August 1970: the Soviets have a crazy summer

My dad used to complain that the Russian trawler was responsible for cleaning out the Grand Banks. But in the summer of 1970, one of those crafty boats was doing more than fishing … like stealing from an American missile submarine.

The Cold War was a conflict of intelligence, not arms. The USSR and NATO countries studied each other during the largest military buildup in history. You could count on these rivals to practice blatant or covert surveillance. Submarine programs were of particular interest to both sides and susceptible to all manners of inspection. While relying on the usual resources, the Soviets also played with an unlikely craft:  the fishing trawler. Those simple looking boats could be found off Western coasts or shadowing other vessels. Their “nets” were full of eavesdropping equipment.

On August 3, 1970, the trawler Khariton Laptev was sent to lurk off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina and wait for the deployment of the USS James Madison. The American ballistic missile submarine was going to test-fire one of the newest Poseidon missiles. This particular weapon was a major threat to Moscow:  the missile was built to fly into the upper atmosphere and rain nuclear death on the Soviet Union. Laptev cut its engines on the fringe of international waters and waited for the James Madison to leave port. Then it followed the “boomer” and her escorts into deeper water. It was an obvious message from the Russian Navy:  “Don’t mind us, comrades. We’re just here to watch the show.”

Russian and American crews watched each other carefully until the moment when the Madison launched its missile from a depth of 120 feet. The Poseidon blasted out of the water, fired its engine and arced into the sky. Within moments, motor launches from the Khariton Laptev raced into the launch area to steal debris. They found pieces of membrane that shielded the Poseidon missile against seawater and telemetry buoys dropped from an observation ship. U.S. sailors were too late to stop their Russian counterparts. The trawler crew flaunted their loot from the deck to aerial observers and set course for home.

The Russian trawler became an iconic character of the Cold War. NATO operators were wise to keep them in view:  the mystery boat was always puttering in the background and never fishing a damn thing.

The exploits of the Khariton Laptev come from an excellent book called  Rising Tide:  The Untold Story of the Russian Submarines That Fought The Cold War. Written by Gary Weir and Walter Boyne. (NAL Caliber, 2003) This is a must-read for submarine enthusiasts and history buffs!

Image:  box cover for a model “spy trawler” from


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