It was an event that started a story in American military history like no other. In June 1968 the United States Navy ordered the construction of a special type of submarine. Then, just under five years later, the vessel finally saw her launch. And yet little did people at the time know that this craft would go on to make U.S. naval history.
The USS Parche (SSN-683), as the vessel was christened, was launched in January 1973. Yet it wasn’t until over 18 months later that she actually entered into active service for the U.S. Navy. From that point on, though, the ship would prove to be an invaluable addition to the American fleet.
Across over three whole decades of service, the USS Parche was involved in numerous naval operations. And despite the fact that she supposedly never fired her weapons, the vessel proved herself essential to protecting American interests. She even managed to remain functional well past the days of the Cold War.
But in October 2004 the USS Parche was finally retired from active service. And nine months later, the ship was stricken from the register of American naval vessels. Still, by that time it had solidified its legacy, having become the highest decorated vessel in U.S. naval history.
The United States Navy actually has its roots in the Continental Navy, which was founded in the midst of the American Revolutionary War. It’s worth noting, though, that the Continental Navy experienced a number of ups and downs throughout the course of its existence. For instance, while it achieved a number of victories against the British, 24 of its ships were also lost.
Now, come September 1785 all the ships within the Continental Navy’s fleet had been either lost or sold. That’s because at this time it was proving too expensive to manage and care for these vessels. And as a result, the United States spent nearly a decade without a naval force.
However, in 1794 Congress passed the Naval Act, which led directly to the founding of a permanent navy. This legal act called for the creation of six ships, the first three of which were ready three years later. These were the USS United States, the USS Constellation and the USS Constitution.
The newly formed U.S. Navy was initially subject to relatively small skirmishes against the French and the North African Barbary States. But it was soon engulfed in the War of 1812 against Britain. Here, after victories against a number of Royal Navy vessels, the Americans managed to push the British away from Lake Champlain and Lake Erie.
Later, in the midst of the Mexican-American War, the U.S. Navy once again demonstrated its seafaring abilities. Throughout the course of the conflict – which lasted between 1846 and 1848 – the Navy obstructed Mexican seaports. It also contributed to the first major American amphibious operation – by facilitating the landing of 12,000 U.S. troops in the Mexican city of Veracruz.
In order to achieve victory at Veracruz, the Americans needed to attack the city with larger weapons. So, naval volunteers set up and operated sizable guns, ultimately contributing to the U.S. taking the city. And this success later allowed the Americans to go on to conquer Mexico City and thus conclude the conflict.
Then in 1861 the American Civil War erupted between the northern Union states and the southern Confederacy. And during this conflict, the Union’s naval forces were notably more capable than those of the Confederacy. In fact, the Unionists’ force even pioneered a new sort of naval activity that took place on rivers.
Yes, during the war the Union’s navy started to patrol the murky waters of the Mississippi River. This in turn led to similar river-based naval activities being termed riverine warfare. And the Union proved adept in these activities, making traveling by river difficult for the Confederacy.
The American Civil War was also notable for advancing naval warfare past the exclusive use of wooden ships. In fact, the conflict saw the first clash of two ironclad vessels – the Union’s USS Monitor and the Confederacy’s CSS Virginia. Fighting over two days in March 1862, neither vessel overcame the other, and the fighting ultimately ended in a tie – unlike the wider conflict.
Following the Union’s overall victory, the vessels of the U.S. Navy were apparently of little concern, and they became outdated. Yet an initiative to modernize the fleet was introduced during the 1880s, and the Americans became a global naval force to be reckoned with. What’s more, the fleet’s potential was demonstrated when the U.S. Navy decisively overcame Spain’s military fleet in 1898 during the Spanish-American War.
By 1907 American construction of ships had advanced to the point where the country’s navy was considered comparable to those of Germany and Britain. And so in order to demonstrate this new strength, President Theodore Roosevelt commanded that American ships sail around the globe. This journey lasted fourteen months and was conducted by vessels collectively known as the Great White Fleet.
The U.S. Navy once again strengthened in the midst of the First World War. Though the United States declared neutrality at the start of the conflict, the Naval Act of 1916 saw the U.S. significantly advance its fleet. The idea behind this legislation was, you see, to turn the American Navy into a major global power.
The United States – and consequently its navy – joined the First World War in April 1917. And the naval forces were concerned primarily with opposing German U-boats in the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. But given the country’s late entry into the war, the U.S. Navy’s more significant vessels never actually faced the Germans.
Then, in the years between WWI and WWII, the U.S. Navy greatly developed its fleet. And after America actually entered into the later global conflict, its naval forces flourished even further. What’s more, they were particularly effective when the country was battling against the Japanese in the Pacific, for example.
By 1943 the U.S. Navy in fact possessed a fleet larger than all of the others involved in WWII combined. When the conflict reached its end in 1945, in fact, more than 70 percent of naval forces worldwide were reportedly American. And at its most significant point during the war, the U.S. reportedly managed nearly 7,000 ships.
Of course, the end of WWII soon saw the beginning of the Cold War. And the possibility of a full-on engagement with the Soviet Union during this period encouraged the U.S. to further develop its navy. So it was that a range of new vessels, weapons and aircraft were developed.
The U.S. Navy also played a significant role in the Vietnam War. And it generally became a pivotal force within the United States’ overall approach to nuclear deterrence. What’s more, it was within the context of the Cold War that America created its first operational ballistic missile submarine: the USS George Washington (SSBN-598).
Then in the early 1960s the U.S. Navy began constructing Sturgeon-class submarines. This new generation of vessels were to be nuclear powered and primarily tasked with attacking enemy ships. The class first entered into active service during the latter half of the decade, in 1967.
Sturgeon-class submarines could reach a maximum speed of 26 knots – or just under 30 miles per hour. They were also capable of being armed with a range of weaponry, including Harpoon and Tomahawk cruise missiles. And the submarines were, furthermore, designed to have torpedo tubes in the middle of each vessel.
During the Cold War, a number of ships were constructed that fell under the banner of the Sturgeon class. Examples include the USS Sturgeon (SSN-637), the USS Tautog (SSN-639) and the USS Pargo (SSN-650). But looking back now, one ship in particular amassed more honors for her service than any other.
The USS Parche (SSN-683) was launched in 1973 and got her name from a type of butterfly fish found in coral reefs. The vessel’s sponsor was Mrs. Philip A. Beshany. The concept of a ship’s sponsor is traditionally associated with a woman from society whom it’s believed will provide the vessel with good luck.
The Parche first entered active service for the U.S. Navy in August 1974. Initially commanded by Richard N. Charles, she was a part of America’s Atlantic Fleet Submarine Force until 1976. But in October of that year, the vessel was reassigned to the country’s Pacific Fleet.
Upon joining up with the Pacific Fleet, the USS Parche was subjected to some alterations – although very little is known about these changes. In any case, around this time the vessel managed to slip from public view. Why? Because the Navy had reportedly chosen her to play a role for the National Underwater Reconnaissance Office (NURO).
NURO actually started operating in 1969 as a means of allowing the CIA and U.S. Navy to oversee underwater surveillance. It was an extremely secretive branch – and the mere fact that it existed was only confirmed in 1998. In addition to employing the USS Parche, NURO used vessels such as the USS Halibut (SSGN-587) and USS Seawolf (SSN-21) to spy on the Soviets.
These ships were kitted out with instruments that could be used to listen in on enemy communications. Hence, NURO apparently sent them into Soviet waters to have them collect vital information. And indeed, the USS Parche spent a number of years working in this way.
Apparently, the U.S. submarine force is often dubbed the “silent service,” owing to the optimal spy work that it performs when undetected by the enemy. So it was that NURO and the Navy undertook measures to retain the clandestinity of the USS Parche. In fact, it has been alleged that any crew member assigned to the vessel was sworn to total secrecy.
Now at the beginning of the 1970s the United States discovered that there was a communications cable in the Soviet-controlled Sea of Okhotsk. And, realizing the benefits of spying on this cable, America sent the USS Halibut into the territory. This activity fell under the banner of Operation Ivy Bells.
The USS Parche was eventually called upon to take part in Operation Ivy Bells too. And the mission ultimately proved successful in allowing the Americans to wiretap Soviet communications. The vessels also managed to collect pieces of enemy anti-shipping rockets, paving the way for the U.S. to later design protections against them.
Following Operation Ivy Bells, the USS Parche was undoubtedly part of other naval operations. Yet given the secretive nature of the vessel and its objectives, little is actually known about the nature of these ops. In fact, most missions are still classified – decades after they took place.
What is known, however, is that between 1987 and 1991 the USS Parche undertook modifications once again. This time around, though, the vessel was extended by around 100 feet at the hull – allowing for more crew members and equipment to come aboard. And she was also enhanced to enable her to sit at the bottom the ocean.
When its alterations had been completed, the USS Parche was reintroduced back into the fold in 1991. But the Soviet Union was to collapse by the end of that year, signaling the end of the Cold War. And yet the submarine still remained operational for a number of years to come.
Interestingly, it has been posited that the USS Parche was involved in the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1995 and ’96. This incident saw China fire ballistic missiles into the sea surrounding Taiwan in order to intimidate the smaller neighboring country away from pursuing independence. It’s also thought that the submarine may have collected some of the resulting rocket pieces, thereby acquiring information on the Chinese weapons.
By the turn of the millennium, however, the USS Parche had become outdated. And so in 2004 – after thirty years of service – the submarine was finally retired. Yet in spite of the secretive nature of her activities, she nonetheless became known as the most decorated vessel in American naval history.
Over the course of its career, you see, the USS Parche had racked up a whole host of significant honors. In fact, the submarine was awarded with 13 Navy Expeditionary Medals, ten Navy Unit Commendations and nine Presidential Unit Citations. And no other ship has been bestowed with so many awards in all of the U.S. Navy’s history.
In October 2004 a service dedicated to the USS Parche’s retirement was organized at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington. And the following July, the vessel was officially removed from the U.S. Navy’s register. The craft was then scrapped for parts – although her sail and markings were saved and are now displayed at Bremerton.
Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Terrell Stephens of the Naval Hospital Bremerton has summed up the significance of maintaining the USS Parche’s sail. He told the U.S. Navy’s official website, “It’s important to remember the sacrifices of those who have gone before us. Saving this piece of history shows an appreciation to the past submariners.” He added, “This sail shows a milestone that was set forth in the past to make history what it is today.”
So, while the USS Parche’s missions remain somewhat mysterious, there are also several stories from this period in history that rarely get retold. There is, for instance, a tale involving an American warship and four Russians adrift in the Pacific that certainly deserves to be shared.
It’s March 1960, and the American aircraft carrier USS Kearsarge is sailing in the open waters of the Pacific Ocean. This is a routine cruise: a journey from the Japanese port of Yokosuka back to the States. But now, three days after the ship has departed Japan, what the lookouts spot in the empty ocean wastes is far from routine. It’s a Russian military barge – in just about the last place you’d expect to see it.
There were four Soviet mariners aboard the barge, too. And it became clear to the on-looking American sailors that these men were in serious trouble. But this was the height of the Cold War – the prolonged period of intense hostility that marked Soviet-U.S. relations in this era. So what was the correct protocol in this situation? Should the Americans offer to help the struggling fellow mariners? Or was another, more fatal course of action required?
These four Soviets – actually construction workers rather than sailors – really were in trouble, though. In fact, they’d had almost 50 days of nothing but problems. That’s how long their barge, a motorized transport vessel, had been drifting across the Pacific without power. Ocean winds and currents had also driven them around 1,000 miles since the start of their grueling ordeal.
How did the sailors end up here, then? Well, the Soviets – one Russian, two Ukrainians and a Tatar – had been working in Kasatka Bay on Iturup Island, which is part of the Kuril archipelago. The Russians had actually seized the Kurils from the Japanese at the end of the Second World War. And during that conflict, the bay had been an important Japanese naval base.
So the Soviet ship, known only by the unromantic name of T-36, was a 100-ton, 57-foot-long craft powered by two engines that gave it a top speed of a little under 10 knots. It was a vessel designed for coastal sailing, though, rather than ocean cruising. But T-36 had sprung her moorings during a violent storm and been driven out to sea.
Of course, that day when the Kearsarge encountered the T-36 could simply have been an opportunity for a U.S. Navy ship to perform a good turn for the Soviets. But as we’ve mentioned, 1960 was a time when the Cold War freeze was at its iciest. During WWII, you see, the Soviet Union and the U.S. had been allies in their fight against the Germans and the Japanese. But the friendship melted like spring snow when the conflict was over.
And as a result, the world was now basically divided into two camps. The U.S. led the Western democracies, and the Russians headed the Communist states. So any encounter between the military forces of these two super-powers was liable to be tense to say the least. And that explains why the Russians in their drifting barge were so cagey about being approached by a U.S. Navy ship.
And what a formidable ship it was. As previously discussed, it was the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Kearsarge that happened upon the barge as it drifted across the ocean. The assault ship has an incredible history to match its fearsome looks, too.
The Kearsarge was actually the third U.S. military vessel to sail under that name, you see. Launched in 1861, the first Kearsarge was a famous sloop-of-war that fought on the Unionist side in the Civil War. She’s in fact remembered for sinking the Confederate vessel Alabama in 1864 off the coast of France. Alabama had previously played havoc with the Union’s merchant shipping.
The second U.S. Navy ship named Kearsarge was a battleship built at the very end of the 19th century. She was deployed mainly in the Atlantic and during the First World War acted as a training vessel. The second Kearsarge was eventually scrapped in 1955, though, after working for many years as a crane ship lifting gun turrets and other heavy equipment.
But the Kearsarge at the center of our story was constructed in New York and first sailed in 1945. She was initially an Essex-class aircraft carrier – one of 24 such vessels built by the U.S. around the time of WWII. Kearsarge then entered service in March 1946, the year after the conclusion of the Second World War. The ship underwent a major refit in 1950, though, so that she could carry jet planes.
Kearsarge subsequently took part in one of the hottest episodes of the so-called Cold War: the Korean conflict. From September 1952, the carrier’s planes embarked upon around 6,000 raids against North Korean forces over the course of almost half a year. But after that, in stark contrast to her combat action, Kearsarge served as a location for the classic 1954 movie The Caine Mutiny.
And following her Hollywood interlude, Kearsarge returned to the Far East, joining the Seventh Fleet. In 1958 she was converted to an anti-submarine support vessel too. Then, a year later, Kearsarge was instrumental in providing relief to the Japanese victims of the devastating Typhoon Vera.
So on March 3, 1960, Kearsarge sailed from the Japanese port of Yokosuka, homeward bound for Naval Air Station Alameda, California – just across the bay from San Francisco. And it was on this journey that the USS Kearsarge encountered the struggling Soviet barge T-36.
The most senior of the four Soviet servicemen aboard the T-36 was 21-year-old master sergeant Askhat Ziganshin. Ziganshin was in command of Privates Filip Poplavski and Ivan Fedotov – both 20 – and 22-year-old Private Anatoly Kruchkovsky. A 2015 article published in the Russian state-sponsored newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta used first-person accounts to relate the events of that day in 1960.
So while the men were stationed in Kasatka Bay at Iturup Island in the Kurils, it seems that their mooring spots had hardly been ideal. In fact, the barge and others like it were simply attached to the masts of sunken Japanese ships – relics of the Second World War. And Ziganshin and his comrades had actually lived aboard their barge. This was apparently deemed easier than staying in the village that their unit was lodging in.
Living conditions aboard the T-36 were far from luxurious, though. The men’s quarters were actually furnished with nothing more than a portable radio, four bunks and a cooker. Then in December 1959, after the barges had delivered a number of tractors ashore, a succession of violent storms gripped Kasatka Bay. In the midst of one such downpour, however, orders came for T-36 to unload meat from a refrigerated ship.
Two barges, T-36 and T-97, were sent out on this routine job. The bread-and-butter work of these transport craft was to sail out to bigger ships moored offshore and ferry cargo from them to the land. And in normal conditions, the barges would have had ten-day food supplies aboard consisting of basics such as sugar, meat, tea and biscuits.
But on this occasion, T-36 had a minimal amount of supplies on board – as the bulk had already been unloaded in preparation for the winter. During these coldest months, you see, the men would typically be staying in their barracks on land. Disaster struck, however, before that move could take place; the force of the storm had snapped the barge’s cable. And Ziganshin and his crew now found themselves being driven towards the rugged coastline.
T-36 was able to get a radio message through to its control post stating that the barge – along with T-97 – would head for the eastern part of Kasatka Bay. The gusts there were less powerful, it seemed. But the intensity of the snow storm subsequently caused T-36 to lose contact with the other barge. And to top everything, the vessel’s radio ceased to function – leaving T-36 with no communications at all.
Moreover, the eastern side of Kasatka Bay turned out to be anything but safe. The direction of the winds altered, in fact, and the barge was then driven out into the open sea. And with the vessel’s fuel tanks rapidly depleting, Ziganshin reportedly believed that the crew had to try to make a run for the shore.
This was far from an easy undertaking, however. But the men aimed their barge towards a treacherous outcrop known as Devil’s Hill – hoping to maneuver their way through a gap in the rocks. But the barge collided with one of the rocks, damaging the vessel and allowing water to pour into the engine room. It wasn’t enough to sink the ship, though, and the crew realized that they had a clear run to a sandy beach where they could land T-36.
Just at the critical moment, though, the barge’s engines gave out. Ziganshin’s vessel was consequently without power – and the currents swept T-36 back out to the open ocean. Any chance of making the shore was now gone. And not only did the crew have no fuel, but they also had no means of communicating with the shore to report their plight.
The 2015 article in Rossiyskaya Gazeta reported that Ziganshin and his comrades did not consider swimming for shore. The reason? Well, the crew felt that that would have been a suicidal act. The water would have been subzero, after all, making the chances of survival minimal. The idea of abandoning ship was a complete non-starter, then.
And there was also reportedly no chance of anchoring. The gusts were apparently too high, and the waters that the crew had already drifted into were too deep. The temperatures were also so low that the vessel’s cables had frozen solid. So there was little else to do – except watch the coastline fade into the horizon. The date was January 17, 1960.
Despite the plight of the crew, though, there wasn’t a great deal of time for despair. Instead, the focus was on keeping water away from the barge’s engine. A considerable amount had poured into the vessel earlier, after all, when the crew’d been holed on the rocks as they tried to make for shore. But obviously a resourceful team, the men managed to patch up the leak.
And after the imminent risk of sinking had receded, the four men aboard T-36 made an inventory of their supplies. You’ll remember that the group had limited food and water on board as they’d been preparing to spend winter ashore. So their supplies were indeed meager – to say the least.
Their total supply of rations was: a pail of potatoes, partially spoiled by spilled fuel; one loaf; a quantity of millet and peas; and one container of fat. As for water, there were around ten pints of that. As the water was intended to cool the engines, though, its container included a certain amount of rust. Yet it was just about drinkable. And the crew were also able to supplement their water supply with rainwater.
Other than that list of supplies, the men had a couple of packs of Belomorkanal cigarettes plus a few boxes of matches. Hardly much use in keeping them alive, of course, but perhaps a help with morale in an era when seemingly just about everybody smoked. So Ziganshin and his men were not really equipped for a prolonged period at sea.
Nonetheless, the men were reportedly initially optimistic that their adventure in the open ocean would be a short one. They apparently even believed another vessel would spot and rescue them. Or that the winds would become more favorable and carry them back to land. Neither of those things happened, however.
Fortunately, despite their initial optimism, Ziganshin had taken the precaution of strictly rationing their supplies from the get-go. And not long after their uncharted journey got underway, Ziganshin seemingly found an old newspaper on the barge. In it was an article about how the section of ocean they were in was earmarked for Soviet missile testing.
This wasn’t good news. It meant that the amount of shipping in the testing area was likely to be very minimal. As a result, their chances of rescue seemed to have become much more remote. And so the rigorous rationing of supplies would prove to be a life-saving decision. Yet the restrictions seemingly bordered upon harshness.
In the Rossiyskaya Gazeta article, it’s stated that one of their number, Fedotov, had even started to show signs of immense strain. He apparently began to rant that they would all die from starvation, for instance. Then the other two privates asked Ziganshin to take sole charge of the supplies for safety’s sake. And things later became even grimmer.
The rationing had started off with one daily meal of a soup made from some fat, a couple of potatoes and a little of the peas and millet. Each man also received three tiny servings of water, measured in a minuscule cup that was actually part of a shaving set. After a time, however, even that tiny water ration had to be reduced by 50 percent. And worse was to come.
Eventually, in fact, the supplies aboard T-36 were exhausted. And elsewhere, unbeknownst to the barge crew, events had conspired to make their survival prospects even slighter. You see, a life belt from the T-36 had washed ashore. The Russian Navy was therefore convinced that the men must have perished during the stormy weather.
Back on board, the men attempted fishing but without success. Desperation then drove them to cook and consume their leather items of clothing – and even pieces of an accordion that they happened to have. As March 7 rolled round, though, the construction workers were down to a single boot, a few matches and a small amount of water.
But that was when USS Kearsarge appeared and found the men at what must surely have been the very doorstep of death. The crew had been at sea for 49 days in all, and now the Americans offered to rescue them. Yet Ziganshin and his comrades were initially reluctant to abandon their barge – and asked only for supplies. But given their weakened state and stricken vessel, the men had only one realistic option for survival: boarding the American carrier.
The four men were duly airlifted from their barge to the safety of the Kearsarge. And then news of an American warship rescuing these four Soviet servicemen echoed around the world. At a time of intense mutual suspicion between the U.S. and the Soviets, you see, there was something immensely appealing about humanity triumphing over hostility.
The Kearsarge transported the men back to the States. And once in San Francisco, each of the Soviets was given $100, a suit and a key to city. The men were feted by the American press, too, and were even offered asylum in the U.S. But Ziganshin and his comrades were anxious about their reception back in the Soviet Union.
The Russians therefore unanimously refused the offer of asylum. And, happily, the men’s fears about their reception at home were groundless. The Soviet authorities declared that they were heroes, in fact, because of their extraordinary feat of survival at sea. Once the men made their way back to Moscow, then, the Minister of Defense met with them, and the press in their homeland praised them to the skies. For once, here was a Cold War story with a happy ending.