28 July 2011

It’s the Scrap Heap for Redwood City’s Mystery War Ships:

The ships served in a mission to recover a sunken Soviet sub, worked with plans of espionage, and became the inspiration for the villain’s vessel in a James Bond movie.

Two onetime top-secret ships that called Redwood City home – the giant Hughes Mining Barge and the Sea Shadow stealth ship – will become scraps of metal and wood, the Navy disclosed Thursday.

The mining barge, its mission a long-kept secret, became big news in the 1970s when it took part in a CIA operation designed to recover a sunken Soviet submarine. Later, the Sea Shadow was built inside the barge after it returned to its Redwood City home.

The Navy offered both vessels, now anchored at the mothball fleet near Benicia, to any interested maritime museum from 2006 to 2011, Navy spokesman Chris Johnson told Patch.

The Naval Sea Systems Command official said several letters of interest were received. Of those, only “one organization submitted an application which was (unfortunately) determined to be non-viable.” No date has been set for the “dismantling and recycling.”

US Navy Sea Shadow stealth craft.
The 164-foot Sea Shadow, the inspiration for the villain’s seagoing lair in the James Bond movie “Tomorrow Never Dies,” has a slanted superstructure designed to thwart enemy radar.

Lockheed Martin built the Sea Shadow inside the barge, officially called HMB-1, after the clandestine operation that recovered at least part of a sunken Russian submarine off Hawaii.

Such a public end is ironic considering how hushed the information about the ships was at one time. The Sea Shadow was kept under wraps until 1993 when it was unveiled to wide press coverage. The ship, which, from a distance resembles the Confederate ironclad Merrimac, made voyages on San Francisco Bay as cameras clicked. It became so “unsecret” there is even a plastic model kit available of the Sea Shadow, which had a speed of 10 knots and a crew of 10.

The Sea Shadow moved at night, towed inside the barge and launched into the darkness.

“We operated during the night with impunity,” crewmember S.K. Gupta told the Wall Street Journal in an interview after Navy war games off San Diego. “We could disappear and sneak up on whomever we wanted. Nobody thought we could do that.”

He also recalled watching a glass of soda on the bridge barely ripple in 12-foot waves.

Long before it housed Sea Shadow, the barge was involved in what President Gerald Ford called “one of the greatest exploits in the history of espionage.”

In its time, the barge was a familiar sight on the Redwood City waterfront, where it could be viewed from Highway 101. Seeing the hangar-sized barge was easy but learning just exactly what was going on inside was not.

The news media had been fooled by a cover story that claimed billionaire industrialist Howard Hughes was going to use the barge as part of a plan to salvage minerals from the bottom of the ocean. In fact, the CIA was behind the 1974 operation designed to recover the Soviet submarine K-129 that went to the bottom about 1,500 miles northwest of Hawaii.

The aim, according to later reports, was to recover a codebook along with an intact nuclear missile. Soon after the salvage operation ended, the Los Angeles Times reported a two-inch thick journal was recovered that provided details of the sub’s nuclear potential.

The HMB-1 was not just any barge – it was a submersible one that had a giant claw inside. It was built to be submerged under the Glomar Explorer, the mother ship for the operation, and use its claw to grab the submarine, some histories claim.

In hindsight, the barge was the real mother ship: it served as the womb for both the claw and, later, the Sea Shadow, which today rests inside the barge.

Source: Redwood City Patch. By Jim Clifford. 15 July 2001

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