bookrev: Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson
Kurson’s Shadow Divers (loaned to me by my friend Charles, thanks Charles!) is a well written and thoroughly researched non-fiction story of two divers pushing themselves physically and mentally to discover the truth behind the World War II U-boat they find off the coast of New Jersey. The tale combines the intricacies and technology of attempting scuba at depths of 230 feet in 1991 (when diving at that depth was relatively unheard of) with historical research on what really happened to certain WWII German U-boats. The author also paints an excellent picture of many of the characters, both from the time period of the dive and from the crew members of the U-boat.
Bill Nagle, a legendary wreck diver, gets a set of “numbers” from a fisherman, numbers referring to the coordinates of a secret fishing spot which must have a wreck at the bottom responsible for the gathering of fish. Nagle recruits divers to come with him on his charter boat to explore the possibilities…it could be nothing but a barge or a pile of junk. One of those recruited is John Chatterton, Vietnam vet, commercial diver and wreck diver extraordinaire.
On the first dive, Chatterton identifies the wreck as a submarine.
On the second dive, Richie Kohler accompanies the team. Chatterton finds two bowls with the year 1942 and the Nazi emblem on them. The submarines was a World War II U-boat.
Chatterton and Kohler, originally rivals, begin a bond and joint obsession with identifying the boat and the men on board. Through dive after dive, they slowly find clues which they research topside on their own and through US, British and German contacts to pin down identification.
Diving at that depth, and in a wreck is dangerous enough work, but Chatterton starts diving with trimix, a new blend of nitrogen, oxygen and helium that reputedly reduces the nitrogen narcosis divers begin to feel breathing oxygen tanks at the depths they were diving. At first Chatterton and the other divers are mixing their own by hand, dangerous under any circumstances. But the experiment pays off with their ability to see and think clearer at the bottom with the trimix instead of the straight oxygen tanks. Three divers die in the exploration of the dangerous wreck dive.
The portrayal of Chatterton, Kohler and Nagle is excellently done, relating how their personal backgrounds influence how they dive, and what they relentlessly pursue the identification of the dead submariners. Many men feel that they are supposed to do something important in their lives; few find it. Chatterton and Kohler feel that theirs in this sub, its identification and communication to the sub’s crew’s family. Nagle’s depiction as a former world-class wreck diver whose alcoholism has made it impossible for him to physically or mentally dive to this find of a lifetime is striking.
The re-imagining of what the last days of the U-boat officers and enlisted men, based on interviews with surviving family members of the crew and research by Kurson, Chatterton and Kohler, pushes the reader toward the divers obsessions: who were these people? how did they die? why doesn’t anyone know about this event? The research and changes of historical recording make it difficult and near impossible to find the truth. But, in the end, they do.