By Lee Vyborny and Don Davis
Occasionally, interesting things fall into the sea. Aircraft, missile reentry vehicles, nuclear weapons, film capsules from reconnaissance satellites, submarines, all have plunged to the bottom of the ocean at one time or another. If the item is relatively small and falls in deep water, finding it from the vantage point of the surface can be very difficult indeed since the high resolution, high frequency sonar needed to find it doesn’t have a very long range. Also, in most cases you’d just as soon the other fellow didn’t know you were looking for whatever sank. For both reasons, the best platform for hunting this kind of treasure on the sea floor is a submarine. Most submarines built for deep submergence, however, have poor endurance: they require a tender be nearby and they must return to the surface every few hours. Forty years ago Admiral Rickover decided to build a submarine to find these interesting things, a submarine with nuclear power having unlimited submerged endurance. Lee Vyborny and Don Davis have crafted a fascinating book to tell the story of that submarine, NR-1, and the men who sailed her.
Vybomy (one of the original crew members) and Davis have given us as comprehensive a look as they can at the gestation, launching, and missions of NR-1. Of course, many details of the ship itself and its activities remain highly classified, and laboring under that handicap they do very well indeed. In addition to details of the fore-end of the ship they provide the first glimpse of the sub’s remarkable nuclear powerplant, which provided only 120 hp running flat out, and which could be operated by one man. I was fascinated with the precision with which the hull must be fabricated to withstand the pressure of 3000 feet of sea water. The stories of Rickover’s insistence on using off-the-shelf technology for as many systems as possible in this one of a kind submarine (and the risks that were created) will resonate with today’s submarine community. In these days of habitability concerns on board ship, the episodes of being towed on the surface thousands of miles, sleeping on the deck plates, freeze-dried food, and the rustic sanitary arrangements serve to remind us how much more comfortable ships are today. There are plenty of harrowing adventures described in the book, enough to give most sailors a dry mouth and wet palms. I found the episodes of becoming entrapped in wreckage on the sea floor particularly unnerving.
Vyborny and Davis also write in some detail about two operations in deep ocean recovery: the recovery of the H-bomb from the downed B-52 off Palomares, Spain, in 1966, and the recovery of the F-14 Tomcat and Phoenix missile off Scotland in 1976. The difficulty and delay associated with the H-bomb recovery was probably a prime justification for N R-1. The evident Soviet attempts to recover the F-14 with its sophisticated radar and state of the art Phoenix missile would appear to have justified constructing the NR-1, which recovered both the plane and the missile. When one considers what the CIA is alleged to have spent on the Glomar Explorer to attempt to recover a sunken Soviet missile submarine, the more than thirty years of service NR-1 and her crews have provided would appear to be a bargain.
Finally, the authors discuss a little of the stillborn attempt to build NR-2, a successor to NR-1; Rickover balked at the proposed billion-dollar cost (in the Seventies!). Interesting things still sink to the bottom of the ocean, and presumably it will continue to be in our national interest to find and recover them. However, merely matching NR-1 would be fantastically expensive today. Unlike forty years ago, the technology for deep ocean search and recovery is commercially available internationally, so the (more or less) undisturbed leisure of searching for sunken items enjoyed by NR-1 is likely to be a thing of the past. Finally, the sensitization of the world to the value of submarines as intelligence gathering platforms by the disclosure of operations like Ivy Bells by the traitor Pelton and books like Blind Man’s Bluff makes it much harder to discreetly perform search and salvage operations. NR-1 is one of a kind; we may not see her like again