Okay, this is book twenty eight of the year that I've read. It is also, the 27th non-fiction book I've read, sticking with my January non-fiction month for much longer than anticipated.
The problemm with reading only non-fiction, however, is that often you stop having stories. Depending on the book, you can go hours and hours and hours with dry facts that, while true (hence, unlike the idiot in the power position believes, non-fiction and not "alternate"), lack an engaging story. Drawdown is a fascinating catalog of technologies we need to use and develop and encourage, yes, but the book was slow going in its lack of story.
Shadow Divers, however, didn't lack for a story. The book is a recount of the 1991 discovery of a previously unknown U-boat off the coast of New Jersey, and the divers' journey to positively identifying it. I enjoyed the book a lot, with a few very strong parts that pulled me out of the story.
About half way through the book, I started looking up the various protagonists on the Intarwebs™. Bill Nagle's Wikipedia page links off to the U-869 Wikipedia page, which references that PBS NOVA episode "Hitler's Lost Sub" which I started watching. And then became momentarily confused, as the story I was reading in Shadow Divers wasn't the story I was hearing on the NOVA episode.
Okay, what up?
Further along in the book, Robert Kurson starts telling the tale from the perspective of those who died on U-869, and that's when I was fully pulled out of the story.
The men spoke briefly before wishing each other a good night. “At least,” Guschewski thought as he closed his door, “this fellow seems bright, capable, and friendly. At least Horenburg seems like a gentleman.”
Guschewski lived, and was interviewed for the book, a fact we find out at the end of the book, but parts like:
They knew this man to be their commander—they could see a nobility in his posture, a certainty in the slowness of his breaths, a strength in his face’s Teutonic angles.
are still absurd. Non-fiction can't really tell you this with any accuracy when the "they" died sixty years before.
I still very much enjoyed this book. It was a great read, takes about eight hours or so to read, but reads like an adventure, so it doesn't feel that long.
There were a lot of impossible places to go when the world was as big as Chatterton and Nagle saw it, but for God’s sake you had to try. You were required to try. What were you doing alive, these men thought, if you didn’t go and try?
A good diver reveals himself in the way he gears up.
Inside is where the bridge equipment lies—the telegraph, helm, and binnacles that gave the ship direction.
A diver who spends time inside a wreck will screw the “viz”; it’s just a matter of how soon and how badly.
Yet a curious truth pertains to these perils: rarely does the problem itself kill the diver. Rather, the diver’s response to the problem—his panic—likely determines whether he lives or dies.
A great diver learns to stand down his emotions. At the moment he becomes lost or blinded or tangled or trapped, that instant when millions of years of evolution demand fight or flight and narcosis carves order from his brain, he dials down his fear and contracts into the moment until his breathing slows and his narcosis lightens and his reason returns. In this way he overcomes his humanness and becomes something else. In this way, liberated from instincts, he becomes a freak of nature.
An ordinary diver will sometimes rush to extricate himself from trouble so that no other diver will witness his predicament. A disciplined diver is willing to risk such embarrassment in exchange for his life.
On a deep-wreck dive, no one is ever truly safe until he is back on the deck of the dive boat.
A few days later, Chatterton decided to take a trip. Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry was the permanent home of U-505, a type IXC U-boat captured by the Allies off Africa in 1944. The submarine had been kept in pristine condition and was open to the public.
She told them that after the war, her father had hobbled on crutches across America to visit the families of every man who had perished under his command because it was the right thing to do, that he needed to tell them in person that he appreciated their sons.
Everyone had an opinion, and John listened to all of them. But the more John absorbed these viewpoints, the more he suspected that these people didn’t really know. It was not that he doubted their conviction; in fact, he admired their passion and felt invigorated by the era. But he asked himself about the lives of the people behind the opinions, and the more he asked, the more he became convinced that few of them had ever gone out and looked for themselves.
“One more thing,” Mouse said. “A lot of the stuff you do out there, you’re going to have to live with all the way down the line. You’ll have to make decisions out there. When that happens, you have to ask yourself, ‘Where do I want to be in ten years, twenty years? How will I want to feel about this decision when I’m an old man?’ That’s the question for making important decisions.”
With each moment, Chatterton’s vision narrowed and the jungle sounds compressed, until the only impressions in his world were his own heaving breaths and pounding heart.
He could not imagine turning away from the first thing in his life at which he had been special, the thing at which he might be great.
As he neared the end of his six-month field obligation, he had come to believe these things: —If an undertaking was easy, someone else already would have done it. —If you follow in another’s footsteps, you miss the problems really worth solving. —Excellence is born of preparation, dedication, focus, and tenacity; compromise on any of these and you become average. —Every so often, life presents a great moment of decision, an intersection at which a man must decide to stop or go; a person lives with these decisions forever. —Examine everything; not all is as it seems or as people tell you. —It is easiest to live with a decision if it is based on an earnest sense of right and wrong. —The guy who gets killed is often the guy who got nervous. The guy who doesn’t care anymore, who has said, “I’m already dead—the fact that I live or die is irrelevant and the only thing that matters is the accounting I give of myself,” is the most formidable force in the world. —The worst possible decision is to give up.
in the water, self-contained, a man could be what he was meant to be, and when that happened it was impossible to be lost.
At home, Kohler allowed Richie to assemble and disassemble his tank and regulator—he believed in making his three children feel comfortable with mechanical equipment, to make them unafraid to touch things.
It had been a year since he had seen the dead woman in the water, but Richie had never stopped wondering how people could be left in the water when they had loved ones at home who needed to know where they were.
Richie’s father was right: always swing while the other guy is telling you how he’s going to kick your ass.
“We sank two U-boats,” Weidenfeld said. “But we never got credit for either of them.” “I’ve read about those incidents,” Chatterton said. “You guys believe the navy didn’t want to credit civilians.” “That’s right,” Weidenfeld said. “The navy didn’t want to acknowledge it because it would have terrified the public to think that average civilians were needed to fight the U-boats, and that the U-boats were coming so close to our shores.
He could not tolerate the idea of this diver stealing the visibility in a gold mine of artifacts under the pretext of shooting video. A mystery U-boat full of china and the guy is shooting video!
Chatterton began to insist but stopped himself when he looked into Chris’s widened eyes. In them, he saw only fear and knowing—the kind of knowing that occurs when one’s fate is certain and moments away.
But the lesson was stark and by now familiar: written history was fallible. Sloppy and erroneous assessments had been rushed into the official record, only to be presumed accurate by historians, who then published elegant reference works echoing the mistakes.
Along the way, each marveled at how easy it was to get an incomplete picture of the world if one relied solely on experts, and how important it would be to further rely on oneself.
But it took no more than these words for even a U-boat veteran like Guschewski to think, “There is great courage and competence in this man. You do not go against this voice. You do not go against this man.”
Seated with Neuerburg were his first officer, twenty-one-year-old Siegfried Brandt, and his chief engineer, thirty-year-old Ludwig Kessler.
Guschewski was stunned. He admired commanders who followed strict military protocol. But he had also prayed that U-869 would be led by a man with a heart.
During visits, he told Friedhelm that he believed the Nazis to be authoring the downfall of Germany. Friedhelm recoiled at the public nature of his expression. “Are you crazy talking like that in the open?” he asked Helmuth whenever such conversations unfolded. “People are listening everywhere! What you are saying is very dangerous!”
In 1943, Neuerburg and others were offered a choice: they could remain with the naval air arm or join the U-boats. Those who stayed with the air force would go into combat immediately; those who transferred to submarines might spend a year or more in training before going to battle. Neuerburg was father to a two-year-old son and a one-year-old daughter. He chose the U-boats, though he harbored no illusions about their safety.
Zinten’s Nazi Party members continued to harass Otto and Elise over their church worship and their refusal to join the party,
One of them began crying, then another, then all of them. “What is wrong?” Gila asked, rushing to Nedel’s side and taking his hand. For a moment, the men could do nothing but cry. Nedel said nothing. Finally, one of the other men spoke. “None of us is coming back,” he said.
Time and again during their research, they had been astonished to discover that historians had been mistaken, books fallible, experts wrong.
The fantasy always felt good for a minute, but it always ended with Chatterton thinking, “When things are easy a person doesn’t really learn about himself. It’s what a person does at the moment of his greatest struggle that shows him who he really is. Some people never get that moment. The U-Who is my moment. What I do now is what I am.”
Then spring began to dab warmth into the air and Marks said it would be a shame if a man turned his back on his passion.
Whatever satisfaction he might derive from delivering an answer to the crewmen’s families and to history would be smothered by his helpless proximity to a drowning friend.
There might be, he thought, one scenario worse than watching his friend die in the wreck, and as Sunday drew near he knew that worst scenario to be allowing his friend to die while he stayed home and waited for the news.
“U-boats are my avocation,” he said. “Perhaps it would be boring if I were to earn money from it. It’s the detective’s way of treating these matters that moves me. Once you find out history is wrong, once you start investigating it and, with some luck, correcting it, that is satisfaction enough.”