Israel tries again to solve mystery of sub lost in '68


JERUSALEM -- A battle pennant flew over the submarine Dakar Jan. 9, 1968, a proud boast of readiness. In the morning, this newest jewel for the tiny Israeli navy nosed away from an English shipyard and headed home.

Sixteen days later it disappeared.

Greek and Israeli navies began a search for this ghost last week, a determined effort to solve the mystery that for almost a quarter of a century has haunted Israel and the relatives of 69 crewmen presumed to have perished.

Using a special deep-sea robot to photograph the bottom and a borrowed salvage ship, the Israeli navy began combing a 200-square mile area around the islands of Rodhos and Crete in Greek waters.

It is the latest of sporadic attempts through the years to find the Dakar, attempts described as more for sentiment than for

military value.

"This is for the Jewish people, for emotion and religion," said Abraham Botzer, who was commander of the Israeli navy for four years immediately after the ship's loss. "I doubt they would find anything of operational value."

But the mysterious fate of the sub has left a legacy of theories and suspicions about what it was doing and where it was, theories that could be answered only if it was found.

Was the Dakar swallowed by a huge Soviet submarine and its crew taken alive? Was it snooping around Egypt, spotted and sunk? Did it collide with a French submarine reported missing the same time?

The likely explanation is more mundane: a mechanical failure that left the new crew unable to save the craft. But the Israeli government still drapes the incident with secrecy. The military declined all requests for interviews with officials involved with the case and refused to discuss the search.

"It's been a sort of open wound to them," explained a former Israeli reporter who followed the case.

It has been more painful to relatives of the crew.

"Even today, when I start the morning, I automatically turn on the radio to see if there is anything on the news about it," said Michael Marcovici, whose brother Yitzhak was a 19-year-old mechanic on the Dakar.

"When my father passed away, I buried him and put a stone on his grave. I know he's dead. With my brother, all I know is that on Jan. 29, 1968, he did not come in on the ship, and I haven't seen him for 24 years."

The Jewish religion places special importance on the burial act and ceremonial remembrances at each anniversary. So Israel has often gone to extraordinary lengths to retrieve the bodies of its military.

"It's important in terms of Jewish tradition," said one officer. "Every soldier's family knows that everything will be done."

The Dakar was supposed to be Israel's second submarine, to match similar vessels of Egypt prowling shared Mediterranean waters. Israel bought the submarine from the British. The 1945 World War II craft originally named the "Totem," was delivered after it had been lengthened by 12 feet, making it 285 feet long.

It stayed in the Portsmouth, England shipyard for two years for extensive refitting and modernization, while Israel picked and trained a crew of volunteers. The Dakar and crew spent three weeks in sea trials in the rough North Atlantic and dived to a depth of 350 feet, near its 400-foot maximum.

Everything checked out fine.

En route to Israel, the Dakar stayed on the surface until it reached Gibraltar. From there it slipped underwater, headed for Haifa. The voyage went so well the captain, Ya'akov Ra'anan, asked permission to dock in Haifa Jan. 28, a day earlier than scheduled.

Permission was denied. A ceremony was planned, and officials did not want to mar the event. It may have been a fatal decision. Some speculate that Captain Ra'anan, ahead of schedule with a day to waste, changed course for unplanned training or some other purpose.

The last clear message from the submarine came after midnight Jan. 25. It was routine. The ship was supposed to report by radio every eight hours, but nothing else was received.

Thirty hours later, Israel called for help, and a massive search was launched.

Even as a storm rolled in, 38 ships from United States, Britain, Turkey, Greece, Israel and even Lebanon combed the waters, to no avail. Planes made 105 search flights. The families heard the news on the radio.

"My son never told me what the mission was. But he said he liked being on a submarine a lot," said Shmuel Schnaper, whose 22-year-old son Ruven was a navigator on the Dakar. The young man had met a girl while he was training in England, and they were going to be married.

"The last message he sent me was that everything is OK, and he would be seeing us soon," Mr. Schnaper said.

After 11 days the search was called off. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan told the families in a packed auditorium that there was little hope.

The navy has never given an official explanation for the sinking, but it has suggested that some combination of mechanical and human failure caused the loss. Many family members still refuse to accept that.

"The entire crew had to learn every last screw on the ship. They had to be able to fix anything in the dark," Mr. Schnaper said. "Crew error is the least likely."

Other theories were grasped for. The French submarine Minerve disappeared elsewhere in the Mediterranean two days after the Dakar. The U.S. submarine Scorpion was lost a few months later in the Atlantic Ocean, about 400 miles southwest of the Azores.

Some conjectured that the submarines had been rammed by Soviet boats or captured by some giant sub-swallowing vessel. Others pointed to reports -- never verified -- of an SOS signal from the Dakar as proof that the ship's crew must be alive.

There were plenty of hostile neighbors -- Syria, Egypt and Libya. Had the boat been attacked?

"There are all these mysteries. The possibilities are endless," Mr. Marcovici said. "Each theory immediately raises 10 good questions and another 11 replies."

A year after the disappearance,two Arab boys on a beach near the Gaza Strip found an odd, barrel-shaped device with an antenna. It was the emergency buoy from the Dakar.

Israeli scientists pored over the buoy and concluded that it had been attached to the sub, deep under water, for all but three weeks. They plotted with charts of the Mediterranean currents and concluded that the ship must be off the coast of Egypt.

That added to the mystery. What was it doing there, so far off course and so close to enemy shores? Only after peace was reached with Egypt a decade later could Israel explore further. In 1986, ships from the United States, Israel and Egypt searched for a month off the coast of Egypt and found nothing.

The disappearance seemed likely to remain a mystery. But new research into the wandering currents of the Mediterranean have shown the charts used to trace the probable route of the discovered buoy were wrong.

The sea's currents do not move in one circling motion, but in a series of smaller whirlpools. Israeli scientists went back to their charts and replotted the likely course of the buoy.

They are now focusing on Crete, close to where the Dakar sent its last signal.

The area is one where a submarine captain might well have chosen to give his new crew some practice: lots of underwater valleys and plenty of merchant traffic to track.

After delicate negotiations, Greece has agreed to allow the search in its waters, overseen by the Greek navy. One source said Israel is expecting to stay "as long as it takes."

But after so many years, the family members have subdued expectations.

"Of course, we want to bring them to burial in Israel and to find out what happened," said the father of one officer, who asked not to be identified.

"But I don't believe anything will come out of it. Not in my generation. Perhaps in my grandchildren's generation."

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