Roger C. Dunham
Naval Institute Press
Spy Sub is touted as a completely true spy thriller of a still classified hunt for a Soviet submarine. While the plot is certainly plausible, the veracity of this claim will be left to the reader to determine. The reader should not expect a technical thriller of the caliber of Tom Clancy or the riveting style of Michael Crichton. Nor should the reader expect to learn any great secrets about submarine operations or technology. The time period in which this story unfolds is during the turbulent ’60s. What limited technology that is revealed is certainly dated by today’s standards but still makes interesting reading, especially considering the time period. What the reader will be given is a well written account of what life is like onboard a nuclear submarine.
The central premise of the novel is the search for a sunken Soviet Echo class nuclear submarine by a very unique U.S. nuclear submarine. A submarine that at one time was configured to carry and deploy Regulus cruise missiles. The author, an alleged crew member, chronicles his career from leaving Submarine School and reporting onboard USS VIPERFISH to his leaving the service. While the real name and hull number of the actual U.S. submarine used on this purported mission have been changed, as well as the names of the crew, the book does contain an assortment of photographs of what, one has to assume, is the actual ship and her crew.
The author has done an excellent job of providing a vivid and accurate portrayal of the human element of being deployed on a nuclear submarine. Anyone who has spent time in a submarine at sea will relate to the events depicted and soon find themselves reminiscing about their own experiences. You can hear the alarm bells ringing, the creaking of the boat as it descends into the depths, the clanging of water-tight doors; you can smell the tell tale odor of the submarine, the aroma of fresh bread baking in the galley; and lastly you can sense the fear, boredom and frustration experienced by these sailors. This book describes the nuclear submarine world in a manner similar to how Das Boot described the diesel submarine environment experienced during World War II. One can easily see how, psychologically, little has changed between the lives of modern nuclear and World War II diesel submariners.
The book does tend to diverge from the main story line a little in its overly heavy focus on the Vietnam War. There is little relation between the war and the ship’s ultimate mission. Only until close to the end of the book is the reader afforded some understanding of why so much emphasis was placed on the Vietnam War. While the author portrays himself in the book as a patriotic supporter of the war, one can sense from the writing that this may no longer be the case. At the very least, troubled reflections on the war by the author are apparent.
A great deal of time and effort is expertly devoted to developing the story line around the first mission of USS VIPERFISH. The reader will find it difficult to put the book down. The common saying that submarine life is days of boredom interrupted by moments of terror is adroitly validated. Unfortunately, the second and potentially more interesting mission is basically glossed over leaving the reader with an almost anti-climatic finish. There are a great many questions left unanswered. The one absorbing point at the end is the graphic portrayal of the power Admiral Hyman G. Rickover wielded at this time.
For those desiring to expand their knowledge on submarines or attempt to verify/clarify some of the details provided in the book the author does furnish a source list. The references listed would make interesting reading in and of themselves. Not surprising, the vast majority of the references are copyrighted pre-1990s.
The book is very easy reading. almost completely devoid of technical jargon and the rash of acronyms one would typically expect in a military related novel. This book can be read and enjoyed by even those with no military background. It would certainly be recommended reading for the loved ones of sailors trying to understand what it is like to spend months at sea in a submarine. Be forewarned the book, at 222 pages, is a little expensive but well worth it.