In the 1960s the Soviets developed a relatively cheap way of keeping tabs on American naval movements around the world. They loaded eavesdropping gear aboard fishing trawlers, harmless-looking vessels that could loiter in the vicinity of U.S. warships and naval bases for days or weeks on end. By 1965, almost three dozen Russian trawlers were watching American nuclear subs coming and going from bases in South Carolina, Scotland, and Guam; studying the tactics of U.S. battle groups maneuvering on the high seas; and warning the North Vietnamese whenever Navy fighter-bombers lifted off from aircraft carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin.
The trawlers sometimes even tried to interfere with the carriers, cutting across their bows as they turned into the wind to launch planes. One Soviet boat, the Gidrofon, was involved in six “provocative incidents” in the South China Sea during a single month, December 1965. (In the photo above the Gidrofon paces the carrier Coral Sea.) Another trawler nearly collided with an American destroyer off Long Island, New York, as the Russian captain rushed to recover a test missile fired from the atomic sub USS George
The United States soon began outfitting its own small, cheap spy ships under Operation Clickbeetle, a top-secret Navy program to pack refurbished freighters with advanced electronics. Clickbeetle was the pet project of Dr. Eugene Fubini, an energetic, bushy-haired physicist who oversaw key Pentagon research initiatives in the early 1960s. Fubini believed the snooper boats could play an important role in keeping tabs on the Soviets’ rapidly expanding blue-water fleet, which was challenging the U.S. Navy’s supremacy in both the Pacific and the Mediterranean. He wanted up to 70 such vessels, although the Navy ultimately commissioned only three. The Pueblo was one of them.