Tags: stealth | boat | cold | war

'Stealth Boat' Depicts Cold War Life

Thursday, 13 Nov 2008 09:18 AM

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“The readiness is all.”

— Hamlet, V, ii

For a long time, the mission of the U.S. Navy’s fast attack submarines during the Cold War, was top secret and a thing of movie fiction. "Stealth Boat: Fighting the Cold War in a Fast Attack Submarine" available at Amazon.com, is an enlisted man’s very personal memoir of life on one of those mysterious subs.

Gannon McHale was a teenage sailor when he joined the crew of the USS Sturgeon (SSN637). His memoir covers his three years (from 1967 to 1970) as a member of the crews of special cold warriors. The book is insightful, funny, sad, and a homage to all crews of submariners.

I strongly recommend that you visit with McHale and the crews with which he served regardless of what color uniform you may have worn or didn’t wear.

Over the years I have been blessed with having opportunities to interview a great many authors and many of them have impacted my life. Some interview subjects became friends, some professional resources, others pleasant or unpleasant interludes.

David Hackworth, Jack Singlaub, Bing West, Jack Brehm, John Plaster, Jack Hoban, Stan Lunev, Eric Haney, and Dick Marcinko all entered my life as interviews, and all became more.

Ted Nugent is the reason I took up archery. David Shippers, Karl Malden and others impacted me in less direct ways.

Gannon McHale was a personal friend long before either of us wrote a book. McHale and I met after he had served in the Navy driving submarines, and before I started jumping out of airplanes in the Army. Once upon a time, I played Horatio to his Hamlet on stage . . . now I do it again in print.

Decades after holding McHale’s dying Hamlet in my arms on stage, he called to tell me about his book, I was anxious to read it.

Although the book recounts McHale’s experiences and those of his crewmates and officers, it foreshadows the significant impact his submariner days had on his life and attitudes. He writes in the Preface, “I reported on board USS Surgeon (SSN637) when I was still a boy, and left a young man.”

Between the covers of the book he showcases two very different commanding officers and their distinctly different leadership styles. Captain Curtis B. “Pop” was McHale’s original skipper; Captain William Louis “Bo” Bohannan was his second commander. Although each was an effective commander, they were in many ways polar opposites.

These were the guys who routinely played fox and hound with Russian subs. This was for real dangerous tactical operations all of which was conducted covertly and inevitably denied with a wink-wink/nod-nod to the world.

Two specific incidents highlight the yin and yang of this memoir. Off the coast of Russia in the spring of 1969:

“What have you got, Yeoman?”

“One seven nine, five hundred yards, dead ahead, Captain.”

“That’s him. He’s on a one eight zero course. They don’t have him yet, but we do.”

“A Moment later, the captain again called out: ‘Mark these bearings. Mark! Mark! Mark! Mark! Mark! Mark!’ and a second figure eight patterned overlapped the first.”

“Where’s the ‘X’ in the figure eight?” the captain demanded. “Where do the lines cross? That’s his target. Where’s the ‘X’?”

McHale turned toward the periscope and replied, “Captain . . . we’re the ‘X’!”

That is real!

The counterpoint story is called “The Water Tower Incident” and tells of when McHale and some buddies (in the wake of “a few beers”) decided to paint the water tower at Electric Boat in Groton, Conn., with their boat numbers. They did the deed . . .and were caught. No serious disciplinary action resulted; in fact, there is the intimation their new skipper kinda liked it. Those were the days.

My military experience was different, yet oddly similar to McHale’s. After having read "Stealth Boat" (twice) I came to the unscientific conclusion that the extraordinary tactical exploits of submariners would not have been possible were it not for two fuel sources: nuclear power and alcohol. One to fuel the ships and one to fuel the off duty crews.

"Stealth Boat" works on multiple levels. It is suspenseful, funny, and easy to read. Although a lot of the juicy operational detail is still classified and omitted, that in no way detracts from this entertaining and important book.

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