Few people know that Redwood City’s port played an important part in the Cold War, but that’s not surprising since the story was very, as they say in spy movies, “hush, hush.”
Redwood City was homeport to a mysterious massive barge that became part of a 1974 operation the CIA hoped would recover a Russian submarine from the ocean floor about 1,000 miles from Hawaii in an effort to gain Soviet intelligence information.
After the CIA caper, the barge that featured a retractable roof returned to Redwood City where it became the womb for the Navy’s “Sea Shadow” stealth ship, which was built in secret inside the barge.
After the ships retired, the Navy hoped to find a home for them at a maritime museum, but those plans fell through and the next port of call was the scrap heap, which the barge escaped thanks to Bay & Yacht of Alameda, which bought the barge at auction for $2.5 million, and converted it to a floating dry dock. The Sea Shadow wasn’t as lucky and was scraped. Both vessels spent their declining years as part of the mothball fleet in Suisun Bay, which once consisted of scores of aging vessels, including the “Glomar Explorer,” the mother ship for the submarine recovery project.
The saga of the barge and the Sea Shadow passed under the radar of the major league media. Fox News did manage to report that the stealth ship, which had been designed to thwart radar probes, would be scraped. Missed was the fact that the barge faced the same fate.
The 164-foot long Sea Shadow, the inspiration for the bad guy’s seagoing lair in the James Bond movie “Tomorrow Never Dies,” was built by Lockheed Martin. The twin-hulled vessel, which looked like an A-frame houseboat, was under wraps until 1993 when it was unveiled to wide press coverage. The ship became so “unsecret” there is now a plastic model kit available of the Sea Shadow, which had a speed of 10 knots and a crew of 10.
Sea Shadow Did not Cast a Shadow
The name Sea Shadow was a misnomer. It was painted black and did not cast a shadow because it moved at night, stowed inside the barge and launched into darkness.
Long before it became a warehouse for Sea Shadow, the barge was involved in what President Gerald Ford called “one of the greatest exploits in the history of espionage.”
The barge was a familiar sight on the Redwood City waterfront and was easy to see from Highway 101. Some thought the letters HMB-1 on the craft had something to do with Half Moon Bay.
Spotting the barge was easy but learning exactly what was going inside was another matter.
The news media was fooled by a cover story that claimed billionaire industrialist Howard Hughes was going to use the barge as part of a plan to salvage minerals from the bottom of the ocean.
The cover was not far-fetched. According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, during the late 1960s both industry and government began to seriously look into the possibility of ocean-based sources of strategic minerals. Scientists knew that the seafloor contained potentially recoverable deposits of minerals such as nickel, cobalt, copper, manganese, gold, tin, platinum, iron and titanium.
The Department of Interior’s Bureau of Mines had so much faith in increased ocean mineral development that it established the Marine Minerals Technology center at a one-time Navy coaling station in Tiburon.
Interest in CIA operation has never slackened. Books have been written about the daring operation that came at a time when America could go to the moon and the bottom of the ocean. The Internet is loaded with information for those with the time to pursue the matter.
The Journal of Local History, published by the history room staff at the Redwood City Library, had a long article a few issues ago in which an engineer on the project said the barge never left California coastal waters. He said a giant claw-like device was constructed inside the vessel. The barge was submerged and the claw was transferred to the Glomar Explorer above. The mother ship and the claw were used in the operation off Hawaii while the barge returned to Redwood City.
Jim Clifford retired in 2000 after a 40-year career as a news reporter, a span split between United Press International and the Associated Press. He writes the “Rear View Mirror” history column that appears in the San Mateo Daily Journal. He also writes history stories for several magazines, including Climate, The Journal of Local History and La Peninsula.
Clifford, the author of “Philip’s Code: No News is Good News — to a Killer,” is veteran of both the Navy and Air Force. He and his wife, Peggy, met when they were students at San Francisco State. The native San Franciscans moved down the Peninsula to Redwood City where they raised seven children. “Times were good,” Clifford said.