The Germans called it Sour Pickle Time. By the start of 1945, a U-boat setting off from Europe stood only a fifty percent chance of returning from its patrol; a Nazi sailor's life expectancy was barely sixty days....
But wait, wait: back up. Shadow Divers begins in the fall of 1991, almost fifty years after the war, when sixty miles off the coast of New Jersey a charter boat captain pulls up his lures and finds them mottled with rust. Whatever is attracting fish to this spot, he figures, must be made of steel. A diver soon identifies the wreck as a World War II U-boat. There's only one problem: No record exists of a sub going down in this part of the Atlantic.
In Shadow Divers, Robert Kurson tells the story of two men consumed by the quest to identify the mystery sub, a six-year effort that in a single summer cost three of the world's best deep-wreck divers their lives. Braving pitch-black waters two hundred thirty feet below the ocean's surface to snake through the sub's tangled machinery in search of a clue, crossing the globe to pore through massive government archives and interview the world's foremost naval experts, John Chatterton and Richie Kohler will stop at nothing to rewrite history.
"For some reason," Kurson considers, "I was taken with these two men, John Chatterton and Richie Kohler, even more than I was taken with the story of the quest to solve the mystery of a lost U-boat."
It shows. The Wall Street Journal points out that "Shadow Divers is not only a gripping adventure story, but a tale of dogged persistence and growing friendship." They might have added: a tale of sacrifice, espionage, family, and courage. The New York Daily News promises, "Your interest in aquatic matters can start with a glass of water and end with a shower and you will still recognize this true story as one of the most engaging tales you'll read this year."
Dave: There's a great detail in the opening pages of Shadow Divers: a fisherman pulls in his lures and finds rust flakes on them. He knows that whatever wreck is attracting fish to this spot sixty miles out in the ocean must be made of steel.
From the outset, we're immersed in a seagoing culture whose people are intimately familiar with a part of the world those of us on land know very little about.
Robert Kurson: I was constantly enchanted, enthralled, and sometimes in absolute disbelief at the otherworldliness of this culture of the sea. A landlocked Chicagoan like me really knows nothing about it. I'm on Lake Michigan, but it's nothing like what occurs in Brielle, New Jersey, where so many people make their living on the ocean. This is their life and the way they live. I was taken with it immediately.
Dave: How did you wind up telling the story of the lost U-boat? I don't mean how did you stumble upon the events, but why did this end up being your story to tell?
Kurson: I think I understood the story to be something different than what others had seen it to be. I was certainly not the first person to come across the story. It had been featured in various newspapers. It had been the subject of a two-hour NOVA documentary on PBS.
The difference, I think, was that I understood the story to be about two extraordinary men coming face-to-face with the most fundamental question a person can ask about himself: Who am I?
The U-boat, in a way, was secondary to that. And in that respect I think this book has a little in common with Seabiscuit. You know, the story of Seabiscuit had been out for sixty years. Laura Hillenbrand understood it in a different way. She saw it as a story about underdogs and about America. Something similar happened here. For some reason, I was taken with these two men, John Chatterton and Richie Kohler, even more than I was taken with the story of the quest to solve the mystery of a lost U-boat.
Dave: How many wreck divers could or even would have gone this deep for a wreck?
Kurson: There may be ten million certified scuba divers in the United States; there might be one hundred that would ever brave a two-hundred-thirty-foot-deep U-boat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It's far too dangerous.
Also, so many of the pleasures of recreational scuba diving don't exist for the deep wreck diver. It's not beautiful scenery for the most part; in fact, it's usually very dark. It's physically burdensome these guys carry almost two hundred pounds of equipment, and should any of that equipment fail they risk death. When divers find out how many ways there are to die, it really whittles down the pool of applicants, so to speak.
Dave: After several thousand dives, six people have lost their lives exploring the Andrea Doria. Not to make light of those six lives, but three people died on this U-boat in a just year.
Kurson: The Andrea Doria, over the last half-century, has seen thousands and thousands of dives. It's considered, still, one of the most dangerous shipwrecks to dive in the world and it's claimed six lives. This U-boat, in one year, took three extremely accomplished divers down and threatened to do any number worse at a moment's notice.
And, by the way, the U-boat wasn't offering up the prizes that the Andrea Doria did; they are still pulling beautiful artifacts from the Andrea Doria today. The U-boat had nothing to offer but an answer.
Dave: You've shaped the book so that readers more or less follow along as the mystery unfolds. As those revelations come, the nature of the divers' quest to identify the wreck gradually changes. Kohler and Chatterton begin to identify with the men who died on the ship, and as they do we're introduced to some of the sailors who died onboard.
Kurson: They're getting closer to the men who died on the ship, and they're getting closer to themselves, as well. Kohler and Chatterton both began to understand that the way they behaved and the way they acquitted themselves in pursuit of this mystery was going to stand as the definition of who they were for the rest of their lives, so that while it seemed insane even to other divers that they would risk their lives and their marriages and even their emotional stability at times, it made perfect sense to them.
The wreck ended up meaning very different things to the two of them. To Chatterton, diving, and especially diving on this wreck, was a reflection of who he had determined to become in life. Diving was an art; it was a thing of beauty. How he behaved in diving, he believed, reflected on who he was in life. He also saw his conduct in life reflected in his diving.
To Kohler, who before this discovery had been fixated on hauling as much stuff from wrecks as possible he was a tonnage king, a member of the infamous Atlantic Wreck Divers, a gang that lived to take as much stuff from wrecks as possible he connected with long-forgotten feelings of German pride and heritage and began to identify with the men lost inside this wreck. He could not reconcile the idea that these men should remain lost forever without their family and friends knowing of their fate.
Dave: At one point, Kohler stops diving to try to save his marriage. Meanwhile, Chatterton becomes frustrated with his lack of progress; he can't find any identifying evidence. So what does he do? He goes off and discovers four ships in a year.
I could only think of someone like Barry Bonds or Michael Jordan. How is it possible that Chatterton could be so much better than every other diver out there?
Kurson: It's a combination of qualities. First and foremost, he believed that his diving reflected who he was as a person, so that everything he did in the water had to be done with the utmost excellence, from the smallest details in arranging a plan to the exercise of incredible discipline when his intentions at a site were simply to survey.
He demanded pure brilliance of himself in the water, but it was more than that. He had the fundamental soul of an explorer, so that the discovery of shipwrecks and the histories behind them moved him in beautiful ways, the way the rest of us are moved by great works of art and music.
Third, he had ungodly courage. He was willing to die in order to pursue this beauty, and die at a moment's notice.
Fourth, he brought his experience as a professional commercial diver, of going into the most crowded, dangerous spaces and learning to see without his eyes. He could see with his knees and his fins and with the different sides of his tools.
All these things came together to make him perhaps the world's greatest shipwreck diver. At the time when he made the four discoveries you're referring to, he was at the pinnacle of his powers. Any one of those discoveries over the course of an entire career would have made a diver proud forever. Chatterton only spiraled into despair after this because the U-boat was the thing to him. The U-boat would not surrender her secret.
Dave: You describe in the book how he'd use the first dive of each trip to film to scout the site, basically then up on board he'd watch the video and plan his second dive. But he and Kohler also conducted tremendous amounts of research. After the initial discovery, the off-season comes along, and these men travel all over the world to find out anything they can that might lead to identification. So much of the book occurs out of the water.
Kurson: They were as obsessed out of the water as they were in the water. Both Kohler and Chatterton made themselves first-rate historians. They were working in the world's great archives, elbow-to-elbow with the most famous experts in naval history. They learned military German. They went all over the world to pursue this answer. They called people. They interviewed U-boat aces. They stopped at nothing.
Chatterton came to Chicago and walked through the U-boat that's on display in the Museum of Science and Industry over and over and over again, imagining (as he blocked the kids behind him and annoyed the tourists in line), How would this boat look if it had cracked in the middle where my boat in the Atlantic did? He would try to watch it fall apart before his eyes.
This is the kind of obsession and the kind of attention to detail that trademarked him. In the end, it wasn't a big surprise to those who knew him that he made four major discoveries within a year. What was more surprising was that he was willing to kill himself before he'd give up on the U-boat.
Dave: Growing up in Chicago, you made field trips to that museum and saw the U-505, yourself.
Kurson: Any kid who grows up around Chicago makes a yearly field trip to the Museum of Science and Industry. In our case, we were often given the choice to go to the working coal mine or to the U-boat.
Most kids picked the coal mine because you got to sit in a moving car and it went dark and there was an explosion with a flash of light, but the U-boat to me was much more terrifying. It stood there looking just as ominous forty years later as it had when it threatened to dominate the world, in the early days of World War II. The idea that this boat sitting there in the museum just yards from the banks of Lake Michigan could simply slip under the water and glide to where any of us lived and surface again was more terrifying than any scary movie we'd seen or any horrible book we'd read. It was standing there ready to strike.
Dave: I couldn't help holding your own childhood experience with the sub alongside the story first officer Brandt's thirteen-year-old brother tells of touring the U-boat before it sailed.
Kurson: He viewed that U-boat as the most wondrous and beautiful of all creations. It was in every element a miracle to him. And even more importantly, it was strong; it looked like it could protect his older brother, who was a real hero to him.
Dave: There's a fair amount of science in the book, for instance when you explain the dangers a diver faces as he makes his way back to the surface:
[D]uring the ascent [...] nitrogen is released from [the diver's] tissues back into his bloodstream. The rate at which this happens determines whether a diver will suffer from the bends, or even if he'll die. If the diver ascends slowly, atmospheric pressure decreases gradually and the accumulated nitrogen passes out of his body tissues in the form of microscopic bubbles. The same effect can be observed by slowly opening a soda bottle; if you gradually reduce the pressure inside the bottle, the bubbles stay small. The size of the bubbles is key.
Those everyday analogies make what could be difficult ideas sensible and even lively to readers, but you also reap some interesting subplots out of the science. For example, when Chatterton decides to breathe a different mix of gases, which no one has ever done at these depths.
Kurson: Absolute lunacy. So little was known about trimix at the time Chatterton decided to make the leap that he was forced to order the component gases from suppliers and mix them himself in his garage. He was so convinced that doing so would result in the blowing up of his arm that he consciously did it with his left hand so he wouldn't lose his favored right hand. That's how grassroots these experiments were, and these were gases he was breathing to his lungs.
More than that, people couldn't tell him how long you should decompress with this new trimix or even what the right formula was. It was, in every respect, a crazy move to make, and yet he made it because it promised him a little bit better performance on the U-boat. He believed that the slight improvement could be the difference between solving the mystery and going forever frustrated.
Dave: In the acknowledgments, you allude to a short conversation with your editor, Jon Karp, in which he outlined his conception of great narrative nonfiction. "I have thought differently about writing ever since," you say. What did he tell you?
Kurson: It was a conversation that I'll appreciated and treasure forever. Jon is a real dream for a writer because he understands the big picture. We had this conversation early on. The gist of it was about the ability of the writer to see through the eyes of his subject and how rare that is, especially in nonfiction work. It helped convince me that I had the right instinct about this story: that it was about two men and not a submarine.
Dave: How long were you working on Shadow Divers?
Kurson: Nearly two years.
Dave: You've been writing for Esquire for quite a while, and other publications as well. In terms of the emotional investment, have you done anything of this magnitude and scope before?
Kurson: No. I found myself, early on, as consumed and obsessed with writing an excellent book as Kohler and Chatterton had been with acquitting themselves excellently in the pursuit of their solution to this mystery. There's no knowing these two men, watching their obsession with excellence, and performing at anything less than that level, yourself. I couldn't have lived with myself after knowing them without having thrown myself in full force like they had.
To that end, I had to cut back on a lot of my magazine work. I had to take a sabbatical from my job and commit myself really twenty-four hours a day to this once-in-a-lifetime book.
Dave: What made you want to be a writer? Did the desire grow out of your reading?
Kurson: The thing that influenced me most was that I have two parents who are brilliant storytellers. The art of developing a story and nurturing a story was present in my household from the day I was born.
My dad was the primary salesman for his small motorcycle paints and lubricants business. He was on the road about nine or ten months out of the year. In order to make sure that her children didn't feel fatherless, my mom would send us on road trips with him, sometimes for three weeks at a time, even at a very young age, five or six years old. Much of that time on the road was spent telling stories. More than reading, much more than reading, in fact, I developed a love for telling stories from listening to two parents who really knew how to do it. And it really is an art.
I never thought to be a writer. I never considered writing. I went to law school and became a lawyer, the worst possible choice for someone who is in love with story. But when I did finally decide to try this I realized that I had an advantage over a lot of people who had gone to school and earned degrees in writing and had learned the rules for writing, so to speak. My style was just to tell a story, but to tell it well, and that has worked out for me so far.
Dave: What do you look for when you're seeking a story?
Kurson: It has to have a textured, complicated, fascinating character at its center. Events are not enough.
Dave: The first piece you wrote for Esquire was about one of your teachers.
Kurson: My high school biology teacher. He had been a kind and gentle soul in a school that could be very cruel to its students. This was in a well-to-do Chicago suburb of mostly unforgiving souls. If you were the kind of person, as I was, who was out of place in high school, who hadn't yet come into his own, my high school could be a mean environment, to say the least. He was an island of solace. He, too, was somewhat outcast in appearance and demeanor, and yet he was universally respected by students and teachers, alike. He represented hope for those of us who thought we would stay the way we were in high school for the rest of our lives.
He turned out to have kidnapped and raped several teenage boys, including killing one of them. It was quite a shock to those of us who knew them.
I'd always remembered him fondly, certainly not for what he had done but for the kindness of his character. I always wondered what had happened to him and why he had done what he'd done. And so I wrote about that in Esquire, and the story culminates with my visit to him in prison where he is serving a life-without-parole sentence.
Dave: Which speaks to any number of things, but certainly a complicated character at the center.
Dave: What books have you enjoyed in recent years?
Kurson: One of my favorites in recent years was Ben Macintyre's The Napoleon of Crime, which I love. I'm a big fan of Joseph Epstein's essays, especially Narcissus Leaves the Pool. And I very much like Ship of Gold in a Deep Blue Sea, which is somewhat along the lines of Shadow Divers, though not too much. It's written in a style that I respect and tells a very good story about a very interesting person.
Dave: I know I'll give Shadow Divers to my cousin, who is very active in the outdoors. He's likes to read about people pushing boundaries, but I think he'll be captivated by the science, too. I'll probably give the book to my father, too, because he's fascinated by intrigue and espionage and World War II. He'll be coming at it from a completely different angle, but it's all there.
Kurson: I'll tell you another thing that is not surprising to me, but may have been in the beginning, which is that a lot of women seem to be responding to this book. It's not a surprise to me because it's not a book about U-boats, really. It's a book about human beings and how they see themselves and how they answer a basic question when that window opens up, as it does maybe once in a person's lifetime, when they get to take a true look at themselves. I think that's universal. And I've been hearing from lots of women how much they like the book. I think that's part of what it's about.
Dave: Also, the story has a lot to say about family: the impact this dive has on the divers' families, but also on the families of these sailors who were lost at sea. One of the compelling elements to the mystery is that Chatterton and Kohler agree not to disturb the human remains they find on the boat. They'll risk their lives doing any number of other things, even though the clue that they need is likely among those bones.
Kurson: They could have simply reached into the pocket of one of the dead sailors and pulled out the answer. Any number of other divers would have done exactly that. That's one of your first indications that this is something about much more than rewriting history to Chatterton and Kohler. For the rest of their lives, they're going to ask themselves, Who was I in the moment that it most mattered? They did not want to have to say, I rummaged through a dead man's pocket to do this. They wanted to do it right.
It nearly cost them their lives several times, when they could have just rummaged through the remains. They extended this quest by years, perhaps, and it could have killed either of them several times. Yet they wouldn't budge on that principle.
Robert Kurson visited Powell's City of Books on July 28, 2004. He spoke via telephone for this interview on July 8.