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Further Reading

The Crux Project Archives: Literature

BENEATH THE SURFACE

Plumbing unfathomable depths of sea and spirit

by Jay D. Homnick

Review of Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything To Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II, by Robert Kurson (Random House, 344 pp., $26.95)

So, which is it? To which model of human nature does reality conform most comfortably? The comic book version, that inside every mild-mannered Clark Kent there is an actual Superman toiling patiently, no less heroic for being seen only when the spotlight finds him for a moment? The Thurber version, that Walter Mitty is defined by the sum total of all his drab ordinariness, his heroism merely an escapist construct to soften the drudgery of his slog through real life?

Or is it the Jewish idea, expressed in the Mishna: "Do not be dismissive of any man, because there is no man who does not have his moment"? It is this third idea—the belief that although my life today is rigged so that I have to repeat the same boring task over and over to receive a paycheck, there will eventually be a moment that will call forth my inner greatness—that sustains the vast majority of us plodders.

Still, there are two approaches to everyday life, even accepting this premise. Do you live in a constant fever of vigilance, like Joseph among his brothers, waiting for the instant when Fate issues the call? Or do you live in a sort of blissful serenity, taking the joys of life as you find them, like David among his brothers, not hungry for the call but quietly prepared?

Big questions such as these are not usually what motivates a person to pick up a book about deep-sea divers and interesting shipwrecks. In Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson, an Esquire feature writer taking his own first plunge into the deep waters of full-length book writing, these questions sneak up on the reader unavoidably, but in a very welcome way.

The world of deep-shipwreck diving is treacherous in an untold variety of ways. The body is entering a realm not designed for its sustenance. Immense pressure buffets the physical organism while the brain becomes as narcotized in great depths as it does at great heights. Breathing is limited to the contents of the tanks, and one's ascent must be patiently negotiated in stages lest the dread diver's disease called "the bends" bring death in excruciating throes.

Floating objects can cut or tangle the line that leads back to the surface, and shifting objects create new underwater configurations that can trap the intrepid explorer. As the author notes, "bad happens suddenly." Trying to assay a spectrum of dangers through a pair of goggles, often at odd angles, through dense fogs of silt, with a brain whose hinge on reality is loosening, is a task that verges on the superhuman.

A small elite of men and women in prime physical condition ply this effort for a variety of reasons, in a variety of ways: as art, as craft, as sport, as challenge, as diversion, as therapy, and always as voyage of exploration into the unknown. Among those who actually enter wrecks that still have precious cargo or human remains, there are two cultures. One prefers to leave things as much as possible untouched, venerating that window into history. They see themselves as curators of an underwater museum. The other group is the souvenir hunters, who seize for the present every scrap that the past can be forced to yield.

Shadow Divers is the story of two men who began as denizens of these opposing camps. John Chatterton saw his role as preserver of the pristine; Richie Kohler saw himself as bringing salvation through salvage. At the outset of this drama, the two men were reluctant even to shake hands. But they were brought together in this historical project until they were best friends and more; they became each other's conscience on land and lifeline in the deep.

A fisherman whispered to a deep-sea diver that he had found a prime fishing spot that he suspected to house a shipwreck. Fish tend to congregate in the little underwater parlors fashioned by cabins and decks that once knew the sun. The diver could organize a crew to dive and investigate, on condition that the secret location not be leaked to competing fishermen. A group of divers gathered aboard the Seeker, a ship owned by a famous diver who had passed his prime, and headed down into the depths of the Atlantic, a few miles off the shore of Brielle, New Jersey.

What they found was a submarine. Its distinctive shape marked it as that hated marauder from World War II, the German U-Boat. On only the second dive, Chatterton succeeded in bringing up dishes embossed with a swastika. General identification was immediately unassailable; they had found a U-Boat.

There was only one small problem. History had accounted for every single U-Boat, both those that had been sunk and those that had survived the war. Not a single one of the U-Boats whose frames hadn't been recovered had been brought down anywhere near that location. Chatterton and Kohler were allowed to see historical documents of the U.S. Navy, of American and British and German historians, and they were unanimous. No U-Boat was believed to have been sunk within a few hundred miles of the site.

The mystery could easily be solved, as soon as they found some item aboard the sub which was marked with the ship's number. Each U-Boat had an official number which was written or stamped on many of the appliances or pieces of equipment. As soon as they found the number, they could figure out what had happened and where the historians had erred.

But the stubborn old craft would not yield its secret. Dive after dive ended in disappointment. The numbers had worn off or been torn off by the ravages of water and silt. Six years of hard work included three fatalities of crew members. Eventually it all boiled down to those two men. No one else had their combination of energy, drive, and skill.

The divers figured out that the last possible place to find that boat's identification number was on the toolbox that was kept in the engine room. However, the entrance to the engine room was blocked by an immovable mass of metal that had become wedged there in the trauma of the sub's being torpedoed and sunk. There was an opening just big enough for the body of a man—but not one wearing a breathing tank on his back.

Finally, Chatterton conceived a plan. He would remove his tank for a few seconds and keep it in his hands, hold it in front of his body, and wiggle into the room through the small space. Richie Kohler objected strenuously, making a list of nine possible ways that the plan could fail and Chatterton would die.

"Forget it," Kohler said. "That is the single most insane plan I have ever heard in my life. I'm not watching you die. I'm not participating in your suicide."

"I'm going to do it," Chatterton said. "This is our last chance, Richie. More than I know anything, I know I'm going to do it. And I need you with me."

"John, I'm scared to death for you," Kohler said. "But we're partners. I'm not going to bail on you now."

"This is vision," Chatterton said. "This can work." •

It did, culminating in a fascinating identification. To find out what they discovered, read the book.

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