Nov 12, 2017

Peter's Take on an American Classic

men's book club group review k-129 josh dean
Dinner and Acknowledgments

I’m sure Peter puzzled over his meal choices.  What to serve when the story at hand is about submarines and deep-sea mining vessels?  A natural choice would have been a tasty deep water fish.  But lanternfish are hard to come by, even here on the west coast.  So Peter pivoted to patriotism and last Thursday showed his adopted flag by treating us to an all-American classic, the hamburger.  Combined with steak fries and salad, and ice cream afterwards, our meal was the perfect accompaniment to a quintessentially American story about ingenuity, money, and an engineering challenge fueled by the anxiety of the Cold War.

Our Review and Discussion of The Taking of K-129 by Josh Dean

In 1968, the Soviet ballistic submarine K-129 went missing.  Unbeknownst to the Kremlin, it suffered a catastrophic event and sank along the International Date Line north of Hawaii.   Shortly thereafter, the Americans learned of the loss and, using submerged acoustical beacons, discovered the sub’s location. With the CIA overseeing the mission, the race was on to devise a means of raising the sub before the Soviets realized it had been located.

The focus of Dean’s story is the engineering challenge posed by retrieving a 1,500-ton sub from a depth of 16,700 feet.  Complicating the mission was the requirement that the nature of the work be kept secret.  This required the construction of the Glomar Explorer, the world’s largest deep sea mining ship, equipped with a submersible barge (to carry the sub back).  It also required the secret cooperation of the Howard Hughes Corporation, which provided the CIA with its cover story:  the Glomar Explorer would explore the seabed for manganese nodules!  

Project Azorian was a partial success. Only a portion of the sub was retrieved, as the remainder broke apart during the lift process.  The story helped us understand America’s mood in the late 1960’s:  its confidence was high but Sputnik and Vietnam had punctured its post-war belief that anything was possible.  Much like the Apollo mission, Project Azorian tested and confirmed America’s engineering prowess.

After expressing our appreciation for a story so little known, we took turns faulting Dean for inserting one unnecessary character after another.  The Glomar Explorer had 178 sailors and engineers, and it felt like we were introduced to each one.  The narrative was also far too long.  What should have been long-form journalism, according to Larry, was instead expanded into a full-length book.  Both Jack and Roy skipped entire chapters and still came away with the story intact.  John was pleased to learn more about the U-2 and SR-71 spy planes and I was tickled to learn the origin of the CIA’s “neither confirm nor deny” response to press inquiries.  But neither was necessary to Dean’s story.

Our Rating of The Taking of K-129

Our below-average 5.7 rating reflected our impatience with Dean but belied our enthusiasm for the subject matter.  Indeed, some of us had a personal connection to the story.  George worked for the Hughes Corporation in the 1970’s and got to tour the secret offices used by the CIA.  Mando and others recall boating around the Glomar Explorer after it was mothballed in Suisun Bay.  And Larry’s uncle worked on submarines at Mare Island and took several out on shakedown cruises. 

Next Up:  The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Roy proposed three novels for next month, each reflecting the theme of love and war.  We turned down Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See and Cleave’s Everyone Brave Is Forgiven and instead opted for Australia’s most recent winner of the Man Booker Prize, The Narrow Road to the Deep North.  We’ll learn in December if Flanagan’s story of POWs on the Burmese Railway justifies all the attention it’s received.


  1. The events surrounding the Glomar Explorer's mission happened during my high school and college years. Being raised on sailing and crossing oceans, the Glomar Explorer held my interest even if I did not understand it's uses. After college I joined Hughes Aircraft Company in their finance department, however, this was not related to the Glomar Explorer. While working in and around the Los Angeles area many of the "old timers" told stories of Hughes, Summa Corporation, and Hughes Aircraft. While working in one office, I was introduced to the "secret" back stair which was now just a routine way of getting from one floor to another. Also, I was shown the office were the burglary had taken place. The combination of my limited knowledge of the Glomar Explorer, my time at sea, and my having worked at Hughes, made Josh Dean's story all the more interesting.

  2. George, thanks for the historical context. But rather than entertain us with not one but two dangling participles (sorry, couldn't resist), why don't you share the company newsletter photo from your Hughes Aircraft days? That caused quite the stir during dinner. I vaguely recall someone (Paul?) likening your headshot to that of a (handsome) 1970's porn star....

  3. One of the true benefits for me of the MBC has been reading books that I not otherwise have read. Case in point is Taking of K-129. While the book was, in my opinion, prosaic both in its character descriptions and its often use of "side bar" like tangential digressions (e.g. SR -71 Blackbird), I was genuinely impressed by the story itself -- the ability of CIA to build and deploy such a vessel hiding in plain sight. Particularly having lived through that time, I did not realize until I read this book the depths the CIA went to maintain the Glomar's true mission. Finally a quick shot out to the book's publisher, Dutton, for providing MBC copies for all. While publishers have be plied us with books before, this is the first such book MBC has chosen as our book of the month.

  4. First, let me dispel the notion that I ever said that George's headshot was like a handsome 1970's porn star. I must have been referring to my rugged good looks.

    That said, K-129: I really enjoyed the book despite its narrative style. Some would say the true test of a book is if it is well written. But it's not all about elitist literary-ness; it's also about an interesting story. I was fascinated by the story, I watched the movie, and I researched the events. A really great story, interesting history. I would know almost nothing about this had we not read the book.

    Nor would I have finally written my slam piece on the MBC which our Editor, er, fearless leader (?) has refused to publish. Another example of elitism in the publishing industry.

  5. Don't worry, Paul. Your magnum opus will be showcased in an appropriate fashion!