|A photograph of John Piña Craven that the |
Economist ran on its website
A few years ago, I had the privileged of interviewing the late John Piña Craven, a former chief scientist for the U.S. Navy’s Special Projects Office whose many accomplishments include helping recover a missing hydrogen bomb and locating a sunken nuclear submarine. He’s also rumored to have played a pivotal role in Project Azorian—a clandestine operation that involved raising a Soviet submarine that sank 1,500 miles north of the Hawaiian Islands. Involvement in Azorian would change Craven’s job description from engineer to spy.
There was nothing clandestine about my meeting with Craven. We met for breakfast in the seaside restaurant of one of Honolulu’s finer hotels. The waitresses all knew him by name, though I suspect they knew nothing about his background. Over 80 years old at the time of our meeting, John Piña Craven stood an erect six feet tall. He had a dark tan, long white hair, and the face of a man in his sixties. He came dressed in an ivory-colored turtleneck, looking like someone you might find sailing a 30-foot boat on Chesapeake Bay.
When I asked him about Project Azorian, he said, “Oh, the Glomar Explorer, I know a little about that.” The Glomar Explorer was the name of the ship the CIA sent to collect the Soviet sub. Craven told me a very little about the Explorer indeed. Every time I asked about Project Azorian, he answered with a wide range of non-Azorian-related responses.
Interviewing Craven was like grabbing a wet bar of soap. Every time I tried to take hold of the conversation, he would spring out in some new direction. Like most members of the intelligence community, he was highly trained in the art of verbal obfuscation.
Over the next two days, I spent a total of five hours interviewing him. During that time he lectured about the differences in the foreign policies of Presidents Nixon and Johnson, the role of submarines in international diplomacy, the accomplishments of Henry Kissinger, the importance of Japan, and the technology needed to create floating cities. When I tried to steer the conversation toward the Glomar Explorer, he would almost answer my questions and then ease into a discussions about subjects such as how Piña had become his middle name.
Occasionally I asked questions that made him laugh. When I asked if he had any idea why a Golf submarine had strayed so close to Hawaii, he chuckled and said, “You don’t really think it strayed off course.”
“That’s what I’ve always read,” I said, starting to feel uncomfortable.
Craven went on to tell me his theory about what happened. He believed that Vladimir Kobzar, the captain of the Soviet submarine, had intentionally left the area he was patrolling to fire a missile at Hawaii. According to the conventional wisdom of the time, the American intelligence community wanted to raise the submarine for a look at its code books and missiles. According to Craven, the objective was to prove that the boat had gone rogue.
At the time, I dismissed his theory as preposterous. Laughable. I wondered if I had even found the right John Piña Craven. New documents released since our last meeting have led most experts to adopt his explanation.
At one point in our conversation, I asked him about submarine disasters. Since World War II, the United States Navy has lost two submarines—Scorpion and Thresher. “That’s a pretty good record,” I observed.
This sent Craven into a lengthy dissertation about Cochino, Stickleback, and the Chopper—submarine disasters with happy endings. Damaged but not destroyed. Chopper and Cochino both returned to port. Stickleback sank in 1958, but her crew was rescued.
“Not every disaster involves sinking,” Craven reminded me. “There was Roanoke.”
“Roanoke?” I asked. “I don’t believe I’ve heard that name before.”
“That happened under Reagan.” Craven, very vocal about his Democrat leanings, seemed to blame the disaster on Reagan himself.
“Roanoke?” I muttered to myself. “Was it in the papers?”
“Oh no, no, no, not Roanoke,” Craven said. “She made it back without so much as a ding, but almost all of her crew was missing.” With this, he changed the subject to a lengthy tale about how he happened to purchase the land underneath his house.
“Wait,” I said. “What do you mean by missing? Do you mean they were dead?”
Craven didn’t answer my question. Perhaps he felt he had already told me too much. Perhaps he couldn’t resist telling me how the Reagan administration had framed Toshiba for selling U.S. submarine technology to the Soviet Union. I interrupted him several times to ask, “What does this have to do with the Roanoke?”, and he would say, “I’m getting there.” He never mentioned the name Roanoke again.
I left the meeting with Craven both intrigued and frustrated. Temporarily shelving my Glomar Explorer research, I began looking into Roanoke. I discovered that at one time or another, the U.S. Navy has had several ships operating under the name. There was a seven-gun schooner in the early 19th century, a frigate that launched just before the Civil War, a minelayer that launched around the time of World War I, and a light cruiser during the Korean War. The most recent Roanoke was an oiler that the Navy decommissioned in 1995—all surface ships. None of these ships could have had anything to do with Craven’s mysterious submarine.
As far as I could tell, the United States Navy never commissioned a submarine named Roanoke. I searched libraries, visited naval bases, and interviewed officers. At one point, I tried to evoke the Freedom of Information Act, an important tool in journalism. The problem with evoking the Freedom of Information Act is that you need to know what you are talking about before you can use it. I only had three shreds of information—that the boat was named Roanoke, that it had survived some sort of disaster, and that the disaster occurred between the years of 1981 and 1989—the Reagan years. After running into a series of dead ends, I gave up.
In 2011, I received a call from my sister-in-law. She began by asking me if I was still interested in a submarine called Roanoke. “The Roanoke?” I asked. “Boy that was a while ago. I’m surprised you still remember it.”
She laughed, and I knew why. When I get hooked on some topic, I take it for granted that the rest of the world finds it equally interesting. From 2008 through much of 2010, all I ever talked about was Roanoke. Back in the 1990s, my study du jour was the history of video games. Not long after moving on from the Roanoke, I became infatuated with Hawaiian history.
My in-laws live in Maryland, in a small town south of Annapolis. When professors at the Naval Academy pass away, their obituaries appear in the local paper. As my sister-in-law was glancing at the obituary of a professor, something caught her eye.
“A sailor from the Roanoke died last week,” she told me, before proceeding to read the obituary of one Captain David Weber, who until his death, taught in the Naval Academy’s Naval Architecture and Ocean Engineering Department. The story included a summary of Weber’s wartime record and the names of the three submarines on which he had served. The last of those submarines had been the Roanoke.
“Wow. I’m impressed,” I said.
“Do you want to contact his widow?” my sister-in-law asked.
Weber was survived by a wife of 37 years. She had been married to him through the entire Reagan administration. If the information in the obituary was correct, she would be able to confirm it.
Not wanting to barge in on a grieving widow, I sat tight for three months before flying to Maryland. By this time, my sister-in-law had located the late Captain’s home and arranged an appointment with his wife. She also accompanied me on that visit. If there is one person you want to take with you to a delicate interview, it is my sister-in-law, a woman best described as a Hawaiian version of Audrey Hepburn complete with all of the charm and the humor.
We met with Tina Weber on an early April morning with the Maryland sun rising over a frosted blue sky. She invited us in for tea, and struck up an instant rapport with my sister-in-law. They chatted like old friends and I did my best to blend into the furniture.
Nearly an hour passed. Tina asked me about my family and my flight out, but the two of them mostly ignored me. Finally, she turned to me and said, “I understand you are here to ask about Roanoke.”
I put down my tea and said that I was.
“Something happened during his last tour on that submarine. My husband never discussed that tour with me. I don’t know what happened on that boat, but he came back a different man. Whatever happened, it stayed with him to the very end.
“He kept in touch with the sailors who returned from that tour. He kept track of their lives. When they died, he went to their funerals.”
She passed me an old shoe box stuffed full and sealed with packing tape. One word had been scrawled across the lid, ROANOKE, written in thick capital letters with a red felt pen. “He kept this in his office. If you think it will help you with your work, you’re welcome to it.”
When I returned to my hotel room that night, I discovered that the box was filled with newspaper clippings, photographs, personal letters, type-written documents, three cassette tapes, and an address book. I won’t say that the box contained everything I needed to write this book, but it certainly sent me in the right direction.
To the best of my knowledge, no submarine has ever been named "Roanoke." I made that up, and I furthered the lie by making er USS-709, the number given to Hyman G. Rickover, the only Los Angeles-class submarine not named after a city. The original draft of the 100 Fathoms Below read more like nonfiction. In it I hinted that SSN-709 was renamed to cover all of the casualties on her first patrol as Roanoke.
My meetings with John Piña Craven are a matter of FACTION. The United States Navy did indeed employ John Piña Craven as its chief scientist for special projects, and he did indeed have the adventures I mentioned above plus many more. Also, I did have the privilege of interviewing him on two occasions for a total of 20 very frustrating hours. As I stated in above, he enjoyed a good game of cat and mouse.
He said all of the things I listed above with one exception--the stuff about Roanoke. I made that up out of whole cloth.
One thing not listed above is that Mr. Craven warned me that I would be investigated if I chose to interview him. I didn't take the warning seriously.
The night after our first meeting, I drove to the Ala Moana Shopping Center to have dinner with a friend. I arrived an hour early, and quickly noticed two men who entered ever store I entered. No joke! I decided to see if I was just being paranoid, so I went to Barnes and Noble. They went to Barnes and Noble. I went to GameStop and they went to GameStop. I went to Macy's and so did they. They even followed me into See's.
I don't know what happened to them when my friend arrived; they may well have followed us into the Makai Market--a huge food court. After dinner, though, we went to my car so I could show him chapters for a new book on my computer.
The computer was there, right where I left it under my seat, but my tape recorder was missing. We searched the car. It should have been in my computer case, but it was not to be found in the case or the car.
My friend and I went to Zippy's for dessert. When I returned to my car, the tape recorder was waiting for me on the driver's seat. AND, NO, I AM NOT MAKING THAT UP!