walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_Shadow Divers_, Robert Kurson

This was last month's book group selection; I didn't attend because I was at WDW.

Subtitled: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II

This non-fiction work published in 2004 describes the dives and research of John Chatterton and Richie Kohler in their successful attempts to identify a U-boat about 60 miles off the coast of New Jersey.

Do I REALLY have to say SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER? There was a PBS special or two. There has been newspaper coverage. Etc. Did they figure it out? Yes. Was it what it obviously was based on the carved name on the knife? Yes. Were people surprised to learn that the WW2 reference books about what sank where had some problems? Apparently. Some people have led a more sheltered existence and retained their faith in the written word to a somewhat more advanced age than I would have expected.

This link, without following it, is a spoiler: http://www.u869.com/Eng/index.html

Kurson is a capable writer. He maintains narrative thrust without resorting to cheap tricks (You could probably find at least one instance of a story cut off at a chapter ending with the next chapter about something else, then the suspenseful bit continued later, but I don't recall any specifically or generally -- that's the kind of thing I mean.) Kurson does a much better than average job of showing the character of the men he is describing. He's a lot more sympathetic to these idiots than I would be -- and he does a fantastic job of showing _that_ as well.

Chatterton, Kohler and various other divers were based in the Northeast. They were self-funded (completely, as near as I can tell) scuba divers, mostly in dry suits altho some still in wet. Virtually everyone at the beginning of the story is using compressed air, altho towards the end they switched to trimix; no one in the events of this story is using rebreathers. Taking things from wrecks is/was common among the characters in this story/community, altho Chatterton and Kohler are already changing over to focusing on video and understanding rather than collecting trophies. I don't think anyone in the entire group had any navy or other armed forces dive experience whatsoever, and it _really_ shows.

Self-funded dives in personal gear has limitations that kill people who start working in deeper waters and more complex environments. If you're diving for the Navy, they're setting the priorities and they won't let you go off and do something hare-brained on your own (they have more than enough official hare-brained, thank you very much). If you're diving for the Navy, they won't let you go below a certain depth with compressed air (certainly not just because you either lost track of who should get the trimix or lacked the funds, which seems to be approximately what killed two of the divers). They'll stage an investigation to ensure safety, because safety is what leads to success. Etc. And, as Chatterton and Kohler discovered over and over and over again, military investigators don't necessarily care quite as much about pulling one damn tag off of one damn box out of one damn electric motor room to "prove" this was U-869, especially when they had more than enough evidence in support of that theory anyway.

Think of this like one of Krakauer's books, and you'll have a pretty good sense of what was going on: a couple of boomer men doing something the hard way, nominally to discover something. It does make for a riveting story.

All that said, and as much as I'll take reading about a Ballard expedition over this kind of thing any time I have the choice, it is worth noting that people in the lives of explorers die much more often of much more mundane causes than of horrifying and avoidable dive accidents. Just in this book, Nagle drinks himself to death and one of Kohler's loves is murdered by an ex-boyfriend. Ballard's son died in a car accident. Etc.

Kurson has produced a widely accessible story that makes a lot of the details of diving accessible to a general audience, including some of the technical transitions that have occurred over the last couple decades. He has produced a nicely detailed explanation of how history gets written, and how it gets corrected. There were moments where I eye-rolled (notably at how long it took anyone to go digging for the radio communications to U-869. These were Germans. This was post-Enigma. We have virtually all the traffic. You can go fucking _read_ it all quite easily. Why did it take them so long to think to do so?), but those moments were not that common and honestly, they were unfair on my part. Good work was done here and Kurson depicts it without sucking all the life out of it.

Fun stuff. I might read more by him.

ETA: A few personal notes. My ex-husband was a huge Ballard fan -- probably the only reason I don't read Ballard more often now. While I did not dive until after we divorced, and abandoned it as a hobby almost as quickly as I took it up, reading Kurson's descriptions of the deadliness of getting certain things wrong reminded me vividly of why I gave it up so fast. Also, super weird that the radio guy who didn't sail because he had pneumonia was the son of a couple JWs (not called that at the time).
Tags: book review, non-fiction

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