Josh Dean,
The Taking of K-129:
How the CIA Used Howard Hughes to steal a Russian Sub in the Most Daring Covert Operation in History

(Dutton, 2017)

In 1968, the Russian atomic submarine K-129 went down somewhere in the Pacific. American officials observed Russian navy maneuvers in the area, realized they were searching for something and figured out it was the missing sub. When the Russians gave up the search and went home, the Americans saw an opportunity: if they could find and recover the sub, they would have a laboratory of Russian intelligence to investigate.

The task of salvaging the sub went to the CIA, who quickly realized the assignment wasn't going to be nearly as simple as locating and raising a sunken ship. For one thing, they needed a ship with a deep mining derrick and a claw-like "capture vehicle" on it, strong enough to secure and raise a submarine from the ocean floor. The problem was no such ship existed. One would have to be designed and built from scratch.

There was also the problem of a cover story. Such a ship as they had in mind would it be able to operate unnoticed and, if the Russians learned what they were doing, the result would be at the very least a huge international incident. At the most, it could mean war.

That's where Howard Hughes came in. The cover story involved the Hughes corporation developing new ocean-mining technologies at the behest of its owner and director, the reclusive and maybe three-quarters crazy billionaire Hughes.

The operation required hundreds of people, each of whom gets his or her -- mostly his -- story told in these pages. In 1974, the ship was launched and sent to the Pacific to raise the submarine, hopefully unnoticed by the Russian Navy.

Did it succeed? That's the question you'll want answered about this little known and almost forgotten hunk of Cold War history, and that's the story journalist Josh Dean tells in The Taking of K-129. Dean develops his story by telling the tales of the major individuals involved; he concentrates on the people and how they found themselves swept up in this amazing adventure that up until the last moment, had no guarantee of success.

Dean's concentration on the people gives K-129 both its strength and its weakness. Seeming to recognize how far beyond belief his tale is, Dean tries to anchor it in reality by the use of mundane detail. As he gives us each person's story, he sometimes tends to lose sight of the telling detail by giving us all of the details. He appears not to realize that sometimes less is more.

Still, his is a story that will have you shaking your head at the audacity and the almost mad attempts to do the impossible.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

21 October 2017

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