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  • Stealth Boat: Fighting the Cold War in a Fast-Attack Submarine
  • Timothy J. Galpin
Gannon McHale , Stealth Boat: Fighting the Cold War in a Fast-Attack Submarine. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2008. 187 pp. $24.95.

In the annals of the Cold War, the deeds of the Silent Service were kept highly classified until recently. Those interested in the exploits of submarines had to be content with the amazing feats of the World War II generation as meticulously documented in Clay Blair, Jr.'s Silent Victory (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1975) or in such classics as Richard "Dick" O'Kane's Clear the Bridge (New York: Presidio Press, 1989). However, with the passage of time and the U.S. victory in the Cold War, a picture has started to emerge of the true contest for dominance beneath the waves by the two most powerful navies the world has ever known. Gannon McHale has added color to that picture with his memoir of life on the USS Sturgeon (SSN 637) in the heart of the Cold War, as told from the perspective of an enlisted crewmember.

The concept of "shipmate" is difficult to convey and, though not unique to submarines, certainly is the basis for forming an effective crew from individual sailors. Stealth Boat, with its vivid descriptions of the crewmembers as true characters in the drama of life in the "boats," brings even the uninitiated to an understanding of how lifelong bonds were formed. Every submariner, from seaman to admiral, will easily recognize himself in one or more of the hilarious, zany, and sometimes harrowing sea stories related by McHale about his shipmates over a three-year period from 1967 to 1970.

Worth reading from that perspective alone, Stealth Boat is much deeper than a collection of stories about old shipmates and, by extension, the Vietnam-era submarine subculture. More in the literary tradition of Richard Henry Dana, Jr.'s Two Years before the Mast (1846), Stealth Boat uses those stories to explain life in submarines. The simulated loss of the boat in a dive-trainer underscores that the unrelenting pressure to qualify in submarines is the means by which this fraternity ensures every crewmember can be entrusted to understand the boat and do the right thing in an emergency. A black steward, who has to be protected by his shipmates during liberty call in the South, is one of those "qualified in submarines" who show the author the ropes as a new crewmember. From a different perspective, a new commanding officer's willingness to navigate in the fog by radar and land the ship without tugs stands in contrast to his conservative predecessor and evokes a fierce pride that begins to bond the crew for deployments to come.

McHale provides true value from a historical perspective as well. Set against a [End Page 162] backdrop of cultural anecdotes, music of the day, and world events delivered in a staccato style, the reality of life beneath the waves unfolds. Although others have done a more meticulous job of documenting the broader role of submarines in fighting the Cold War, as well as the role of Admiral Hyman G. Rickover's naval nuclear power program in revolutionizing the technology of submarines, Stealth Boat is unsurpassed in showing the impact on the thoughts and actions of the submariners involved.

In 1968 approximately 400 men were lost with their submarines at sea. As with the loss of USS Scorpion (SSN 589), the causes were often unclear even after extensive investigation. But against the backdrop of the Cold War, when U.S. submarines hunted their Soviet counterparts, and vice versa, and when the possibility of groundings and collisions at sea were omnipresent, the crew were often mindful that when they left port they were sailing into harm's way—not just because deliberately submerging a ship beneath the waves is unnatural, but because of what they did there. Stealth Boat is at its most compelling when describing close maneuvers against Soviet submarines to record their sound signature or even closer maneuvers to conduct underwater hull surveillance through the periscope.

McHale does not neglect to include in his portraits of the crew a...


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