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Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionageby Sherry Sontag
Synopses & Reviews
A Deadly Beginning
"You gotta be nuts," Harris M. Austin grumbled under his breath as he watched the ugliest-looking piece of junk he had ever seen pull into the British naval base in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. This couldn't be his sub. This couldn't be the "Cochino."
Almost anyone else on the busy pier would have thought that he was just a twenty-eight-year-old radioman. He knew better. He was here on direct orders from the U.S. chief of Naval Operations. He had been briefed by admirals who commanded the U.S. naval forces in Europe, his background checked and doublechecked. And today he was about to join the crew of this sub as one of the Navy's newest spies, a "spook," someone who had been trained to snatch Soviet milltary signals and electronic communications out of thin air. It was going to be his job to attempt a daring grab for some of the Soviet Union's deepest secrets.
Austin jumped down onto the pier and began pulling mooring lines along with a handful of other men. Then somebody said it, said that this was "Cochino," U.S. submarine SS-345, the boat Austin had been awaiting for three days.
"Goddamn ugly piece of junk," he thought as he hoisted a sea bag stuffed with classified documents over his shoulder and lumbered down the hatch to introduce himself and his orders to "Cochino's" commanding officer, Commander Rafael C. Benitez.
Austin had leapt to submarines from battle cruisers in a search for excitement, the same reason he had volunteered to make this latest leap, transforming himself from a radioman into a spook. That he was in the armed forces at all had been a near certainty from the day he was born. He came from a long line ofScottish warriors, a line he could trace back to the fourteenth century without breaking a sweat. His father had been a cook with an American air squadron in England before shifting to whalers and ocean freighters stateside. His Welsh mother had worked for a British ammunition company. Austin himself had been only nineteen years old when he first went to sea, his auburn hair quickly earning him the nickname "Red."
Benitez, thirty-two years old, was one of those men who had been bred to decorum. His father was a judge in Puerto Rico, and Commander Benitez had just finished law school, a perk that the Navy had awarded to hold on to him. As a submarine officer during World War 11, he had survived several depth-chargings and earned a reputation for calm under fire. Now, in late July 1949, he had been back in the sub force for only three weeks, and he had his own command.
Actually, it was a command Benitez had tried to turn down, embarrassed by his sub's name. "Cochino" may have been named for an Atlantic trigger fish, but in Spanish, the language of his family and friends back home, he would be commanding the submarine Pig.
He had admitted as much to his mother when he
wrote home, but her reply had yet to reach him as he stood in his cramped wardroom, shoulders back to make the most of his less than imposing frame. He was alone with this hulking enlisted man, this sailor turned spy, the kind of man who would still be declaring that he was "tougher than shit" when he reached his seventies.
Red Austin handed over his orders. The captain scanned them and tensed as he read that "Cochino," his sub, was about to become an experimental spy boat.
Benitez was stunned. "Cochino's"mission was already complex enough. She had been scheduled to embark on a training run designed to change the very nature of submarine warfare. Classic World War 11 fleet submarines could dive beneath the waves only long enough to attack surface ships and avoid counterattack before needing to surface themselves. But since the war ended, "Cochino" and a few other boats had been dramatically altered. They now sported new, largely untested equipment, including a snorkel pipe that was supposed to let them take in fresh air, run the diesel engines, and shoot out engine exhaust without having to surface. That would allow the boats to spend much of their time underwater, rendering them effectively invisible and making it possible for them to go after other subs as well as surface ships.
Benitez had been expecting to take his submarine out and test her new equipment, train his crew, and learn how to run her as a true underwater vehicle. But Austin's orders were adding another dimension to Benitez's mission, transforming it from one of just war games and sea trials into an operation in an unproven realm of submarine intelligence. Furthermore, all this was to take place in the frigid Barents Sea inside the Arctic Circle, near the waters around Murmansk where the Soviet Union kept its Northern Fleet.
Worse, the cables and antennas for Austin's crude eavesdropping gear had to pass directly through the sub's pressure hull. That meant drilling holes in the very steel that held the ocean back.
Benitez took one look at the plans to drill through the sub's hull, what he considered the sub's "last resort" protective shell, and became clearly upset. What happened next is a story that Austin wouldtell and retell.
"Drill holes in the pressure hull?" Benitez said loud enough to get the attention of his executive officer and chief of the boat who came running. Drill holes without direct orders from the Navy's Bureau of Ships, which was supposed to oversee all submarine construction and modifications?
"You got anything from BUSHIPS?" he demanded.
"No sir, this is what they gave me," Austin replied. In a hapless gesture at conciliation, he added, "They're going to be small holes."
For decades American submarines have roamed the depths in a dangerous battle for information and advantage in missions known only to a select few. Now, after six years of research, those missions are told in Blind Man's Bluff, a magnificent achievement in investigative reporting. It reads like a spy thriller — except everything in it is true. This is an epic of adventure, ingenuity, courage, and disaster beneath the sea, a story filled with unforgettable characters who engineered daring missions to tap the enemy's underwater communications cables and to shadow Soviet submarines. It is a story of heroes and spies, of bravery and tragedy.
Two investigative reporters and a researcher tell the epic story of American espionage from the early Cold War Years to the Clinton Administration, showing how the Navy and CIA have used submarines to gather intelligence and launch covert operations. 8-page photo insert.
About the Author
Sherry Sontag is an investigative journalist who, before turning to Blind Man's Bluff, was a staff writer for the National Law Journal. While there, she wrote about the Soviet Union, international affairs, and domestic scandals in securities and banking. Prior to that, Sontag wrote for the New York Times. A lifelong resident of New York, she has degrees from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and Barnard College.
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