A freelance writer, John Castellucci spent 30 years working as a newspaper reporter. most recently for the Providence Journal. where he covered politics. courts, principal government, and crime.
The veil of secrecy that shrouded the Navy’s underwater espionage program has lifted. By now, the program’s accomplishments arc widely known: the top secret operations that disclosed the sound signatures and combat capabilities of Soviet missile-carrying submarines. The seafaring arms race, set off when the Russians tried to match the prowess of U.S. vessels, hastened the end of the Cold War with the Soviet Union’s collapse.
“The Soviets made their Submarine Force the centerpiece of their post-World War II naval expansion, but we hounded them unmercifully,” Admiral Bruce DeMars said in 1994, when the USS STURGEON (SSN-637), the fast attack sub on which he was XO, was decommissioned.
“Reacting to the pressure of our attack submarines, the Soviets had to commit vast resources in the pursuit of undersea superiority-or at least parity. Finally their system went broke financially and politically,” DcMars said.
Until now, the story of the Navy’s underwater espionage program has been told almost exclusively from the viewpoint of the officers who commanded the fast attack-subs that played tag with their Russian counterparts: People like Commander Kinnaird R. McKee, captain of USS DACE (SSN-607), who got the first close-up photographs and recorded the first sound signatures of the Soviet Union’s second-generation nuclear powered submarines. And Commander Chester M. “Whitey” Mack, captain of the USS LAPON (SSN-661), who managed to trail a super-quiet Soviet Yankee-class sub back and forth across the Atlantic for more than 40 days.
That one-sidedness ended with the publication of Stealth Boat, Gannon McHale’s evocative book about his late-1960s stint aboard STURGEON as an enlisted crew member. “I worked very hard to capture … the feeling of what it was like, at the age of 19, to be assigned to the newest, fast-attack submarine in the United States Navy-the most advanced piece of submarine technology in the world at the time,” McHale said recently on book tour in Providence, R.I.
“The STURGEON was a twin turbine, single screw, 125,000-horsepower, ultra quiet, highly responsive high performance underwater hot rod,” McHale said. It was, in other words, as big a thrill ride for a young sailor as the F-14 Tomcats were for the Navy fighter pilots in Top Gun
McHale, 61, is a New York-based character actor who grew up in Pawtucket, R.I. He wrote Stealth Boat in 2006, after pitching the book to DeMars, who lined up the Naval Institute Press as publisher, and reaching out to crew members he hadn’t seen since the decommissioning ceremony at which DeMars spoke.
“I got in touch with a bunch of my shipmates. We met down at the sub base in Groton. I put a tape recorder in the middle of the table. We sat around and had a bull session and said, let’s talk about the boat,” McHale said.
The result is a book that, for all its detail about the leadership styles of the STURGEON’s first two captains, Commander Curtis B. Shellman and Commander William L. Bohannan, doesn’t give short shrift to the high jinks of the crew.
Shellman, a dour, uncommunicative man who oversaw construc-tion of the boat, drove it like it “was your father’s Oldsmobile” McHale writes, exhibiting a caution that frustrated crew members and was “completely at odds with the vessel he had just built.” Bohannan, more at ease with the boat and attuned to its capabilities, was a typical fast attack sub commander. At one point, hard on the heels of a Soviet November class submarine, he barged in on antisubmarine warfare drill the Russians were conducting, inadvertently making the STURGEON the quarry of the hunt.
The first draft of Stealth Boat was a bit much for the strait-laced Naval Institute Press, which had McHale tone down some of the salty language. He uses circumlocution to describe the inventive speaking style of Donald Deeter, a former rd class torpedoman busted down to seaman, who emerges as one of the more interesting characters in the book.
“Perhaps the most gifted man at cursing I have ever met, ‘Deets’ was not simply colorful. He was absolutely creative about it, and he possessed a wonderful knack of interspersing a particular all-purpose expletive into the middle of another word, as though it actually belonged there,” McHale writes.
Deeter has his big moment when the crew piles into a redneck bar in Norfolk, Va., and the proprietor refuses to serve Johnnie McLean, a black crew member.
“Hey, you … Can you read?” Deeter demanded, pointing to the USS STURGEON patch on the top right shoulder of his uniform. “Yeah … so what?” the saloon keeper answered.
“Count how many of ‘cm are in your bar, pal.”
Needless to say, McLean got his beer.
McHale enlisted after dropping out of Providence College, where he was in the Army ROTC. He joined the Navy partly to avoid being sent to Vietnam, where, he said, “second lieutenants had about a 15-minute life expectancy,” and partly to escape a Rhode Island rite of passage: Graduation from college, followed by marriage, children and a humdrum career teaching high school social studies.
In the submarine service, McHale found not only adventure, but also the camaraderie of a close-knit crew.
“I’ve never found any environment like that since then. Never in the theater, ever. I can say that categorically,” McHale said. “[T]hat environment, that team, especially the enlisted guys-where they were from, why they enlisted, why they volunteered for submarines, the day-to-day work environment on the boat, the atmosphere, the fun we had, all of which none of us have ever forgotten-that’s what I tried to reconstruct in this book.