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August 25, 2023

New Netflix docuseries explores '70s CIA mission with Chester connection

'Spy Ops' tells the story of Project Azorian, an operation to recover a sunken Soviet submarine. The show premieres Sept. 8

TV History
Hughes Glomar Explorer Wikicommons/U.S. Government

The Hughes Glomar Explorer, pictured above, was built in Chester for a secret CIA operation.

A secretive tale involving a sunken submarine, the billionaire Howard Hughes and the Chester shipyards will be revisited in an upcoming docuseries.

"Spy Ops," a new Netflix show premiering on Friday, Sept. 8, will examine espionage from the 1970s through the 2000s, focusing on seven major operations. That includes Project Azorian, a CIA mission with roots in Chester.

Project Azorian was designed to recover K-129, a Soviet submarine that had sunken somewhere in the Pacific Ocean in 1968. The USSR had abandoned its search after two months, but U.S. officials located the wreck roughly 1,800 miles northwest of Hawaii and devised an elaborate scheme to claim the sub — and, they hoped, intelligence buried with it — for themselves.

By 1970, the CIA determined it would need a vessel with a giant mechanical claw to raise the wreck from the water. Sensing that such a ship would attract attention, especially from the Soviets, the agency enlisted Hughes for a cover story. Newspapers soon reported that the eccentric tycoon was constructing a 618-foot ship for deep-sea mining. It would be built by Sun Shipbuilding & Drydock Co., a Chester company that ceased operations in 1989.

The Hughes Glomar Explorer was completed and officially christened in 1972 along the Delaware River. The vessel sailed to Bermuda for testing, then to Long Beach, California, where it was carefully guarded ahead of its ultimate mission in 1974.

The ship arrived at the wreck site on America's birthday. From July 4 through mid-August, the crew aboard worked to recover the K-129. CIA operatives found the bodies of six Soviet sailors, who were given a military burial at sea, and managed to load the submarine into the claw. But as the Hughes Glomar Explorer hoisted it up, the submarine broke apart, with some of it sinking back into the ocean. There's some debate to this day about what information the CIA actually recovered and what intel is still lost at sea. 

The ship's true mission was revealed the following year as the media pieced the narrative together. Now, half a century after the original operation began, "Spy Ops" will reexamine Project Azorian with interviews from the officials and agents who carried it out, as well as those behind other secret missions to invade Panama, thwart a papal assassination attempt and extract a double agent from Moscow.

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