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A quixotic quest to bring home a spy ship

John Lahm was a 25-year-old electrician helping to build a waterfront power plant in Chester when he saw the ship cruising north on the Delaware River.

John Lahm with the Glomar Explorer marker at Penn's Landing. He wants to bring the spy ship to the waterfront, near where it was built in Chester. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
John Lahm with the Glomar Explorer marker at Penn's Landing. He wants to bring the spy ship to the waterfront, near where it was built in Chester. DAVID SWANSON / Staff PhotographerRead more

John Lahm was a 25-year-old electrician helping to build a waterfront power plant in Chester when he saw the ship cruising north on the Delaware River.

All around him, work stopped. Hundreds of men stood and stared at the strange-looking vessel, nearly as long as a battleship and outfitted with armlike cranes and a tall central tower.

"That's the Howard Hughes boat," a man next to him said.

Years passed before Lahm learned what he had seen that day in 1974: The Hughes Glomar Explorer, a CIA spy ship so secret that even now, 40 years later, the breadth of its mission has never been fully declassified.

It was built at enormous cost for an audacious Cold War task: to recover a sunken Soviet submarine from beneath three miles of water and capture the nuclear missiles, code books, and decoding machines that lay within it.

Today, 68 and retired, Lahm is on a mission of his own: to bring the Glomar Explorer to the Philadelphia waterfront, near where it was built at Chester's Sun Shipyard. The ship sits idle these days on the other side of the world.

"Why not try to get that ship?" asked Lahm, who has written to government officials to seek their backing. "I'm doing everything I can, because I see an opportunity for this state, and if I don't shout it from the rooftops, no one will."

Lahm's dream is as big as the Glomar: to move, restore and maintain an old ship costs millions of dollars. And the waterfront already is crowded with ships-turned-tourist-attractions that compete for funding and attention.

But Lahm, who lives in the city's Holmesburg section, is nothing if not determined. In the early 2000s, he pushed the state to recognize the Glomar's local roots by erecting a historic marker. Today, the blue-and-yellow plaque stands at Penn's Landing near the Seaport Museum.

The marker only hints at the intrigue that once surrounded the ship - and that continues even today.

When the Glomar was being built, word was put out that Hughes, the eccentric billionaire businessman, wanted a specialized ship to mine manganese from the sea floor.

"The story in the yard was Howard Hughes wanted to farm the ocean bottom, harvest the ocean like they harvest the fields," said Bill Swahl, 71, of Glen Mills, then a young mechanic at Sun. "We figured that made sense, [it being] Howard Hughes."

The cover story extended even to the launch party, where guests were given manganese nodules as souvenirs, recalled Jon Matthews, a design engineer of the ship.

"Maybe I was young and naive, but I didn't understand the true situation until it became public," said Matthews, now 72 and living in Wilmington.

In fact, the only thing Hughes lent to the project was his name. The Glomar's true mission was to snatch the Soviet Golf II-Class sub that had sunk northwest of Hawaii in 1968.

"It was the first strategic-missile submarine to have been lost," the CIA wrote in a later summary, "but the odds against retrieving it seemed insurmountable."

The plan: The Glomar would lower a clawlike apparatus known as Clementine and lift the sub into an underside holding area called the "moon pool." Those features meant the recovery could take place out of the sight of other ships, planes, or spy satellites.

The Glomar arrived at the site on July 4, 1974, and began work immediately. Soviet ships arrived too, conducting near-continuous surveillance, according to information unearthed by the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

Worried that the Soviets might try to land helicopters on the Glomar to stop the work, the crew stacked crates on the chopper pad. Sailors prepared to destroy sensitive materials if the Soviets boarded.

The Glomar began lifting the sub on Aug. 1. The truth of exactly what was recovered - and whether it constituted the hoped-for intelligence bonanza - remains uncertain even now.

Books, films, and journalists have reached different conclusions.

Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh wrote in 1975 that the CIA did not recover nuclear missiles. A later Soviet panel concluded, though, that the Americans did recover at least two nuclear-armed torpedoes.

Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew's 1998 book, Blind Man's Bluff, reported that only part of the sub was recovered - 90 percent of the vessel broke free and crashed to the ocean floor, taking everything the CIA wanted. Documents declassified in 2010 through efforts by the National Security Archive did not reveal how much of the sub was recovered or what useful material was found inside.

On its website, the CIA says the sub broke apart when it was a third of the way to the ship. In the retrieved section were the bodies of six Soviet sailors. They were buried at sea with military honors.

Today, anyone can watch video of the funeral ceremony on YouTube.

A second attempt to recover the sub was canceled. Since then, the Glomar has moved among owners and places, refitted for deep-sea drilling but often taken out of service. Today, the renamed GSF Explorer belongs to Transocean, a Houston company.

Spokesperson Pam Easton said the firm doesn't provide information about specific ships - such as a potential price tag if the firm were willing to sell. The Explorer, now in Malaysia, has been idle since November.

Lahm said that inactivity makes it the perfect time to strike. He's sought to enlist people like Lt. Gov. Mike Stack, who in January wrote to say he would research the possibility of relocating the Explorer. A Stack spokesperson said last week he was still reviewing the matter.

If the Explorer were to come here, it would find lots of company.

Docked at Penn's Landing are the Olympia, Admiral Dewey's flagship during the Battle of Manila Bay in the Spanish-American War in 1898; and the submarine Becuna, which fought against the Japanese in World War II.

Nearby is the rebuilt Moshulu, the sailing-ship-turned-restaurant; the barkentine Gazela; and the tugboat Jupiter. Across the river is the battleship New Jersey. In South Philadelphia, the SS United States has for nearly two decades cast a rusty shadow over Pier 82, awaiting some future renovation.

People who study ship preservation say money and interest are always the hurdles. Government budgets are strained, and, though ship aficionados are passionate and dedicated, their numbers are limited.

Independence Seaport Museum CEO John Brady agrees the story of the Glomar Explorer is fascinating. But, he wondered, would the arrival of another ship jeopardize those already there?

Lahm, who also worked at the Philadelphia Navy Yard and at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia, knows it won't be easy to relocate the Explorer, but he's sure it can be done - maybe on Lake Erie if not in Philadelphia.

"I have to be optimistic," he said. "The whole East Coast will jump if that ship comes upriver."