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A Soviet attack submarine crashed into a US aircraft carrier 40 years ago during the Cold War. It was a bad day for the sub.

Ella Sherman   

A Soviet attack submarine crashed into a US aircraft carrier 40 years ago during the Cold War. It was a bad day for the sub.
  • Forty years ago on Thursday, a Soviet submarine collided with the US Navy aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk.
  • The collision occurred as the sub was spying on US warships amid Cold War tensions.

Late at night on March 21, 1984, sailors aboard the USS Kitty Hawk, a US Navy aircraft carrier, felt a sudden jolt while sailing in the Sea of Japan.

Those aboard the carrier didn't know it yet, but their 80,000-ton ship had just collided with a 5,200-ton Soviet attack submarine. The surprise collision came amid heightened Cold War tensions between the US and the Soviet Union.

"I was on the bridge at the time of the incident, monitoring one of the two radars," Capt. David N. Rogers, the carrier's skipper, told reporters shortly after the odd incident. "We felt a sudden shudder, a fairly violent shudder."

Navy helicopters were quickly sortied to check out the situation. The New York Times reported at the time that the collision — which occurred 40 years ago on Thursday— left the Kitty Hawk with only a minor superficial dent while the Soviet submarine K-314 appeared to have more serious problems. The vessel was unresponsive and unable to get moving under its own power.

A Soviet missile cruiser accompanying the submarine dismissed American offers of assistance, according to US officials. The aircraft carrier immediately resumed operations following the tense collision.

The Kitty Hawk, part of Battle Group Bravo, was sailing in the Sea of Japan for exercise Team Spirit 84-1 when the accidental collision occurred. This was just one of the military exercises in the series named Team Spirit that the US participated in with South Korea over the course of 19 years.

During the Cold War, Soviet subs would often follow US vessels closely to gather intelligence, and the USSR submarine K-314 had been following the carrier for several days prior to the collision.

US military officials were puzzled as to how the Victor I-class submarine didn't see the carrier before running into it.

"Quite honestly, I have to question the seamanship of the Soviet captain involved," a Navy officer told The Washington Post after the collision.

When the maritime incident occurred, submarine K-314, which typically held about 90 crew members, was following a Soviet guided-missile cruiser headed north.

"The first thought was that the conning tower had been destroyed and the submarine's body was cut to pieces," Capt. Vladimir Evseenko, the submarine's commander, recalled in an excerpt from Nikolay Cherkashin's 2011 book, "Disturbers of the Depths."

Evseenko initially thought the American carrier had "rammed" his submarine that night, saying the carrier hit the propeller and bent the stabilizer. Afterward, the commander and his team found that the collision was the result of certain miscalculations on their end.

Evseenko was then removed from his post after the incident and transferred to land operations. "For me, this was a blow worse than a blow to the propellers," he said, according to a translation.

This was the third instance of a Soviet warship colliding with a US military vessel in a period of just five months. Prior to this collision, in October 1983, a Soviet submarine had to be towed to Cuba after it interfered with a US frigate's sonar device and was disabled.

In 1972, the Soviets signed an accord with the US in which the two pledged not to interfere with each other's naval operations, in part to help reduce the number of collisions at sea, a problem during the Cold War as US and Russian vessels often found themselves in close proximity.

Even after this agreement was signed, accidents continued to happen. A major collision occurred in November 1974 when American and Soviet nuclear submarines ran into one another near Scotland, coming extremely close to sinking one another. That incident was disclosed in a CIA memo declassified in 2017.

And such incidents at sea still happen even now, decades later. The last time American military vessels collided with a foreign ship or submarine was in 2017 when two US Navy destroyers, the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John S. McCain, collided with the container ship ACX Crystal and the tanker Alnic MC, respectively. The incidents were fatal.

It's unclear what ultimately happened to submarine K-314, but the Kitty Hawk continued to serve the Navy for another 25 years before being decommissioned in 2009.

The Navy made a widely misunderstood one-cent recycling deal with a shipbreaking company in 2021 to scrap the conventionally powered aircraft carrier.

The following year, the large warship that served for nearly 50 years made its final voyage, traveling more than 16,000 miles to a facility in Brownsville, Texas, where it's being scrapped.