Throughout the cold war
, there were dozens of submarine
accidents as boats that relied on sound
came as close as they dared to the enemy -- sometimes too close. Some collisions were severe, others relatively minor; but even a minor bump by a four thousand ton vessel is enough to send men and their ships reeling.
This list includes collisions that were confirmed and others considered probable.
Note: I have been asked why I did not include the recent collision of USS Greenville with a Japanese fishing boat. This collision was not due to a cold war deployment or other risky assignment. Greenville was not shaddowing an enemy boat and was not engaged in other related activities, so I have not included it here. These incidents are here to illustrate how close we came to a "shooting war" with the Soviet Union.
- 1960-1961: USS Swordfish
While Swordfish (SSN-579) was on a surveillance mission off the Soviet Pacific coast, a Soviet sub apparently attempted to surface -- from directly below. The American boat was at periscope depth when it was shaken by the impact. One crew member recalls that the officer at the conn looked through the periscope and saw "running lights" -- lights along the port and starboard that a sub might turn on as it surfaced. By the time Swordfish itself came to the surface, the ocean was clear; the crew assumed that the Soviet sub had dived back down.
- Early 1960s: Unidentified Sub, possibly USS Skipjack
One former Navy intelligence officer clearly remembers and incident in which a US sub got tangled up with a Soviet Destroyer in the Barents Sea. He was not sure but thought the sub was the Skipjack (SSN-585). He was sure, however, that the American boat came home with "a propeller gouge on the sail." This may be one of the incidents that Seymour M. Hersh mentioned in The New York Times in May 1975, when he described an unnamed Holystone sub that was damaged when it surfaced underneath a Soviet ship in the midst of a Soviet fleet naval exercise. Hersh also reported that the sub suffered damage to its conning tower and escaped despite a search by Soviet vessels.
- July 1965: USS Medregal
The Medregal (SS-480) smashed into and crippled a Greek cargo freighter that was under surveillance because it was suspected of carrying supplies to enemy forces in Vietnam. The accident happened in the Gulf of Tonkin when the diesel sub was being driven by a temporary commander. The Medregal regular skipper had broken his neck diving into a swimming pool during a port stop in the Philippines.
- March 1966: USS Barbel
The Barbel (SS-580), one of the last deisel subs the Navy built, collided with a freighter suspected of carrying arms near a port on Hainan Island, China, across the Gulf of Tonkin from North Vietnam. The force of the collision tore the sail planes from the sub, probably lodging parts of them in the ship's hull. The collision was hard enough that Barbel was forced down, hitting the bottom about one hundred feet underwater. The Vietnamese later reported that the freighter had sunk when it hit a submerged object.
Indeed, the Barbel collision was especially upsetting to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara because he had earlier instructed Navy leaders to keep US subs out of the area to avoid inflaming tensions. Barbel remained submerged, backed away from the ship and left the area without checking on the status of the freighter.
- December 1967: USS George C. Marshall
The Marshall (SSBN-654), a Polaris missile sub, was clipped by a Soviet sub in the Mediterranean Sea. The Americans knew the Soviet sub was there but could not move their massive boat away fast enough. Crewmen note the collision was "a glancing blow" but said it still left a gash in Marshall's forward starboard ballast tank.
- October 9, 1968: Unidentified American or British Attack Sub
Russian Navy officials say this was the first collision involving an NATO surveillance sub and a Soviet nuclear boat in the Barents Sea. Russians reported that the Soviet sub was operating normally when it suddenly began listing to starboard, its hull shaking. The crew surfaced and through the periscope sighted another submarine’s silhouette. With the conning tower hatch now jammed, the Soviets used a sledgehammer to open it, and it was several minutes before the commander could climb outside the bridge. By then the waters were clear.
Back at base, the repair crews discovered a hole in the outer hull so large that “a three-ton truck could easily” have driven through. Judging from the small bits of red and green glass and the metal fragments stuck in the wreckage, the Soviets concluded that they had been hit by a foreign sub. Soviet intelligence later discovered that a British diesel dub had pulled into Norway with a damaged sail around that time. However the Soviets believe that they could also have been hit by a US boat.
- November 1969: USS Gato
The sail of the Gato (SSN-165) was scraped by the hull of the Soviet Hotel-class missile boat known as Hiroshima (due to it’s many nuclear accidents involving the reactor) when Hiroshima passed over the US boat. The men on Gato heard a dull grind as the subs bumped. Despite Soviet Admiral Gorshkov’s with that Gato’s corpse be recovered, the sub escaped and nobody on board was hurt.
- March 14, 1970: USS Sturgeon
As a Soviet sub passé over Sturgeon (SSN-637) in the Barents Sea the men on board could hear crunching. The Soviet boat had scraped Sturgeon from above and to the left, pulling off metal plated above the conning tower.
- June 1970: USS Tautog
In one of the most violent collisions of the cold war, the Tautog (SSN-639) was rammed by the Soviet Echo II submarine Black Lila off Petropavlovsk. President Nixon was briefed that taped sonar sounds indicated the Soviet sub had sunk, though now her captain has come forward to saw that his boat survived. Tautog also returned to port. Tautog had run her sail into the propeller of the Echo II, both subs sustained major damage.
- 1970: USS Dace
After Dace (SSN-607) hit something that rolled her to one side, her men were almost certain they had bumped a Soviet sub also operating in the Mediterranean. Indeed, Naval Intelligence later learned that a Soviet sub later pulled into a port soon after with the kind of damage that would have been expected from a collision with another sub.
- March 31, 1971: Unidentified Sub
On March 31, 1971, another Holystone sub collided with a Soviet Boat, according to Hersh’s May 1975 story in The New York Times. Hersh cited a memo addressed to CIA Director Richard M. Helms that put the collision seventeen nautical miles off the Soviet coast.
- Late 1971 or Early 1972: USS Puffer
The Puffer (SSN-652) collided with a Soviet diesel sub in the waters near Petropavlovsk when the Soviet boat took an unexpected dive just as Puffer was making one last surveillance pass. Both subs were moving at slow speed; the crew of Puffer say it was almost as if the Soviet boat sank on top of them and bumped.
- May 1974: USS Pintado
Pintado (SSN-672) collided with a Soviet sub inside Soviet waters in the approaches to Petropavlovsk, according to a story in the San Diego Evening Tribune in July 1975. Both subs were about 200 feet deep at impact. Crewmen said that the collision smashed much of Pintado’s directional sonar, jammed a torpedo tube hatch, and damaged a diving control fin. The Soviet sub, a Yankee-class ballistic missile boat, surfaced soon after the crash. The crewmen said they believed Pintado had gone close to the Soviet harbor to check to Soviet undersea defense systems. After the collision Pintado raced from the area.
- November 3, 1974: USS James Madison
The Madison (SSBN-627) was leaving the US submarine base at Holly Loch , Scotland, when she collided with a Soviet attack sub in the North Sea, according to columnist Jack Anderson and the Norwich (Connecticut) Bulletin in 1975. Madison drove onto the Soviet boat, which was shrouded by the noise of her baffles. One former crewmember notes that the Soviet boat was probably one of the Victor class.
- Late 1981: HMS Sceptre
This nuclear-powered British attack submarine collided with a Soviet nuclear sub that she was trailing in the northern waters close to the Arctic, according to reports released a decade later in the British media. One officer said Sceptre had lost contact iwht the Soviet boat for as long as thirty minutes before the collision.
- October 1986: USS Augusta
In an embarrassing and ironic moment, Augusta (SSN-710) bumped into a Soviet missile boat in the Atlantic while testing a new, highly computerized sonar system that had promised to make it easier to detect other vessels. Augusta collided with a Delta I-class Soviet boat. There was confusion that the collision had been with a Soviet Yankee-class which had caught fire and sunk in the same area due to an internal missile tube malfunction.
- December 24, 1986: HMS Splendid
According to Russian Navy officials, Splendid was surveying a Soviet sub in the Northern Fleet’s training range in the Barents Sea when the Soviets noticed her and tried to escape. The Russians say that at this point both commanders made maneuvering mistakes and the Soviet sub brushed Splendid, snagging her towed sonar array. The Soviet sub, possibly one of the monster Typhoon-class made its way back to port still tangled in the array.
- February 11, 1992: USS Baton Rouge
Baton Rouge (SSN-689) collided with a Russian Sierra-class sub near Murmansk. In an unprecedented move, and in response to Yeltsin’s complaints, the Pentagon publicly announced that the collision had occurred.
- March 20, 1993: USS Grayling
Grayling (SSN-646) collided with a Russian Delta III missile sub in the Barents Sea. No one was hurt but President Clinton was furious that the navy was still taking such risks.
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From Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage