In the 1960s only limited, highly risky means were available to exfiltrate agents from behind the Iron Curtain. One was across land borders guarded by trigger-ready sentries. But there was another possibility. A blown secret agent could theoretically be extracted by submarine. Whether that was ever actually achieved I do not know. But Green Berets attempted it in a 1966 training mission on an Italian beach.
The training schedule called for the troop-carrying submarine USS Sablefish to surface four miles from Livorno, Italy, and launch a pneumatic raft with five of our troopers aboard. Sablefish would tow the raft closer to the beach until it had to submerge to avoid shore-based radar and then tow the raft still closer by rope. Finally, it would cut the raft adrift and retreat to safer depths. The raft would continue shoreward powered first by a muffled outboard engine and then by muffled oars. They would link up with the shore party and transfer the agent. By a reverse process, the raft crew would rejoin Sablefish.
Daytime training focused on techniques the team needed to execute in darkness. First would be for the shore-bound raft crew to identify the exact spot on shore at which the handoff would occur. Tides, winds, and fog were unpredictable. Beachfront ambience would offer false lures. GPS did not then exist. Land and sea were considered enemy occupied and radios were on listening silence.
A major untested tactic after the pickup would be the raft crew’s ability to locate and contact the submerged Sablefish. That accomplished, Sablefish would trail a surface line with light to be lassoed by the raft, which would then be towed far out to sea for pickup. After the training was deemed complete came four nights of increasingly successful executions. On the fifth night, the joker fell face up.
The pneumatic raft with the agent aboard had tied up to Sablefish. Dulled by routine, the crew slept in their skivvies. The raft crew and passenger climbed aboard and unfastened wet sea clothes.
Then the rescued secret agent doffed a black watch cap and long curls cascaded downward. The secret agent was a woman! Panic ensued as crewmen fumbled for their dungarees. The captain roared that females were forbidden on submarines. “Well,” facetiously said the sergeant whose troopers had brought her aboard, “we could throw her back overboard.”
That cooled the discussion. She would sleep in the XO’s bunk. She would rehearse the route she needed to abandon ship and would wear a life jacket with the light already switched on.
The next morning, there was a conciliatory brunch on the sunny deck. That a Navy taboo had been broken was sensibly unmentioned. Badges were exchanged and we said our farewells.
Over on the beach, citizens would never guess that they had been bit players in The Rescue.