My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Big Red by Douglas Waller is one of the best books available on American nuclear submarines. There are a few others, all wonderful reading:
- Blind Man’s Bluff by Sherry Sontag
- Red Star Rogue by Kenneth Sewell (creative nonfiction)
- HMS Unseen by Patrick Robinson (fiction)
- Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy (fiction)
- SSN by Tom Clancy
I’m sure there are more and would love if you’d add them to the comments section below. I’ve read all of the above because I’m including a nuclear sub in my next thriller, so I had to read everything possible about submarines, as well as chat with everyone I could find. I came away with admiration for the machine and the men who make it work.
Douglas Waller is well-credentialed to take on this job. He is a prior defense and foreign policy correspondent for Newsweek and served on the legislative staffs of Senator Proxmire and Congressman Markey. In Big Red, the Navy gave Waller the opportunity to sail with the Trident nuclear submarine USS Nebraska for three months. during that time, the Nebraska was on patrol protecting American shores. This meant it was invisible to both the enemy and friends, going wherever its captain deemed necessary to perform his duty. The Captain of a nuclear submarine is king with all the requisite powers during a sub’s deployment.
Some of the topics covered are:
- how they leave port and disappear. Getting a submarine out to the ocean isn’t as easy as turning on the engine and heading for the open water. Turns out, they’re pretty unwieldy when surfaced, and they can’t dive until they’re out of the harbor. That takes a while.
- practice diving
- who serves on the boat (they aren’t ‘ships’–that nomenclature refers to surface vessels)
- practice avoiding the enemy
- practice attacking the enemy
- what about the nuclear weapons on board a sub
- details of the crew’s food (they eat well, partial compensation for not seeing family and friends, not breathing fresh air and the very tight quarters they live in for months)
- what happens when someone gets sick
- what does ‘cookies and cream’ mean
- what does ‘angles and dangles’ mean (hint: it has to do with diving)
- what happens in an emergency
Some of my favorite parts will give you a sense of Waller’s writing style. It’s easy to read, plain, and gets the message across even to lay people. See if you agree:
- This was the room where the giant ship was steered, where the captain peered at the world outside through the periscope, where buttons could be pushed to fire torpedoes or a key could be turned to launch, God forbid, the twenty-four long-range ballistic missiles
- Control (the sub’s command and control center) is as large as a roomy bedroom. But with all the instrument panels and stools and chart stands and plotting tables arranged inside it, all the silver tubes and gray pipes and black wires and red phone boxes that hang overhead, not to mention all the crewmen who crowd in to operate its equipment, control becomes cramped. (It didn’t sound roomy from the get-go. By the end of this section, it seemed as cramped as a telephone booth with thirty college kids stuffed inside during Hell Week)
- the capital and technological infrastructure that took fifty years and $trillions to build…
- The Nebraska actually stayed under no more than eighty to ninety days at a time because it didn’t have enough room for food to feed the crew much past that
- Every two weeks, like clockwork, an American ballistic missile sub still slips quietly away from its pier and sinks deep into the dark ocean to relieve one of the ten Tridents that remain on constant patrol in the Atlantic and Pacific. (This was written ten years ago. I assume nothing has changed, but they wouldn’t tell me if it had)
- …and the fanged propeller made of a precision-machined aluminum, nickel, copper and bronze alloy. The divers were making sure that saboteurs hadn’t attached bombs.
- …each (tug) prepared to nudge the long black vessel right or left if it sailed off the center track of the channel (as it left port)
- …the small amount of time the Nebraska spent on the surface could be the most hazardous…
- The blade count is important. Merchant ships usually have three or four blades on each propeller. Warships and submarines have five or more. The class stack (I’ve lost track of what that is) can also tell if a propeller’s revolutions per minute increase or decrease, a tip-off that a ship is speeding up or slowing down.
That should give you a flavor for the book. Fascinating, don’t you agree?