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Vyborny, Lee, and Don Davis. Dark Waters: an Insider's Account of the NR-1, the Cold War's Undercover Nuclear Sub.

New York: New American Library, 2003. 243pp. $24.95

Although ultimately worthwhile and entertaining, Dark Waters suffers from the strange paradox of inadequately describing underwater events that ought to be gripping while simultaneously portraying mundane and ordinary events in a marvelously compelling manner. Lee Vyborny was a new-construction plank-owner and member of the first commissioning crew of the U.S. Navy's small nuclear-powered submarine NR-1. Don Davis has written or coauthored eleven books.

Overall, the book well rewards its readers, but unevenly. An example of its bumpiness comes early in the prologue when the authors state that in World War II "about half the U.S. submarines and the men who served in them were lost," which, of course, is untrue. Although fifty-two U.S. submarines and over 3,500 of their heroic crewmembers were lost, this number represents a fifth (not half) of the submarines the United States sent to sea during that war.

Further problems arise when the book briefly describes the path that took Vyborny from being an ordinary high school graduate to becoming a crewmember of NR-1--the Navy's smallest and most mysterious nuclear-powered submarine. The authors certainly do not devote excessive space to this part of the tale, but their telling of Vyborny's early story is just a bit too self-conscious and self-effacing, lacking the easy confidence and pride that characterizes much of the rest of the book. Another criticism arises from an early passage in which Vyborny relates a 1964 deployment he made as a junior enlisted sailor on the nuclear-powered submarine USS Sargo to the Sea of Japan. Intended, one presumes, to rival the swashbuckling tales told in Sontag and Drew's Blind Man's Bluff, the story of the grounding, jam-dive casualty, and operational exploits of the USS Sargo simply are not conveyed in a manner compelling or even believable to those with their own submarine experience. One reads them wondering if they are true. For instance, the authors state that Sargo passed ten feet directly underneath a newly launched Echo II Soviet submarine to "determine if she was powered by standard diesel engines, or a nuclear reactor." It is curious to think the U.S. Navy would use this method to ascertain the mode of propulsion of a ship class that had already been in service for at least two years.

But these criticisms pale in comparison to Vyborny's success in relating how he and eleven other immensely dedicated men who made up the first NR-1 crew worked in the physically demanding environment of the Electric Boat shipyard to oversee the construction of the small submarine. This is the section in which the book truly shines, as readers get a rare firsthand glimpse of how a crew, believing with justified conviction that they are elite, come together to become shipmates and expert operators of a complex, expensive, amazing machine. Vyborny and Davis's work is again excellent when it tells some of the Admiral Hyman Rickover anecdotes that Vyborny witnessed during Rickover's reign over all the Navy's nuclear-powered vessels. The authors balance perfectly Rickover's bizarre idiosyncrasies against his awesome effectiveness and offset the fear he engendered against the respect he earned, neutralizing his routinely acidic abrasiveness with his childlike wonder at the sights of the deep visible from NR-1's small windows. Also masterful is the authors' depiction of the routine when operating NR-1, the sacrifices inherent in living for weeks in a small enclosed space, eating preprocessed food for days on end, standing miserable surface watches, and all the other mundane aspects of extended life underwater in close proximity to a nuclear reactor. These portions of the book are indeed well told and will resonate with those who have gone to sea.

As good as their depictions of the ordinary are, Vyborny and David convey the dangers of NR-1's unusual and exceptional missions and experiences in a less forceful and riveting manner. Perhaps readers have become overexposed to and jaded by these kinds of exploits, or perhaps Dark Waters pulled some of NR-1's punches due to classification considerations. Regardless, the action sections, though worth reading, are not up to the high standards of the rest of the book. Still, Vyborny's insider account of how NR-1's first crews built and operated their ship fully pays back the reader's investment. Dark Waters should be on every submariner's bookshelf, even if it tells its extraordinary tale a bit unevenly.


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Author:Murray, William S.
Publication:Naval War College Review
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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