Sunday, January 01, 2006

Enemy sub now a museum


By Elizabeth Zuckerman
June 12, 2005

The K-77.

Soviet-era vessel finds new home in Rhode Island
PROVIDENCE, R.I. ยท Ken Johnson folds himself through the tight passages of the K-77 with an ease born of familiarity.

But it's a strange fit for the former U.S. Navy submariner, who served at a time when Soviet submarines like this one were the stuff of nightmares. A tense or even volatile encounter was always possible, and being inside one would have been unthinkable.

"I never dreamed that I would set foot on a Russian submarine," said Johnson, 65, of Oakham, Mass., now a volunteer tour guide on the sub-turned-museum.

After years of targeting U.S. cities and ships, the K-77 floats placidly in Providence harbor, a short drive from the Statehouse and within sight of the massive fuel tanks that some worry could be targets for modern-day terrorists.

As the Russian Sub Museum, the 282-foot, diesel-powered vessel opens its hatches to tourists and schoolchildren, many too young to remember the long-simmering conflict it represents.

The K-77 was launched in 1965 as part of the Soviet Northern Fleet. Its class -- labeled Juliett by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization -- was initially planned as a nuclear missile platform for strikes against the United States, particularly against East Coast cities.

Each sub carried four nuclear cruise missiles with a range of more than 300 miles, as well as an array of torpedoes. When newer subs carrying more accurate cruise missiles were developed, the Juliett class took on a new mission: tracking U.S. aircraft carriers.

For the USS Saratoga Foundation, the private, nonprofit group that owns the sub, that relationship is fitting. The foundation is working to acquire the decommissioned aircraft carrier USS Saratoga and open it as a museum in Rhode Island.

"This sub and its cousins played cat and mouse with the Saratoga and its sisters," said Bill Sheridan, deputy director of the foundation.

While a number of decommissioned carriers are used as museums around the country, foundation members think they have an unusual opportunity to bring together two vessels that represented opposing sides of the conflict. The group eventually hopes to reunite the sub and the ship at Quonset Point in North Kingstown -- parallel floating museums teaching future generations about the rivalry between the two super powers.

"We can now show the yin and yang of the Cold War by showing the two different technologies," Sheridan said.

The foundation was formed to buy and preserve the Saratoga. But as that effort got bogged down, the foundation decided to acquire the sub -- known by NATO as Juliett 484 -- as a way to keep its volunteers involved and get experience running a museum.

The sub took a circuitous route to Rhode Island.Decommissioned sometime between 1991 and 1994, the K-77 was first purchased by Finnish businessman Jari Komulainen, who opened it as a restaurant and vodka bar in Helsinki. Rooms of batteries used to power the sub were removed to make room for food preparation and seating areas.

But the floating restaurant and bar was a flop, and in 1998 he loaned it to a Canadian promoter who towed it to Florida. Plans to develop it as a tourist attraction there foundered when the sub got stuck on a sandbar within sight of its intended dock. It was relocated to another site, but didn't fare well there either.

Komulainen then tried to sell the submarine in an eBay auction, listing it at a starting price of $1 million. It didn't sell, but the auction drew the attention of Intermedia Film Equities Ltd., who chartered K-77 for $200,000 to shoot the 2002 film K-19: The Widowmaker. It was moved to a dry dock in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and doctored with fiberglass additions to make the K-77 resemble the larger nuclear sub K-19.



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