- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 31, 2004


By Robert Kurson

Random House, $26.95, 362 pages, illus.


In early December of 1944 a lone German submarine, U-869, stole out of the flotilla base at Stettin, bound into the Atlantic for its first wartime patrol. Everywhere the signs of loss and of the final destruction of Germany lay evident. A letter from the sub’s first officer, 21-year-old Sigfried Brandt, had been written to his family a few days earlier. It began, “By the time you receive my letter I will already have started my journey …”

U-869 disappeared without trace and without record.

Brandt’s was the letter of a doomed man, one who knew he was doomed, for by the end of World War II Germany’s once feared U-boat force had been reduced to a few score hunted, desperate ships. The crew, bound to a war machine which kept grinding on even when smashed, shared his fatalism. They knew they were not coming back.

Mr. Kurson’s memorable story is the slow recreation of the ship’s final voyage, pieced together by tiny clues and pieces of evidence scoured from the ocean floor after a group of near-obsessed ocean divers discovered a mystery wreck 60 miles off the coast of New Jersey in 200 feet of water.

Several members of this oddball group would lose their lives diving the U-boat.

It was a long way from 1944, that fading summer of 1991 when rumors started to spread among the tiny community of East Coast wreck divers that a large new wreck of unknown provenance had been found.

These deep-sea wreck divers were a strange breed in a sport that regularly causes its enthusiasts injuries, drowning and painful death from the phenomenon known as “the bends.” They were fanatics who would risk their lives for a single china plate from a famous shipwreck.

In fine detail, the world of these men unfolds. Some are scholars, some are athletes, some simply seek adventure at the edge of the known, lured by the huge unexplored areas beneath saltwater.

Mr. Kurson focuses on a small group led by two men, John Chatterton and Richie Kohler. While wreck divers habitually work, eat and live only for the next descent into the ocean, these two exceed the norms of an eccentric fellowship, devoting their whole lives and destroying their marriages because of their involvement with the wreck of the German sub.

The author, a freelance writer, skillfully weaves the tightening tension of discovery, mystery and revelation around this simple story. Mr. Kohler and Mr. Chatterton, drawn to the wreck for different purposes, become consumed by its secrets and for six years fruitlessly search through archives and war records in the United States and Germany, while they continue to hunt for clues on the ocean floor. Their search becomes an almost religious mission to learn about and relate the deaths of the 56 men aboard.

One of the most baffling elements of the mystery lies in the complete record-keeping that is part of modern war. Except for in Germany, where many records were lost in bombing and the Russian advance, American, French and British naval units kept meticulous records of every day of every ship’s active duty. And nowhere was there a record of an attack on a U-boat remotely near the location Mr. Kohler and Mr. Chatterton explored.

Then the wreck itself, lying upright on the current-wracked sand, was marked by a huge hole amidships on its port side. So severe was this wound that death must have been nearly instantaneous for commander and crew. But no aircraft, surface vessel or other submarine, nor a floating mine was found in service records to have been near that location.

Even so, international forces try to stop the diving searchers. Germany declares the sinking site a maritime graveyard and demands it be left undisturbed, although German records cannot identify the sub. The divers find that the interior is indeed a “boneyard,” as Mr. Kurson puts it, and decide to continue their researches without touching the numerous human skeletons lying there.

The problem of simply discovering the name and number of the vessel was also most difficult. By that stage of the war, shortages in Germany had led shipbuilders to substitute flimsy and corrosive materials for more lasting brass and bronze, and the frustrated divers brought up artifact after artifact only to find essential serial numbers corroded away.

Within the onrushing mystery that drives the story are the twists and turns of the lives of these two divers — utterly different men on the same mission. Mr. Chatterton, a commercial diver of meticulous, practiced habits, a planner and an intellectual, was teamed with Mr. Kohler, a diving looter and renegade who, until the partnership, thought only of increasing his treasure trove of artifacts found on his weekend diving obsession.

Looming over these two is the presence of a third obsessed character, the alcoholic and self-destructive former diving expert, Bill Nagle, who stage-directs the search as master of his commercial dive boat, “Seeker.”

Clearly unbalanced, Nagle runs a ship where deaths occur regularly, yet like Captain Ahab of the Pequod he cannot be deterred from his objective.

Strange worlds these, explored by Mr. Kurson on his literary voyage. With a shifting focus yet total immersion in his watery subject, the author has brought clarity and energy to create a true adventure story out of obscure passions.

By dispelling the murkiness that hides deep-sea diving from the general public, Mr. Kurson has done for the activity (one can hardly call it a sport) what few storytellers have done before — to make us see what drives men to the uttermost edges of experience.

Duncan Spencer is a Washington writer.

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