Dark Waters: An Insider's Account of the NR-1, the Cold War's Undercover Nuclear Sub

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Vyborny, Lee, and Don Davis. Dark Waters: An Insider's Account of the NR-1, the Cold War's Undercover Nuclear Sub. New York: New American Library, 2003. 243pp. $24.95

Although ultimately worthwhile and entertaining, Dark Waters suffers from the strange paradox of inadequately describing underwater events that ought to be gripping while simultaneously portraying mundane and ordinary events in a marvelously compelling manner. Lee Vyborny was a new-construction plank-owner and member of the first commissioning crew of the U.S. Navy's small nuclear-powered submarine NR-1. Don Davis has written or coauthored eleven books.

Overall, the book well rewards its readers, but unevenly. An example of its bumpiness comes early in the prologue when the authors state that in World War II "about half the U.S. submarines and the men who served in them were lost," which, of course, is untrue. Although fifty-two U.S. submarines and over 3,500 of their heroic crewmembers were lost, this number represents a fifth (not half) of the submarines the United States sent to sea during that war.

Further problems arise when the book briefly describes the path that took Vyborny from being an ordinary high school graduate to becoming a crewmember of NR-1-the Navy's smallest and most mysterious nuclear-powered submarine. The authors certainly do not devote excessive space to this part of the tale, but their telling of Vyborny's early story is just a bit too self-conscious and self-effacing, lacking the easy confidence and pride that characterizes much of the rest of the book. Another criticism arises from an early passage in which Vyborny relates a 1964 deployment he made as a junior enlisted sailor on the nuclear-powered submarine USS Sargo to the Sea of Japan. Intended, one presumes, to rival the swashbuckling tales told in Sontag and Drew's Blind Man's Bluff, the story of the grounding, jam-dive casualty, and operational exploits of the USS Sargo simply are not conveyed in a manner compelling or even believable to those with their own submarine experience. One reads them wondering if they are true. For instance, the authors state that Sargo passed ten feet directly underneath a newly launched Echo II Soviet submarine to "determine if she was powered by standard diesel engines, or a nuclear reactor." It is curious to think the U.S. Navy would use this method to ascertain the mode of propulsion of a ship class that had already been in service for at least two years. …