Christopher Fitzgerald, 88

Christopher Fitzgerald, 88; Led Effort to Recover Soviet Submarine

Christopher Fitzgerald spent 18 years in the CIA.
Christopher Fitzgerald spent 18 years in the CIA. (Family Photo - Family Photo)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Christopher Fitzgerald, 88, a CIA agent who was the senior member of the team that built the controversial Glomar Explorer, which was intended to lift a Soviet nuclear submarine from the Pacific Ocean floor, died Aug. 30 of congestive heart failure at his home in Arlington.

Mr. Fitzgerald spent most of his 18-year career with the agency in signal intelligence, imagery intelligence and overseas operations. He also helped develop some versions of the Corona, the first U.S. imagery intelligence satellite, and he played a key role in the development and management of satellite listening stations to monitor Soviet missile capabilities from Iran and other parts of the world.

Early in his CIA career, Mr. Fitzgerald became the lead engineer in the construction of the Glomar Explorer, an enormous barge ostensibly built by reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes to mine manganese from the ocean floor. It was actually built under contract for the CIA to recover a 2,000-ton Soviet submarine that had sunk in 17,000 feet of water about 750 miles northwest of Hawaii in 1968.

The recovery effort, which began in 1974, did not go well. The submarine split while it was being raised, and the Glomar's crew expected a nuclear explosion when the falling sub and its weaponry hit the ocean floor. No explosion occurred.

Although critical portions of the submarine were lost, three nuclear missiles, two nuclear torpedoes, the ship's code machine and various code books were recovered, according to news stories, which revealed the operation.

More than a decade later, Mr. Fitzgerald escaped being held hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by a single day, said one of his daughters, Christine Fitzgerald of Takoma Park. He had been there on assignment, and after working to get as many intelligence officials as possible out of Iran, he left Nov. 3, 1979, the day before radical Islamic students seized the embassy.

Unbeknown to most of the world, six Americans evaded capture and escaped to the Swedish and Canadian embassies, where they were sheltered until safely evacuated months later. Mr. Fitzgerald was one of the few people who knew of their plight while it was still a secret, his daughter said.

He later reorganized and modernized the National Photographic Interpretation Center, now part of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

He retired from the CIA in 1984 and helped created FHS Corp., which did consulting on national security and intelligence for the government until closing about 1991.

Mr. Fitzgerald was born in Elmhurst, N.Y. He graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in 1942 and served in the Navy in the Pacific theater during most of World War II. He participated in the battles of Coral Sea and Guadalcanal and later served in the Solomon and Mariana islands and on Okinawa.

After the war, he worked for several companies in Connecticut until moving to California, where he worked at the Grand Central Rocket Co. on the development of the solid rocket fuel used in the first U.S. satellite program.

When the Redlands-based firm was bought by Lockheed and became Lockheed Propulsion, Mr. Fitzgerald became its developer of manufacturing. He joined the CIA in 1966.

In Fairfax County, he chaired the building committee of St. Mary of Sorrows Catholic Church and was a member of the Knights of Columbus. He moved to Indian Harbor Beach, Fla., in 1987 and then returned to the Washington area in 2003.

Among his awards was the Career Intelligence Medal, which he received in 1983.

In addition to daughter Christine Fitzgerald, survivors include his wife of 66 years, Evelyn Brennan Fitzgerald of Arlington; four other children, Deborah McArdle of Gaithersburg, Evelyn Crowder of West Palm Beach, Fla., Kevin Fitzgerald of Arlington and John Fitzgerald of Great Falls; a brother; 13 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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