Review: Dark Waters

A friend of mine who is aware of my US Navy background, gave me a copy of Dark Waters, An Insider’s account of the NR-1, the Cold War’s Undercover Nuclear Sub. The authors are Lee Vyborny, who was a member of the NR-1 crew and Don Davis, a news correspondent.

I was interested, not because I served in submarines – I didn’t – but because I spent four years in destroyers whose mission it was to destroy enemy submarines. There were plenty of exercises during which we practiced hunting and killing submarines. One particular exercise comes to mind: my ship had just finished a refit in the Brooklyn Naval Shipyard and was sent to Guantanamo Bay for training exercises. One of our new weapon systems was AsRoc, an anti-submarine missile system which could be armed with either a state-of-the-art torpedo or a nuclear depth charge. We were also fitted with an advanced sonar system. Our first exercise one morning was to hunt down and ‘destroy’ a US Navy submarine which was playing ‘the enemy’. As soon as we were clear of the harbour, our sonar picked up the submarine at a distance of 10,000 yards (five miles). The captain sent the submarine an underwater telephone message telling them that the exercise had begun. Immediately, he fired an AsRoc with a dummy torpedo. The missile took off with a tremendous roar and splashed down within 200 yards of the submarine. The torpedo detached from the missile, energised its sonar, discovered the submarine, and ran toward it, hitting the submarine’ hull with a clang.

Dark Waters tells the story of the creation of NR-1 and its subsequent use.   The motivations for designing an autonomous, deep-diving submarine were multiple. The loss of the USS Thresher with its entire crew in an accident in the North Atlantic suggested the need for a deep rescue vehicle. The deep-diving vehicles which existed in the mid 60’s were either limited in their depth capability or were tied to a surface vessel. There was also an accident involving a B-52 bomber in which a nuclear weapon was dropped into the Atlantic off the coast of Spain. How to find it in deep water? And then there were almost endless possibilities for snooping on the Soviets.

Admiral Rickover was given responsibility for the Deep Submergence Systems Project. I had an interview with the admiral in 1964 in his rather scruffy office in Washington. He was assisted by the captain of the first nuclear aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise, who was in dress white uniform; the admiral was in casual civilian clothes. “Why did you have so many D’s in college?” the interview began.”

“I don’t recall that I did, sir.”

“You did. Why?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

“Are you stupid or are you lazy?”

“I must be lazy, sir.”

“How can you afford to be lazy? Is your father a millionaire?”

“No, sir.”

“Lieutenant, let me ask you a question. Suppose your wife served a pie that was absolutely awful. What would you do?”

“Well, sir, I wouldn’t say anything and she would ask about it.”

“That may work for you, lieutenant, but let me tell you the correct answer. You should pick the pie up, throw it on the floor and say, ‘this pies isn’t fit for the dogs. Get another baker!”

I received orders to go to the nuclear submarine training school, but I resigned from the Navy.

I can say that the authors paint a very accurate picture of the man who was dogged, insensitive, brilliant and highly effective in achieving his vision. I certainly enjoyed reading more of his episodes of shameful manipulation!

The NR-1, being nuclear powered has a theoretically unlimited range submerged; it is, however, underpowered, which limits its speed to about six knots and makes it somewhat vulnerable to rough seas when surfaced. It is small: about 250 tons, 130 feet long, 13 feet in diameter, with a crew of about a dozen.



The book covers the selection and training of the crew, what life was like on board and some of the assignment which NR-1 was given. One of the assignments, for example, was the recovery of a US Navy F-14 jet fighter and its highly classified air to air missile. Both were lost in a launch accident off the west coast of Ireland. The recovery was severely complicated by the presence of the Soviet navy which also wanted to make the recovery. Its classified missions (and there must have been some of them) are not discussed. One point which stands out for me is the many mishaps that befell NR-1. In fact, the authors say: “Few ships in naval history would have as many close calls, repeatedly, over many years, than its smallest nuclear-powered submarine.” I often wondered, when reading: couldn’t that problem have been eliminated by design?

The book is certainly well-written: the technology is understandable, the human interactions are revealed with particular skill, and the pace of the story is about right. I felt that there was not enough ‘meat on the bones’: the most exciting episodes involved malfunctions of NR-1 rather than espionage derring-do. (Probably because the Navy wouldn’t grant permission for those episodes to be published.) Having said that, for those who have in interest in submarines, it is recommended reading.

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