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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

K-19 - Widowmaker / Hiroshima

The HOTEL class of submarines was made famous by the motion picture, K-19, The Widowmaker, which follows Captain Alexi Vostrikov (Harrison Ford) who, at the height of the Cold War, is ordered to take over command of the nuclear missile submarine K-19, pride of the Soviet Navy. His assignment: Prepare the K-19 for sea and take her out on patrol -- no matter what the cost. Many of the problems are known to its original captain, Polenin (Liam Neeson). But problems with the K-19 arise that may lead to a core meltdown and explosion that will certainly kill all aboard, and possibly trigger a nuclear war. Vostrikov must choose between his orders and the lives of his men.

"K-19: The Widowmaker" joined a tradition that includes "The Crimson Tide," "U-571", "Das Boot", "The Hunt for Red October" and "Run Silent, Run Deep." The role of the K-19 in the film was played by the decommissioned Soviet K-77 submarine - diesel with cruise missiles, project 651 , with disguised hull characteristics. The movie made some rather interesting claims about the importance of the early summer 1961 cruise by the eponymous Soviet Northern Fleet Hotel-class ballistic missile carrying submarine (SSBN). For one, the film boasts of a missile launch under or in the polar ice pack. The film also suggests that the nuclear accident that occurred while the sub was at sea might have gone critical and that the resulting explosion could have been interpreted as a nuclear strike. Are the film's claims true? At one time, former members of the submarine’s crew planned to sue the film company for distorting the facts. The crew did not like the original script of the film, as a result of which an open letter was written by members of the first crew. In the final version of the film, the most odious episodes are absent, and they estimate the accuracy of the remaining events as “90 percent”. The evaluations of a number of reviews concerning the authors' motives are wrong: the Americans did not intend to create a heroic epic about the formation of the Soviet nuclear submarine fleet.

The first of the Hotel-class, the K-19, was laid down in the Severodvinsk shipyards on the White Sea on 17 October 1958. It was launched on 8 April 1959 and commissioned on 12 November 1960, possibly as the Leninskiy Komsomol (The Lenin Youth Communist Organization). A sad sign was the bottle of champagne that failed to break when the boat was launched, and the naval people were superstitious, no matter how atheistic they were at that time. The misfortunes inherited by the K-19 would be enough for a whole division of ships.

The K-19 underwent a period of acceptance trials before becoming operational. An omen of bad things occurred in February 1961 when an unexplained loss of pressure occurred in the first containment system of one of the reactors. Still, the sub appeared to be ready for its first big operation: participation in a Soviet multifleet exercise set to begin in late June 1961.

The boat received its ominous nickname "Hiroshima", omitted in the American movie for obvious reasons, after returning from its first military campaign in the summer of 1961. This exercise included surface ships and submarines from the Soviet Northern, Baltic, and Black Sea Fleets. The exercise was a two-phase affair. The first, which began about 17 June, included the deployment of a number of Soviet Northern Fleet submarines to operational areas into the northeast Atlantic Ocean. Some of the submarines may have deployed as far south as the so-called Greenland- Iceland- United Kingdom Gap, the straits between these islands popularly known to NATO naval personnel as the GIUK Gap. At least three submarines, including the K-19, left at about this time. The submarines may have been setting up a barrier against NATO maritime strike forces, or deploying to battle stations during a notional crisis between the USSR and US.

Then, on the morning of 4 July, one of the pipes that regulated the pressure for the coolant system of one of K-l9's reactors burst. An engineering oversight had put the pipe in an inaccessible spot. No one couldreach it and repair the leak. (Other reports claim that the port-side pump that provided cooling for the heat exchanger broke down). In any event, the crew had tojury-rig a system for cooling the reactor. The radiation that leaked out was estimated to be about 5 roentgens an hour - any crewmen working in the areawould received a dangerous dose after that time. A submarine in this situation would have to surface and vent the radiation-laden air if the crewwere to survive. The K-19 surfaced and sailed to the exercise area where other Soviet submarines were operating. It signaled its distress to the other boats using its tactical communications system. Finally, one heard the signal and rendezvoused with K-19. It took off the crew, and later a salvage tug arrived and towed the K-19 back to base. Eight crewmen had died andanother two dozen were injured because of the accidental leak.

Despite the accident, the exercise continued, apparently withouta hitch. On 7 July it went into its second phase. There is no firm evidence that the K-19 launched a missile during this time, as portrayed in the movie. Soviet submarine missile launches took place at designated ranges usually off the coast or in the nearby-enclosed White Sea. Could it have been the damaged K-19?. This not certartain. By this time perhaps as many as two more Hotels had become operational. So the launch could have been from another Hotel.

The dramatic launch from the ice pack portrayed in the film appears to have been fictional. The film also ignores the fact that the missile the K-19 carried had a range of only 300 nautical miles.

The K-19 went on to have a mostly jinxed career. From 1962 to 1964, he was refitted with a new reactor system at a shipyard in the White Sea. The old reactor compartment was completely removed and dumped into the KaraSea. In November 1969 the K-19 collided with the American attack submarineUSS Gato (SSN-615) that probably had been shadowing it. The K-19's acoustic pod was destroyed, and diving planes were damaged from the collision. On 24 February 1972 the K-19 suffered another accident; this time a fire broke out and deadly gas spread through the submarine. The submarine surfaced about 700 miles east of Newfoundland. For forty days, in the midst of miserable North Atlantic storms, the rescue operation continued. More than thirty Soviet ships were involved. The K19 slowly made his way back to its base, but another two dozen crewmen had died because of the fire on the sub.

In 1991 the Soviet Union decommissioned the K-19. The submarine, nicknamed "Hiroshima" by the sailors of the Northern Fleet, is now tied upin storage at the navy base at Polyamy. Unlike the film's portrayal, the K-19 never launched a missile from the ice pack. And its nuclear accident went undetected by the West at the time and remained unknown for years.

Captain 1st Rank Sergey APRELEV, technical consultant to the film, later wrote: "The statement of the creators of “K-19”, that the film is fictional and not documentary, is a typical trick that, if so, we do not pretend to historical truth ... The creators of the feature films, not constrained by facts and a limited set of frames, declare that their truth is "emotional." In fact, all define accents. And the value of the film is how close it is to understanding the truth, which, alas, exists only ideally. She is always far away, but that is where she should remain: away from the dirty paws of commerce and beyond the reach of a torpedo volley of tedious discussions. is a typical trick in that, if so, we do not pretend to the historical truth... Cinema is in the business of selling myths, not stories. And not only because myths skip with popcorn better than the truth. Myth-makers explain their occupation by the need to clear the raw history of the husk, i.e. all that prevents its absorption in the mass entertainment market....

" And yet, what is this film about? Of course, about the courage and heroism of the Soviet seamen, at the cost of life that saved us all from a nuclear catastrophe. The confrontation between the two systems made the world so fragile and unprotected, and the human factor is often decisive. The collisions of the Caribbean crisis have once again confirmed the role of the individual in history. This film is about people who swore allegiance to their motherland. They are all different, but they are all children of their Soviet time, in which they live, serve and die....

"Yes, there are many inaccuracies in the film, absurdities - in the behavior of the crew, in the ship’s maneuvers, in the crews and details of clothes ... But the tragic episode underlying the plot is a fact from our history. Well, we ourselves have forgotten him? What are the lessons learned? Judging by the fact that the mournful list of our submarines killed in peacetime is unacceptably long, the past has taught us little."

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Page last modified: 16-05-2019 18:42:15 ZULU