Searching for Heroes

By Reinhold, Herman | Military Review, September-October 2003 | Go to article overview

Searching for Heroes


Reinhold, Herman, Military Review


When the Russian submarine Kursk sank, could one man have saved the crew? According to Peter Maas, author of The Terrible Hours: The Man Behind the Greatest Submarine Rescue in History, the answer is "Yes!" (1) In August 2000, when the Kursk sank, Maas had a submarine book on the bestseller list about the 1939 rescue of the crew of the USS Squalus, and because he knew the details of the Squalus rescue, Maas spoke on television news shows and was quoted in USA Today, proclaiming that Charles "Swede" Momsen, the unsung hero of the Squalus rescue could have saved the Russian crew. (2)

Maas first wrote of Momsen and the Squalus rescue in his 1967 book The Rescuer, which was excerpted in the The Saturday Evening Post. (3) An interest in World War II history caused Maas to rewrite The Rescuer to create The Terrible Hours.

Military professionals should read The Terrible Hours with a critical eye. The account is too subjective to give a fair picture of Momsen, who was an impressive man who did interesting, heroic things. Does Momsen's reputation prove him to be a hero--someone who faces challenges without thought of earning admiration or reward? Maas is convinced that Momsen is a hero. The book is entertaining, informative, and provides many examples of heroism; however, it is limited in its portrayals of Momsen as a hero. The book might even harm Momsen's reputation if readers mistakenly see him as a man eager to take credit for others' work.

Momsen flunked out of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, fought for a second appointment, returned, and graduated; he was a submarine captain and saved his ship and crew when it was trapped on the ocean floor; he bravely tested new ways to save submarine crews; he fought for his ideas even when opposed by superior officers; he developed and tested new ways for men to dive; and he saved the crew of the Squalus, and then raised the sunken submarine to be studied and salvaged. (4)

After salvaging the Squalus, Momsen continued his distinguished Naval career. He was at Pearl Harbor and reacted quickly to reports that minisubmarines were in the area, ordering destroyers to conduct a search for them. During World War II, he found solutions for several serious problems, including methods for preventing the spontaneous ignition of torpedoes and explosive powder. Momsen also developed and tested new attack strategies for submarines. He was the captain of the battleship USS South Dakota, and after the war, he helped design the prototype submarine USS Albacore. (5)

In The Terrible Hours, Maas omits many other heroic events from Momsen's 36-year Naval career, but he includes them in The Rescuer. For example, in The Rescuer, he reports that between 1945 and 1951, Momsen safely returned 5,700,000 Japanese colonizers to Japan, earning him praise from General Douglas MacArthur. (6) Also, Maas does not mention that Momsen commanded the Submarine Force, Pacific Fleet; the First Naval District; and Joint Task Force Seven. (7)

Maas is best known for his non-fiction biographies, including The Valachi Papers, Serpico, and King of the Gypsies, which focus on individual heroes struggling alone against organized crime, police corruption, and deep family problems: The Terrible Hours similarly portrays Momsen as bravely standing alone against Navy bureaucracy and the forces of nature. (9) Maas makes it his duty, or even his obsession, to give Momsen proper recognition, exaggerating Momsen's successes while discounting other peoples' work and ignoring the historical context of Momsen's own work. Interestingly, Momsen is often more willing to share the credit for his work than is Maas.

Momsen's heroic efforts to save the Squalus crew are central to the tale. Maas uses Momsen's development of rescue techniques as part of the background of the rescue, writing that "everything that could possibly save a trapped submariner--smoke bombs, telephone marker buoys, new deep-sea diving techniques, escape hatches and artificial lungs, a great pear-shaped diving bell, or rescue chamber--was either a direct result of his inventive, pioneering derring-do, or of value only because of it. …

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