Sherry Sontag & Christopher Drew,
with Annette Lawrence Drew,
Blind Man's Bluff:
The Untold Story of
American Submarine Espionage

(Perennial, 1998)

It is hard to overstate the singularity and importance of this book. Blind Man's Bluff, as the subtitle says, is truly The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage. Before the research of writers Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew (with Annette Lawrence Drew) culminated in the publishing of this book, the stories of hundreds of submariners, heroes one and all, had been shrouded in the secrecy born of the Cold War. Many men aged and died without ever telling their wives and children what they did during their tours of duty; many family members never knew exactly how or why their loved ones never came home; many survivors have only now learned, thanks to this book, the exact nature of the missions they took part in, having never been privy to that information during their service.

According to the authors, many of these men and their families have thanked them in quite emotional terms for finally telling their stories. The submariners of the U.S. Navy helped win the Cold War and they deserve the heroic recognition they dutifully earned in service to their country.

This book basically takes the reader through the secret history of submarine intelligence missions over the course of the Cold War years and beyond. Many of these tales prove once again that truth is oftentimes stranger than fiction. Triumph and tragedy abound. The book also serves as a primer of sorts for the history of the Cold War; the interplay between different American administrations, naval chiefs and admirals, larger-than-life sub captains and brilliant civilian naval administrators immerses you in the full scope of military planning, action, reaction and sometimes overreaction. The biggest mistakes that were made all seem to fall in the lap of admirals and high-ranking naval officers and administrators, and these mistakes put many lives in danger and caused a number of unnecessary deaths. The dangerous obstinacy of government bureaucracy is a problem we continue to deal with today.

Submarines fulfilled innumerable intelligence-gathering missions during the decades after World War II. Subs infiltrated Russian waters to glean data about Soviet hardware, missile technology and military behavior patterns; they secretly tailed all manner of Soviet subs across the oceans in order to identify each type of craft by the slightest of sounds and to learn the practices and tendencies of Soviet sub commanders (helping to ensure that the Soviets would be hard pressed ever to launch a massive nuclear first- or second-strike via the sea); they searched for valuable military hardware (both American and Soviet) along the ocean floor; and they brought home some of the most critical intelligence findings imaginable.

Among the more remarkable stories detailed here are the Navy's successful attempts to locate a lost Soviet nuclear sub (which the CIA later attempted -- embarrassingly unsuccessfully -- to salvage from the bottom of the ocean), the mysterious loss of the U.S. sub Scorpion (along with new information that would seem to finally explain the cause of the tragedy) and the collision of an American sub with one of its Soviet counterparts (just one of a surprising number of such collisions). Perhaps the most fascinating account to be found in Blind Man's Bluff is America's secret tapping of Soviet military cables underneath the sea off Okhotsk and in the Barents Strait. Submarines made a number of undetected trips to the discovered cables, hiding in relatively shallow waters literally just beneath the Soviet navy's nose for days at a time, to collect and replace recorded tapes that gave Naval Intelligence an unprecedented look at Soviet plans and capabilities as well as crucial insight into the Soviet military psyche itself.

You will meet some incredible heroes and brilliant intellectuals in this book: men such as John Craven, Cmdr. Whitey Mack, Admiral Bobby Inman and Tommy Cox, a would-be country singer who immortalized the deeds of his fellow submariners (and memorialized those who didn't make it back home) in song. Then there are John A. Walker Jr. and Ronald W. Pelton, two of the worst traitors in American history. Walker spent 18 years building a spy ring that turned over an immense number of secrets to the Soviets for less than $1 million, while Pelton informed the Soviets of the Okhotsk cable tap for a mere $35,000. These men put the lives of hundreds of brave submariners at risk, greatly compromising their nation's security in the process.

If you want to know what peril under the sea can really mean, read the amazing accounts chronicled in Blind Man's Bluff. America's submariners played a crucial role in their nation's defense for decades, but only now are their stories being told. It is a secret history more thrilling than that born of the imaginations of the best military science-fiction writers.

- Rambles
written by Daniel Jolley
published 29 May 2004

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