. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  4. Sewell, Kenneth, Red Star Rogue, Simon and Schuster, 2005
  5. Polmar, Norman, Project Azorian, Naval Institute Press, 2012

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