CDR George Wallace is a retired submariner. He commanded USS HOUSTON (SSN 713) from 1990 to 1992.
When I first retired from the Navy, my wife and I moved from San Diego to Durango, Colorado. Being over 7,000 feet up in the San Juan Mountains is just about as far from the ocean as you can get and still be in the US. Normally not even the water from the Animas River makes it to the ocean. People living there had very little concept of the Navy or the Submarine Service. I was actually asked by a co-worker, in all seriousness, if the Sub Force was part of the Coast Guard. I, of course, had to explain that we normally operated in water too deep for the Coast Guard.
Durangotans were enthralled by tales of life under the sea, or at least that was my read of their reactions to my sea stories. l was repeatedly urged to write down the stories to share them more widely. Again, this was my interpretation of their motives. They could have merely understood that while I was busy writing, I wouldn’t be pestering them with tall tales of people who mysteriously disappeared for months at a time, and made their own air and drinking water. It’s my article, so it’s my interpretation.
After mulling this over for a considerable period, I came to realize that writing a book was in order. For a number of reasons, I chose a novel as the format. Chief among these reasons was the classification of the work we do. Although V ADM Richardson has lobbied for several years to have the modern submarine story actually told, realistically much of that story will stay classified well into the future. Any attempt at writing a Cold War version of SILENT VICTORY will have a readership limited to submariners with active clearances. I wanted to familiarize a larger general audience with the men who manned their submarines and the jobs they did. That meant fiction, but with the descriptions as close to accurate as possible within the strictures of security.
At this point, I need to say that all characters in our novels are purely fictional. That’s our story and we’re sticking to it. Although actual events may be the impetus for some parts of our novels, except for mentions of Navy legends like Admiral Rickover, none of our characters portray anyone real, living or dead. However, after reading our first book, multiple people have each claimed to be the basis for the most of the characters. Amazing!
The other major reason to use fiction as our medium was that, quite frankly, our job as submariners, if done properly, is very boring. I know many of you will argue this point, remembering a few terrifying minutes on a SPEC OP where your heart rate was up on the limiter. But remember, that was a minute or two out of sixty days on station. The rest of the time, your definition of excitement was pizza for midrats. And the dangers of a xenon precluded start-up would be exciting only to a nuke (although we tried that plot line in FINAL BEARING). A novel is, by definition, a story that is meant to be entertaining. If not, it fails in its mission.
I have used our several times up to this point. It is time that I explained. Don Keith and I co-write these stories. Don is a former communications executive and established novelist (he prefers storyteller), living outside Birmingham, Alabama. He has no military background, but since we started working together he has become one of the most prolific submarine historians currently writing. When I was first starting out, I submitted to a literary agent (Robbie Robinson, formerly a torpedo-man on ARCHERFISH SS3 l l) what I thought was a finished manuscript for a book, but in retrospect, probably read too much like a tech manual. Writing fiction is a skill set not well-developed in military circles, except for the occasional fit-rep. Robbie suggested that Don and I work together. We decided to give it a try. Don is really, really good at character development. I shelved that first novel for later. Starting over with a skilled and seasoned writing partner would be simpler if we just started with a completely blank page. I guess you can say that the rest is history.
Although we did not physically meet until after FINAL BEARING was published and was already a best seller, through the wonders of the internet we developed a unique collaboration technique that has worked very well for us.
Essentially, we start with a short, three to four page, synopsis of where we think the story line will take us. Ideas for the storyline come from many sources. For FINAL BEARING, I wanted to tell about the challenges of life on an older submarine and the attachment that men build for those old ships. Those of you who sailed on any boat with a hull number less than 688 will remember what a challenge it was to maintain those boats, especially as they neared the end of useful life. Every underway was an adventure.
A chance news article in the late 90’s about a mini-sub that one of the drug cartels was building high in the Andes brought on that part of the story. Since FINAL BEARING was released the drug lords have resorted to mini-subs on a routine basis. Did they read FINAL BEARING?
When on a surface run down to the old Carr Inlet sound range (it wasn’t old back then) I looked at the charts and realized that a submerged transit was doable. Remembering that trip was the foundation for our fictional SPADEFISH’s action in chasing the mini-sub down Puget Sound.
For FIRING POINT, we wanted to show the life of going North and playing with the Bear, except in a modem context. Here was our chance to tell about life on a 6881 and how capable those boats are. We did play a little loose with reality here. We kept both the DSRV and the ASDV alive to keep the plot moving, and frankly because they are both capabilities that we as a Submarine Force still need.
It normally takes several iterations of rewriting, emailing the synopsis back and forth to reach something that we are happy with. Then we start the serious writing. Normally I will write a chapter and zap it to Don. He will make changes and pass it back to me. A chapter may take five or six re-writes just to get the basic story down. While writing, we will frequently riff on the story line. Some action one of the characters takes will open up a new vista to explore a bit before we return to the central theme. You might compare this to writing an incident report and investigating all the causes and effects, although this is a lot more fun.
We are frequently asked which of us wrote which parts. I don’t think either of could honestly answer that question. It is truly a collaborative effort. Except that any factual mistake is mine.
Authenticity is more than a byword with us. It is at the heart of our story telling. We have had many rather warm discussions with our editors, and even warmer ones with the movie screen writers, about what they considered trivial, and therefore unnoticeable details of submarine life. The boat in the story has to look, sound, and smell like the one really going to sea. If I can’t use words to paint a picture of the control room when you are coming to periscope depth on a stormy night that has you looking for a green poly bag, then I’m not doing my job.
There are a couple of central themes in all our works. Don and I try to tell a story that paints a true picture of the people who man our submarines; the challenges and dangers they face on a day-today basis, the level of dedication and integrity that it takes, and the sacrifices they all make. We try not to make anyone ten feet tall, but to portray the mental pressure and the physical exhaustion realistically. We want old shipmates to pick up one of our books and smell the amine while a new reader feels that she really understands what’s happening and why.
Telling the technology tale is a bit of a challenge. It’ a balancing act. The technology is vital to the plot and writing about the incredible capabilities of today’s boats is almost like writing science fiction. To the uninitiated, the technology is the neat stuff, but it’s only a part of the real story. It is not the story, it only enhances the story.
Even in our fiction, the laws of physics still apply. The limitations are integral to the story. Why can’t Joe Glass just shoot the bad guy as soon as he picks him up on the towed array? That takes some explanation. But a four page dissertation on bearing ambiguity or the mechanics of an ADCAP launch breaks the tension we tried very hard to build to a peak as TOLEDO is evading incoming weapons and counter-firing a self-defense weapon.
One trick that we employ is to run an exercise or two early in the story. There we will spend some time with a technical explanation. In FIRING POINT we meet Joe Glass and the TOLEDO as they are getting their butt handed to them by a Brit sub in a TORPEX. We spend some time explaining what is going on. Later, when Glass is evading a Russian torpedo up under the ice, we can keep the tension high and the details in the background. The reader can see that the TOLEDO crew learned their lessons back in the Irish Sea.
Here is an excerpt from FIRING POINT that should illustrate a little of what we have been discussing (and frankly to whet your interest):
Master Chief Tommy Zillich was listening to the towed array sonar hydrophones, well aware that there could be a stalker out there somewhere in those dark, icy waters. His mouth still dropped open when he heard the launch transients from Volk.
There was no mistaking the sound. Torpedoes inbound! He grabbed the 7MC microphone and yelled the words all submariners fear.
“Launch transients! Torpedoes in the water! In the baffles. Best bearing zero-nine-zero and they’re close!”
Without hesitation, Perez yelled, “Ahead flank! Launch the evasion devices! Right full rudder! Steady course south.”
TOLEDO leaped ahead as the throttle man poured steam into the boat’s big turbines. Fifteen knots. Twenty. Twenty-five. The sub’s speed climbed. But it was no race because of the velocity of the Russian torpedoes. There was one hope, to get outside the acquisition cone on the two incoming fish so they would lose the scent.
The deck rolled violently as the sub banked through the high-speed tum. Maybe, just maybe, the evasion devices would confuse the torpedoes long enough to allow them to escape.
Glass ran out of his stateroom into the control room. He took in what was happening and realized at once how close they were to death. “Make your depth a thousand feet, forty down angle! Keep me just off the bottom! Snapshot tube one on the bearing of the incoming weapon!”
He grabbed the metal stanchion by the periscope stand and held on. This was going to be close.
Or maybe not. Maybe they were dead already.
They had to get out of the acquisition cones somehow. Or else they would be little more than another skeleton on the floor, lying dead right next to MIAMI.
The deck slanted down steeply as TOLEDO clawed for the safety of the depths.
“Torpedoes bear zero-nine-zero,” Zillich reported, his voice calm and workmanlike. “I have them on the sphere now. They’re active.”
“Weapon ready!” Weps yelled.
“Shoot tube one,” Glass ordered, doing his best to match Zillich’ s all-business tone.
Thank God they had the torpedo loaded, the door already open.
He watched the weapons officer throw the brass handle to Standby and then to the Fire position. At least they would get a chance to shoot back. Glass knew that it would do little more than scare the bastard who had ambushed them. He was probably hiding in the noisy ice near the surface and it would be next to impossible for a normal weapon to ferret him out.
TOLEDO lurched as the torpedo ejection pump forced three-thousand-psi water up around the back end of the ADCAP torpedo and flushed it out of the tube. Sensors in the torpedo detected motion down the tube so that the Otto fuel engine started as soon as the weapon cleared the enclosure and was outside. Its steering vanes pushed the four-thousand-pound weapon around until it pointed at a course of zero-nine-zero. All the while, the engine accelerated until the torpedo was traveling at better than sixty knots. It was already busy, searching for its target.
This was no ordinary torpedo. The special under-ice algorithms built into its software easily picked out the VOLK from the surrounding ice. Still, just as it was programmed to do, the weapon looked away and then back, verifying that what it had found was a real submarine target. Its logic now satisfied, the ADCAP drove at maximum speed toward the target, its arming mechanism activated to sense any large metal object nearby, both by sonar and with an interferometer.
The weapon passed underneath the Russian submarine once, without the arming mechanism being triggered.
Serebnitskiv could hear the pinging of the onrushing ADCAP through the hull, even without the aid of sonar. There was nothing to worry about. It couldn’t find them up here in the midst of all this ice. It would soon fly harmlessly by and eventually explode into the bottom when it ran out of fuel.
The ADCAP circled around and came back again, but shallower this time. The arming mechanism still saw VOLK plainly. It sent an electric pulse to the firing mechanism, which detonated the firing squid.
The firing squid set off the six-hundred-fifty-pound PBNX warhead just as the ADCAP was beneath the sub’s operations compartment.
The vicious shock wave tore through the double hull as if it were little more than tissue paper. Most of the superheated gas bubble vented through the rent in the sub’s bottom, incinerating most anything it touched as it ripped and tore through bulkheads.
The crew members on VOLK had less than a millisecond to realize what had happened. Igor Serebnitskiv was thrown violently upward and across the control room. He had no chance to grab anything. He was brutally impaled on a protruding valve stem, high up on the outboard bulkhead.
Admiral Alexander Durov’s nephew died instantly.
Even if the catastrophic explosion had not been enough, the expanding gas bubble it set off lifted VOLK upward like some child’s toy and crushed it against the ice pack above.
Smashed and mortally violated, the mangled, lifeless hulk sank to the bottom of the cold, cruel sea.
“Torpedoes passed astern!” Tommy Zillich yelled as he listened to the headset, his hands pressing the earpieces closer to his ears so he could hear everything going on out there. “We may be clear!”
TOLEDO was still angling sharply downward, toward the bottom, racing to get clear of the Russian weapons. They had all heard the deep rumble of the other submarine as it exploded. Now the control room was silent, everyone listening for the high-pitched scream of the incoming weapons.
That sound, as all the men aboard knew, would signal their immediate death.
A few of them breathed a sigh of relief when they heard Zillich’s report. Glass knew better. They weren’t free yet. Those two torpedoes were still out there, still searching doggedly for them.
The sonar man confirmed his worst fears.
“Torpedoes! Both coming out of the baffles!” Zillich yelled over the 7MC. Now he had lost his calm demeanor. His voice was high and strained. “They’re closing!”
The Russian weapons had crossed astern of them and then turned back, looking once again for TOLEDO. They were both still relentlessly coming after them.
“COB, get me thirty feet off the bottom!” Glass ordered Sam Wallich. “Do it now!”
Wallich nodded and turned to his helmsman and his planesman. “Okay, guys. It’s up to us. Keep the forty-down angle until I tell you. Then pull out with everything you got.”
Wallich stared hard at the depth meter as it reeled off the numbers. It was too late to pray that the gauge was calibrated, that the chart was accurate, but he did anyway.
Hitting the bottom at this speed would be like driving a 747 into a granite mountain. There wouldn’t be much left of a fine American submarine and its crew.
It seemed they had been diving forever before Wallich screamed, “Pull up now!”
Somehow, TOLEDO managed to stop her sharp descent and pull out of the dive a few precious feet before her nose would have burrowed into the muddy bottom of the Barents Sea. With her momentum still at a maximum, she raced blindly across the sea floor, the screw kicking up a thick cloud of mud in its wake. No one wanted to ponder the possibility of a rocky crag or sudden undersea hillock popping up in their path.
Edwards could hold it no longer. “Skipper, suggest we come up to- ”
“Hold her where she is! Stay on the bottom!” Glass ordered.
Don and I hope that the explanation of how and why we write like we do and the excerpts from FIRING POINT that we included in this article have piqued your interest. We look forward to hearing your comments and critiques.
FIRING POINT will be published 3 July by Penguin/Signet and available wherever books are sold. A major motion picture based on the book is now in pre production. FINAL BEARING is available in hardback, paperback, and as a Kindle ebook at Amazon.com