Educational Focus: Submersibles and Ocean Navigation
Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage
Book Review 2 of 4
Reviewed by Allison Irwin
PCTELA Director of Special Activities
NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker is one of the quietest, if not the most quiet, fisheries research vessels in the world. One of the reasons for this is its propeller. The construction of the propeller is based on non-nuclear submarine technology. In order to avoid the constant vibrating drone normally translated from a mechanical engine to the propeller, which in turn makes noise in the ocean, the propeller is driven by an electric motor that is in turn powered by a series of four generators. The generators are just as loud and tremulous as a traditional engine, but since they’re not directly connected to the propellor, it keeps most of the vibrations from being transmitted into the ocean. Electricity from the generators, which produces far less vibration, is what ultimately powers the propeller.
This nod to submarine technology reminds me of a book I read last school year called Blind Man’s Bluff. The true life characters in this book jump off the page at every turn. Authors Sherry Sontag, Christopher Drew, and Annette Drew do their due diligence by interviewing everyone they can find in the isolated world of submarine espionage - from general crew to Admiral, scientist to politician. Each chapter tackles a different story from an era that spans almost 50 years of American military history.
These submarine spies stood as lonely sentries on the frontlines of a war that was waged fiercely by both sides. Only in this war the most important weapons weren’t torpedoes, but cameras, advanced sonar, and an array of complicated eavesdropping equipment. And while these men rode some of the most technologically daunting craft ever built, their goals were deceptively simple: “Know thy enemy,” learn enough to forestall a surprise attack, to prevent at almost any cost a repeat of Pearl Harbor in a nuclear age. (Prologue xiii)
In Spring 2018, a Vice Admiral of the United States Navy (Ret) came to speak at one of the Civil Air Patrol meetings I attend regularly. The Civil Air Patrol is the official civilian auxiliary to the United States Air Force and is congressionally funded. The main purpose of this organization is trifold: to run an exemplary cadet program focusing on leadership and integrity, to promote aerospace education in our membership and in the communities we serve, and to participate in emergency services missions when assigned. While listening to Vice Admiral, USN (Ret) Daniel L. Cooper, I was given my first glimpse into the world of submarines. At the risk of sounding like a much younger version of myself - I had no idea how cool they were! It was at this event that I wrote a note in my phone for later. The note read: “Get your hands on Blind Man’s Bluff!”
There are two aspects of this text that I remember best. The first is a story about American submarines cruising in the black of night, silent, sneaking into Soviet waters. Their mission was to expel a team of divers from their submarine who would literally walk on the bottom of the Sea of Okhostsk to manually tap a communication cable. Of course, this intricate mission also involved getting that team of divers back on to the submarine before hightailing it out of there. No easy feat. The authors of Blind Man’s Bluff write with such exquisite detail that it feels like you’re riding along with US Nuclear Submarine Halibut during the mission. You can find some details linked here, but I’d definitely recommend reading the book for a more robust account.
The other aspect of this book that sits in my memory is how much the United States intelligence community was dependent at that time on information gathered by these submarine crews. Some chapters of the book read like an old time spy novel. Submarines were tasked with navigating uncharted territory in the Arctic Ocean amid sharp, sometimes undetectable chunks of ice. They also played dangerous cat and mouse games with ships, planes, and other submarines from other countries - sometimes coming to just within a few feet of another submarine risking not only detection but an underwater collision. And collide they sometimes did.
Portraying the lives of the military personnel involved in each mission is done with great care. Some of the submariners have never been able to share their stories with those closest to them. At the end of the book, the authors mention that while some of the men show up at their book signings and events to get “reassurance that [they] had taken care not to harm ongoing submarine operations” (p. 306), the authors still believe they are doing these men a service by sharing their stories so their loved ones can understand them better. They write in the Epilogue on page 299 that “No final analysis of the submarine war can ignore the human costs. These men traded months, years, and more to become what was for decades the country’s best defense against nuclear attack from the sea.”
Listen to an excerpt of the audiobook and you’ll learn that the missions from the Cold War era “...designed to change the very nature of submarine warfare…” (p. 3) and had a lasting impact on our military operations today. Some details in the text are based on interviews and the authors include enough research from declassified papers and other historical documents that it becomes difficult not to believe the description of the missions as they are portrayed in this text.