It began the summer of ’49 aboard USS CLAMAGORE (SS 343). A third class petty officer as directed by the COB, reported to the Captain and stood uneasy by the one-man stateroom. The skipper, not bothering to look up from a paperwork cluttered desk, said, “Oh yes, Ulmer. Pack up. You’re off to the Naval Academy Preparatory School.”
Totally surprised, but elated, a twenty-year-old ego kicked in. I had to know all the great things I’d done to cause my selection over other eligible troops. “Why me, Captain?” “Ulmer, you’re not smart enough to make second class and we need the bunk space.”
I knew instantly a story this good had to make it into a novel. Later, upon graduating from the Academy and returning to submarines as a commissioned officer, the lifestyle often made me feel like a character in a book. Having been told of my flair for writing, I was inclined to get started, but day-to-day demands of the service afforded no time. I’d learn later the situation would be the same in private industry, hence the novel waited till final post- retirement.
Submariners cannot totally leave behind experiences of their careers. Annually, many drop everything to assemble from across the country just to sit and share old tales with shipmates. USS CLAMAGORE (SS 343), retired in 1975, draws a hundred fifty to two hundred veterans to reunite annually. Sadly these numbers diminish as passage of time takes its inevitable grim toll. But the stories go on as long as survivors remain to tell them. These are flesh and blood of the submarine novels. Thus captured, the tales will go on forever for future generations to enjoy.
Actual major conflicts are abundant and selected from authentic scenarios germane to the novel time frame. Mix these with vignettes similar to those heard at submarine reunions and a web is spun.
Emphasis shifted heavily to submarine nuclear propulsion in the mid-fifties thus creating a literary void; tales of diesel-electric submarines in the Cold War decreased as their numbers diminished and finally disappeared in 1975. This void is hopefully filled in a sequence of three new novels: Shadows of Heroes. The Cold War Beneath and Ensure Plausible Deniability. A fourth, yet untitled, is in works.
Liberties are taken with fiction to move plots along, but writ- ing as a submariner, technical aspects must be correct and interpret able by lay readers. Operations are contrived but feasible. Weapon exchanges between U.S. and foreign units are of course total fiction. Events and conversations are based heavily on personal knowledge. Using these insures credibility that would be at risk were they contrived.
Submariner dependents and friends play major roles in all the books and add to their credibility. Men and women need and depend upon each other and to omit either would result in an incomplete and unfulfilling story.
I learned about USS COCHINO sinking while serving aboard CLAMAGORE in August 1949. Wild conjecture ensued. In the absence of hard knowledge, submariners are masters at contriving their own, and so we did. Of interest to me, had CLAMAGORE not required an electronic technician, I’d have been assigned to COCHINO the previous March and gotten my info first hand. Shadows of Heroes is based loosely upon COCHINO events and is set in late ’48 through mid ’49. It opens:
Somewhere in the White Sea, near the port of Severodvinsk, Russia, a pair of Soviet destroyers rained thundering depth charges down upon an illegal and unidentified contact submerged below. The Russians bucked and rolled among waves heaved up by an early 1949 Arctic storm but remained at their tasks with dogged determination.
Hundreds of feet below, USS KOKANEE, an American diesel-electric powered submarine with nearly depleted storage batteries shuddered as shock waves threatened to rip apart the three-quarter inch steel pressure hull- all that stood between her terrified crew and the ruthless sea. Silent graves seemed to beckon from the icy depths.
KOKANEE goes on to perform her mission and embarks for home having obtained information of great value to the United States Government. There is a twist, however. A vindictive Russian plots and attempts to carry out a unique plan of revenge.
En route her homeport, disaster overtakes KOKANEE off the foreboding Norwegian coast- insights provided by three officers who experienced it.
KOKANEE quickly became a steel-hulled version of the Hindenburg zeppelin disaster. Conning Officer Dan Bennett’s reflexes kicked in. Don’t do anything stupid! There’s more lime to think in a crisis if you stay calm. Respond, don’t react. The right decision requires only seconds more than a wrong one.
He grasped the I MC mike. “All compartments, open bulkhead flapper valves and report to control.” Then on the 21MC, .. Maneuvering . . . Conn. Supply and exhaust blowers to full speed!” The edge on his voice apparent, he nonetheless maintained calm.
The chief of the watch yelled up through the lower conning tower hatch, “We got a problem. Batteries one and two indicate still in series. I’ve sent an electrician forward to verify the switch position.”
“Good thinking, Chief. We’re heading directly to the surface quick as we can. I’m not stopping at periscope depth unless the H2 concentration falls off. Have you notified the chief engineer?”
Cliff Harkins’s steady voice responded over the 7MC, “I’m here in maneuvering.” Bennett demanded, “What do you make of this, Cliff?” “One and two are linked in series and dumping into three and four paralleled. If we can’t straighten that out, we’re going to generate one hell of a lot of hydrogen.” “Have you notified the captain?” “Just got back here. Give him a heads up and tell him I’m working the problem.”
Lieutenant Commander Hal Taylor’s sixth sense told him they’d run afoul of something and he’d already reached the Conning Tower.
Main protagonist Terry Martin is flown from Norway directly to Washington, DC for debriefing. He travels to New London by train and meets his wife at the station.
Terry Martin spotted Brenda by the street exit. Her black skirt and matching jacket over an ivory silk blouse contrasted her college wardrobe days. Time and maturity had been generous to her. They moved slowly toward each other. In earlier days they’d have run into each other’s arms.
Terry held her at arm’s length. “I expected to meet a house- wife and Lana Turner shows up. You look wonderful. Sleepy, honey?” Brenda’s upper lip curled slightly. “Is that all you have on your mind?” “Sorry, sweetheart. I can’t think of anything better right now.” “I’ll bet.” “You’d win. But then don’t you always?” She eyed his small suitcase. “This all you brought?” “I meant to pack up before leaving KOKANEE, but the water got deep too soon.” “Oh God, Terry, that must have been awful.” He looked about and discreetly withheld further comments in the station. “I’ll talk once we’re in the car, okay?” The year old ’48 Mercury compensated Brenda for a cancelled vacation to accommodate an abrupt set of orders for Terry. She reached for her car keys. “How ’bout if I drive? The seat’s been adjusted to fit me for so Jong it’s probably stuck there.” “No argument, Bren. God I’m tired.” “Well don’t think that lets you off the hook. You still have to tell me what happened out there.” The Mercury hummed eastward across the new Thames River Bridge toward the Groton side. Yellow carbon lamps lit their way across the arch in mid evening. Terry looked to his left, north toward the submarine base. Nearly all the finger piers had submarines moored alongside. Their anchor lights twinkled through the clear night air.
He thought, A few short weeks ago, KOKANEE would’ve been berthed there. But now, never again. Brenda broke the silence. “Well?” “You won’t give a tired old sailor a break?” “Nope. Everything. I want the whole nine yards.” “It was ugly, Bren.” “Was it ever different?” He recited the grim details. Brenda tried not to punctuate his story with too many gasps. Too much of their married life had passed with her knowing he might never return.
Other men before Terry pursued Brenda, most of them now with nine to five jobs paying far more than a submarine commander and enjoying hearth and home at each day’s end. She wondered how she lost herself so easily to Terry. This recurring question emerged during his recent absence, but she was a Navy wife and would remain so. The novel twists and turns from here to its surprising climax.
Returning from a day cruise during officers’ submarine school, I stood on the bridge and as we passed Race Rock, well inside U.S. territorial waters, I overheard a senior officer say as he pointed to port. “Right over there. We watched a Soviet Whiskey Class submarine broach and re-submerge.”
I thought, what an idea for a new novel! Turn about is fair play, and The Cold War Beneath tells of a Soviet Submarine visit to the U.S. coast.
Retired Navy captain and renowned oceanographer Don Walsh writes in part: “Both the United States and the Soviet Union observed each other’s coastlines using submarine platforms to track military operations and collect electronic signal intelligence. It was all part of the game, and Captain Ulmer provides a fictional idea of how such operations were conducted. USS PIRA TEFISH submarine in The Cold War Beneath depicts one of these operations.
An encounter between PIRA TEFISH and a Soviet Whiskey goes: Soviet Whiskey class S-201 ‘s main motors stopped and Andrey Petrov ordered a slow left tum. Full rudder would slow the ship to a full stop and make depth control extremely difficult. Halfway through the turn, Michman Nikolai Oblonskiy re- ported, “Sonar contact broad on the port beam, signal growing stronger, true bearing’s steady.”
Petrov immediately recognized the conditions that put S-20 l on a collision course with the reported contact. “Classification … quickly!” He knew they were deep enough for a surface ship to pass well above, but a submarine would pose a completely different problem.
Commanding Officer Igor Sherensky had to make an immediate decision. Available options ran through his mind, all affected by target classification. Coming to periscope depth is the only way to avoid collision if the contact’s a submarine. Depth soundings showed insufficient room to pass below the contact, as both were likely at the same depth for optimum sonar listening. However, proceeding to periscope depth would mean certain collision should the contact prove to be a surface ship.
The captain judged the highest probability to be a submarine in trail. He ordered his ship to periscope depth, at the same time directing Petrov to ensure all watertight doors shut. With the little momentum S-20 l had left, she proceeded upward. Petrov asked, “Shall we prepare weapons, Kapitan?” Hesitating for only an instant, Sherensky stated, “Two ASW torpedoes. Flood and pressurize the launchers, but do not open the caps unless I order it.”
He believed it unlikely the Americans would attack in international waters except in self-defense, but he would take no chances . “Yes, Kapitan.” Now tire hard part, Sherensky thought, wait to see if we guessed right.
Aboard PIRA TEFISH, Chief Sonannan Jensen seized the headset and demanded of the sonar watch, “What happened?” “He disappeared, Chief.” “Any bearing change before that?” Dan Bennett reached the torpedo room sonar station just as the captain arrived in the conning tower. The skipper ordered condition Baker set (ready ship for collision).
Jensen maintained bearings on the Whiskey’s fifty-cycle line, but had no distance except a rough estimate. Range could be determined only with active sonar, certain to alert the target and betray PIRA TEFISH’s presence. The chief knew time had run out and said to Lieutenant Bennett, “Recommend coming right immediately.” Dan now confronted the same dilemma as the S-20 I captain. Up or down? He based little more than an educated guess at what the Whiskey would do.
Bennett used the secure sonar-conning tower circuit. “Recommend holding this depth and stopping, Captain.” Skeptical, Warden asked, “You sure, Dan?” Hell no I’m not sure. “Best possible move based on what we know, Captain. And slowing will reduce impact damage if we collide.” A timid man, Warden did not like hearing the word collide and fretted over what found him in this situation. This is the /rand dealt, so we ‘II play it. Jensen said in a steady voice, “Mr. Bennett, have our sixty- cycle motor generators secured.”
Protocol called for this to be a recommendation, but under the circumstances urgency preempted. Bennett passed orders to the maneuvering room. Intercommunication and normal lighting shut down and DC powered emergency lighting kicked in. From the conning tower, Warden asked, “What’s happening, Dan?” Dan passed the question on to Chief Jensen who replied, “Strongest non-propulsion signals I get are from fifty-cycle motor generators. We gotta play it like they can hear us too.” Bennett nodded and passed the information on to the captain.
“Oh my God,” Jensen gasped. “She’s coming right at us. Pray we’re not at the same depth.” As Bennett passed this word to the conning tower, PIRA TEFISH began to roll to starboard- five degrees- ten. At thirty degrees, china slid off the crews’ mess table and crashed into the passageway. At fifty degrees the men seated there followed suit. The roll reached a sickening sixty-five degrees as everything not tied down dumped onto the decks and accumulated on PIRA TEFISH’s starboard side.
Trent Warden knew his ship had collided with the Whiskey, but heard no sound. His first inclination: blow all main ballast and surface immediately. He had the wisdom to seek validation of his decision with Dan Bennett. Keeping tension out of his voice with only great difficulty, Dan asked, “Any flooding reported, Captain?” The ship righted itself; the officers dispersed to isolate person- nel and equipment casualties.
In an unusual twist, a Soviet agent is put ashore to observe activities at the U.S. submarine base. Befriending a student at Connecticut College to exploit its position as an observation point ends up giving the fluent English speaking Russian more than he bargained for. The yam spins on to an intriguing conclusion.
Ensure Plausible Deniability is a mid-sixties tale of the Soviet Navy flexing its muscles throughout the world’s oceans provoking head-to-head confrontations with U.S. units. Ensuing games of chicken on the surface and beneath the seas between vessels armed with nuclear weapons portended disaster. It would take only one hotheaded skipper on either side to go off half-cocked and plunge mankind into World War III
The saga is set in the backdrop of U.S. diesel-electric submarines’ demise to make room for the higher performance nuclear powered submarines. However, the questionable nuclear power program officer selection criteria disregarded submariner performance excellence and accepted applicants solely on academic excellence. This practice may have portended disaster of its own.
The novel opening scene is based on personal experiences during the Mediterranean mid-sixties deployment of USS CORPORAL.
USS CLAMAGORE, a Guppy III diesel electric submarine, plied the eastern Mediterranean Sea on a cloudless late summer afternoon in 1965. Westbound from Athens to Naples, Italy, she passed south of the Greek Island, Kythira. Uneventful thus far, CLAMAGORE’s voyage stood on the brink of an abrupt change.
Russians had begun harassing U.S. submarines running on the surface, serving notice to NA TO allies they no longer dominated the Mediterranean waters.
CLAMAGORE moved ahead on four engines through a flat calm sea at seventeen knots. KOTLIN weighed anchor and approached with the bone in her teeth- a white bow wave caused by high speed. “Captain up!” Commander (CDR) Phil Redmond mounted the tiny bridge. “What’ve we got, Paul?” he asked the officer of the deck. “KOTLIN at one-six-zero, closing, Captain.”
Redmond needed no binoculars to verify this. “I see him,” he declared then ordered the lookouts, “Stay alert, lads. Don’t get hung up on KOTLIN and miss something else.”
“Aye, Captain,” the men chorused, continuing to scan the horizon but frequently looking aft toward the closing Soviet- their hearts pounding. Russians are the bad guys went through their minds. They knew at KOTLIN’s current speed, its prow could slice through CLAMAGORE’s three-quarter inch pressure hull like a mess cook’s cleaver opening a tin of fresh milk. Visions of floating helplessly in the sea dried their mouths.
“Okay, Paul, I have the conn.” Redmond took charge of maneuvering the ship. “Lay below and hang the MK-four (a camera adaptable to periscope optics) on number one. Get a shot every thirty seconds and log times.” “Aye, sir.” LT. Scott hastened below.
International rules of the road require burdened vessels to maneuver and avoid privileged ships. Approaching from CLAMAGORE’s stem burdened the Russian. A catch-22 in this rule put CLAMAGORE between the devil and the deep blue sea. Privileged vessels must maintain course and speed until well clear-2,000 yards.
KOTLIN approached from dead astern then veered left, over- taking CLAMAGORE to port one hundred yards. She pulled ahead, her huge bow waves tumbling over CLAMAGORE’s low forward deck. Five hundred yards ahead, the Russian stopped and made a slow right tum bringing her to rest squarely on CLAMAGORE’s track. Redmond initiated evasive action. “All stop, left full rudder.” CLAMAGORE barely missed the marauding KOTLIN.
Characters inherited from Cold War Beneath follow diverse and compelling paths that converge to a common moving climax and reaffirm the premise that novels are about people. Vignettes of crewmen spice the plot. An acknowledgement to a retired CLAMAGORE CPO reads, “George Bass for sharing his endless repertoire of after battery tales. George, you know I believe every word.”
For veterans, the submarine novel writes itself. Pick an experienced major conflict, select from the endless supply of known characters, then sit back and watch the river flow.
Shadows of Heroes. The Cold War Beneath and Ensure Plausible Deniability are published by Patriot Media, Inc., Niceville, FL (www.patriotmediainc.com). .