Reviewed by Merrill H. Dorman, Captain. U.S. Navy (Ret.)
The Arctic Ocean is the smallest of this planet’s oceans and the least understood. It is larger than the entire United States and yet those that have been there number only in the thousands. It is surrounded by five countries, with Russia claiming almost half of the boundary. In August of 1970 our astronauts had walked on the moon but only six submarine crews had been in the Arctic Ocean, and those trips had all been brief; the last of which had taken place more than seven years earlier. This gap in Arctic exploration was due to loss of THRESHER in April 1963 and the Navy focus on development of safer deep diving submarines. CDR Fred Mclaren, Commanding Officer of the first SSN 637 Class submarine was tasked to collect bathymetry data over half of the then Soviet Union claimed continental shelf. The charts he had available showed coast lines only, and that information was not always accurate. Eleven years later I had the privilege of conducting a similar mission in another littoral area while commanding USS SIL VERSIDES (SSN 679). I had significantly more supporting information available before hand and yet the apprehension I felt and the exciting memories I recall were brought back vividly by Captain McLaren’s first person account of the preparations for and conduct of his truly remarkable adventure.
The strategic implications of his mission at the height of the Cold War cannot be overlooked. The capital ship in the Soviet Navy was the nuclear submarine and they out-numbered us throughout that period. Their homeports were all in the Arctic, often surrounded by winter sea ice. The concern that their missile submarines could hide under the sea ice was very real. We had capable ASW forces around the world, but in the Arctic only our attack submarines could pursue.
Captain McLaren tells his story from his start in submarines, through becoming a qualified nuclear officer, and up to selection for command of the newest class of deep diving attack submarine. He includes several humorous personnel observations from interviews by Admiral Rickover that he witnessed. He has provided a thorough accounting of the training sessions and team practice that he and his crew conducted prior to first transiting under the Arctic ice. The detail of his personal discussions with his men and observations of events during what had to be an exhausting mission is impressive and far more descriptive than the notes a Commanding Officer normally added to a mission patrol report. He has done his research well and studied the Arctic geography extensively, providing over 200 footnotes for those that wish to continue exploring this subject. Many readers will find the extensive list of Russian names somewhat confusing and appropriately will only focus on the building excitement and complex set of events encountered. Chart lets, or small map sections, are added to help keep the Russian terms and endless changes of speed and heading into perspective.
Captain McLaren includes many old black and white photographs that bring the story to life. He has also added sketches that help describe the way a submarine safely transits under the ice and around ice keels or ice bergs, and how, if necessary, it surfaces through the ice. He noted that even the Arctic experts he carried on board could not predict the variety of ice conditions they observed. Keep in mind that sea ice is generally in motion, pushed by the wind above and that the Arctic Ocean currents constantly move the water over the ground though in a somewhat predictable manner. The two directions of motion are often at odds. The ice cover also precludes the mixing of fresh water river runoff from four of the largest rivers in the world which empty into the Arctic. This runoff then layers above the salty ocean. All these factors make for the most complex of environments. A submarine must be essentially stopped to safely vertically surface. Over the years submarine sails have been dented and periscopes bent over many degrees due to miscalculations of submarine movement through the water resulting in contact with the ice. Most of the procedural details to vertically surface his first of class single screw submarine were developed by Captain McLaren and his crew.
He calmly describes how his submarine arrives in what he terms an ice garage, surrounded by deep ice keels only yards away as displayed on high frequency sonar and the sea bottom not far below. With absolute control of neutral buoyancy and minimum speed he maneuvered his submarine around on sonar information only and proceeded on his mission. From personal experience I can assure you that situation must have been an adrenalin rush moment that seemed to go on for hours.
The Forward for this book was written by Captain William R. Anderson, USN (Ret.) who commanded USS NAUTILUS (SSN571 ), the first submarine to reach the North Pole in August 1958. Another review was written by Vice Admiral George P. Steele, USN (Ret.) who commanded USS SEADRAGON (SSN-584) in 1960 during the first voyage from the Atlantic to the Pacific via the North Pole and first ever survey of the Northwest Passage. Both these distinguished early submarine explorers speak very highly of Unknown Waters and that in itself is reason to read it.