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Cold War thriller is for real, author writes

RED STAR ROGUE: THE UNTOLD STORY OF A SOVIET SUBMARINE'S NUCLEAR STRIKE ATTEMPT ON THE U.S. By Kenneth Sewell, with Clint Richmond. Simon & Schuster. 306 pages, $25.

Red Star Rogue reads like a spy thriller, except that nuclear engineer and submarine veteran Kenneth R. Sewell says it's true. A rogue Soviet Golf-type submarine blew up in the Pacific March 7, 1968, while attempting to launch a nuclear missile at Pearl Harbor, 350 miles away.

Starting with known facts, adding interviews with Russian and American military and civilian officials, and topping off with his own conjectures and deductions, Sewell develops a story of how we escaped nuclear war by a countdown that exploded.

The facts: Soviet missile submarine K-129 sails from its Siberian base Feb. 24, 1968. Just before sailing, 11 men join the 83-man crew. The mission is routine until K-129 fails to report crossing the International Date Line March 1.

Instead of patrolling its assignment, K-129 approaches Pearl Harbor. On March 7, about 350 miles northwest of Pearl, K-129 surfaces and prepares to fire.

At zero, the missile is torn by an explosion which puts a 10-foot hole in the missile compartment. The explosion dooms K-129, which plunges three miles to the bottom.

U.S. spy satellites record the explosions. A few days later, a University of Hawaii oceanographic vessel happens onto a radioactive oil slick. In port, agents, believed to be federal, confiscate its logs and swear everyone to secrecy.

On March 21 the Soviets begin hunting for K-129 1,700 miles northwest of Hawaii. By April Moscow concedes the sub is lost. In mid-July, spy sub USS Halibut leaves Pearl Harbor to find K-129. Halibut locates it, takes 22,000 photographs, and is awarded a presidential citation.

A year later the CIA contracts with a Howard Hughes company to build a ship to raise K-129. The cover story says the ship, the Glomar Explorer, would mine the seabed.

In 1974, the ship sails. Its claw seizes the sub and brings it to the surface, where it is put into the central bay. Six bodies are buried at sea.

When the story broke in 1975, Washington said the sub fell apart as it was brought up and only the bow was saved. Sewell says the entire sub was recovered. He points out that in 1993 K-129's bell from the conning tower was returned to the Russians, refuting the story that only the sub's bow was retrieved.

The U.S. role in all this remains shrouded in official secrecy.

Why did this happen? Sewell conjectures:

Yuri Andropov, head of the KGB, and Mikhail Suslov, Communist Party ideologue, plotted to get China and the U.S. into a war from which Moscow would benefit. Their plan: send a sub to fire a nuclear missile at Pearl Harbor and make it look as though the Chinese did it.

The KGB controlled Soviet nuclear weapons. It also had special military teams similar to our Rangers. Such a team would carry out the scheme.

The plotters have all the codes except the one which controlled the fail-safe system. The 11-man team seizes the sub by March 1, sails to within 350 miles of Hawaii - the Chinese would have had to do that - and surfaces the sub to get at the fail-safe mechanism.

The effort fails and K-129 pays with its life for the failed attempt.

Such is the story in brief but there are many interesting twists. The conjecture seems a bit far-fetched, but makes great reading. Washington is expected to continue stonewalling.

Jules Wagman reviews books in Jacksonville, Fla.

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