A Book by Roger Dunham
This is the only first-person account of one of the most highly-classified missions in the history of the United States submarine service, told by a sailor who was there.
In early 1968, the Soviet Navy experienced a disaster at sea for their missile-carrying submarine, code-named the PL-751, killing 99 sailors, leading to an urgent and top secret mission for the American submarine crew to find the destroyed vessel in the great depths of the Pacific Ocean. This was a mission never acknowledged by the U.S. Department of Defense or any other United States government body. Cruising through waters deeply beneath the searching navy of the Soviet Union, the nuclear submarine hunt was so classified that even the men on the vessel were never told of the destination. The brave exploits of these sailors and their remarkable commanding officer, enduring near-tragedies at sea and nearly-impossible challenges below the Pacific, are described by the author who also provides his own personal experiences under the tightest secrecy ever required for a submarine mission. The challenges are described in personal detail, and the final outcome bringing critical Cold War information to the President of the United States is a saga like none in the annals of submarine exploits.
Spy Sub is the tale of a top-secret submarine named Halibut that lowered miles and miles of special cable along the bottom of the Pacific Ocean in order to investigate a sunken Soviet sub. The mission was such a success that the Halibut itself received a Presidential medal in a secret ceremony. It’s a true story, even the part about the sub getting a medal. Roger C. Dunham, a nuclear-reactor operator on board the Halibut during the mission, provides a firsthand account of an aspect of Cold War espionage that has only recently begun to surface. To this day, the Pentagon refuses to acknowledge such missions, in all likelihood because they are still going
From Publishers Weekly: SPY SUB
For nearly three decades, the U.S. Navy has maintained a tight security net around one of the most successful military operations of the Cold War: the treacherous undersea hunt in the late 1960s for a Soviet “Echo” class submarine, carrying nuclear missiles, that had sunk in the Pacific. Recently, the Pentagon cleared Dunham, who helped hunt for the sub, to tell the story, albeit in greatly curtailed form. So much secrecy still surrounds “Operation Hammerclaw,” in fact, that Dunham reveals neither the true name of the American sub (here called the Viperfish) dispatched to find the Soviet craft, nor why the mission was so vital. But no matter: Dunham, a physician and medical thriller author (Final Diagnosis, 1993, etc.), spins a tense, nuanced tale that induces squirms of discomfort as he writes of the dangers of life on board a sub, not the least of which is what happens when a sub dives beyond its “crush depth.” Interwoven among such terrifying events as a water leak and a man being washed overboard in the darkness are some of the more surreal aspects of sub duty. There is a memorable episode of mass seasickness, for instance, during which the ill celebrate their discomfort by lighting up cigars. Would-be Captain Nemos and other fans of undersea adventure will enjoy this vigorous memoir.
New York Times Book Review
“Bristles with the excitement of the chase!”
“The ultimate undersea game of cat-and-mouse.”
Spy Sub Reader Reviews from Amazon.com
By A Customer (5 STARS) Much like “The Cruel Sea”. This is how it was
I was a “khaki” (an EOOW) on a 637-class boat in the Jimmy Carter years, with service that included two special operations, a Presidential Unit Citation and an 18-month nuclear refueling overhaul. I often still wake from uncomfortable “submarine dreams” even now, some twenty years after I left the service to go to graduate school. This is the book I will give my son to show him what it was like down there.
Ignore the junk on the dust jacket: it has almost nothing to do with the book and its strengths. “Spy Sub” has much more in common with “The Cruel Sea” (Nicholas Monserrat’s classic story of WWII convoy duty) than it has in common with “The Hunt for Red October”, and what it has in common with Monserrat makes it far more authentic than the Clancy novels. If you’re thinking about signing up for sub duty, then you need to read this book to see what you’re heading into.
If you’re looking for a fast-paced, Hollywood-style “space opera of the undersea”, however, this is definitely <<not>> the book for you. Read Clancy’s “The Hunt for Red October” and “Red Storm Rising” instead, if that is the case. You’ll be entertained a lot and even informed a little. I enjoyed them, too. Just keep in mind that Clancy is a fiction writer whose professional task is to focus on the glamorous and ignore the rest.
Of all the submarine books I’ve seen and read, “Spy Sub” captures the stone cold sober reality of service aboard a nuclear submarine the best.
By A Customer (5 STARS) On board ship w/author, found book interesting as to mission
Served aboard HALIBUT 1964-1967. Had little clue of it’s chief mission at the time of my service, so the book was revealing and insightful to me and to my family and friends who had been listening to my stories lo these many years. It was I who was overboard and reading a chapter about my own experience told by someone else, was chilling, and brought back memories of my own fears as well as the tenacity and expertise of the Captain and my shipmates, who refused to give up their rescue efforts, until I was safely brought back aboard. I would recommend this book to other sub sailors and their families.
By A Customer on January 12, 1998 – A ‘must read’ for understanding the Submariner’s lifestyle
For 20 years as a sub nuclear plant operator, I had tried unsuccessfully to give an accurate picture of what the submariner’s lifestyle at sea is like to my friends and family. It is so different that few civilians can relate. In “Spy Sub”, the author has masterfully brought to life the day-to-day routine of submariners during the cold war.
Many reviewers here have commented on the lack of technical detail on the specific mission of the ‘Viperfish’ (aka ‘Halibut’), but they have missed the purpose of the book. Dolphin wearer’s currently defending us in the world’s oceans will appreciate Dunham’s sensitivity to the need for ongoing secrecy on highly classified missions. Don’t read this book for that type of classified information, but rather for what I can attest to is a true understanding of the submariner’s life at sea.
Read Clancy if you want a great made-up thriller with a cool story line. Read Dunham if you want an insider’s view of real life during the cold war for a tiny, but highly specialized, highly successful, and vital segment of our national defense.
By Patrick Dunhill (5 STARS) Enlightening, but miss-titled.
Anyone hungry for disclosure of super-secret details of cold war sub missions will be disappointed. The author acknowledges that he was a nuclear reactor operator and knew virtually nothing about the missions of his sub, the mysterious, one-of-a-kind USS Halibut. However, Dunham provides an insightful, human picture of what it’s like to earn one’s dolphins, graduating from the “non-nuke puke” status of a freshman submariner. He describes well the rituals, difficulties and patterns of a life spent underwater, with no view of sunlight, for two months at a time. For that, he deserves great credit.
By A Customer (5 STARS) Fact is stranger than fiction <Coles Law>
Coles Law is thinly sliced cabbage. I found Spy Sub very interesting. Even if the events weren’t accurate, they certainly are believable. The characterization of the crew is a real description of what real life aboard would be. For example the man overboard event: Imagine probably a state 4 sea, no lights to show your position, dark for visual cover from sea or above, unable to use but minimal power to maneuver because of cavitation noise, cold, can’t hear for the wind and OSCAR (the man over the side) can’t even see the sub because of its paint job. The Captain must do some superior maneuvering to get that man back aboard. The bow thruster can’t do any good on the surface, its above the waterline. He must do everything exactly right, and quickly because the water is cold and the chance of OSCAR and the ship drifting differently is problematic. The story has it that the Captain did retrieve his man, proving his exceptional seamanship as is the trademark of most sub sailors. Anyone that could find this and the other stories in this book as boring either has no imagination or experience at sea. As far as details of ships operations, probably the best way to explain that is the standard reply that neither confirms or denies. “I’ve never been anyplace to speak of”. I must consider it to be a must for anyone interested in submarine stories during any era.