Book Review of Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson
We all love a good mystery, watching the clues unravel, slowly piecing everything together so it’s all understood. Add the thrill of exploration and finding something new, coupled with the threat of death hanging over the exploration, and you have all the elements of a good story.
Robert Kurson’s Shadow Divers has all that, plus a couple determined explorers who refuse to quit until they’ve solved the mystery. The amazing thing about this story he has to tell is that it’s all true.
Shadow Divers begins with Kurson explaining the attractions and dangers of wreck diving. It’s a totally different world than scuba diving, where the buddy system is paramount and it’s usually an excursion in clear, tropical waters.
Wreck diving along the Atlantic Coast involves descending deeper than a typical scuba outing, often to depths where sunlight barely penetrates, leaving the divers to see only shadows. It’s an activity fraught with peril. A 25-minute dive may require an hour or two of decompression stops at different depths, which must be completed before the air in the tanks expires.
If a diver stays too long on the bottom of the ocean, he may not have enough air to complete decompression. If the diver surfaces without decompressing first, the bends will cause a painful death. Equipment malfunction, becoming lost within the shipwreck, being trapped by wires or falling debris within the wreck, surfacing too far away from the dive boat are all added dangers that can quickly spell a diver’s demise. Deep sea divers also must contend with nitrogen narcosis, the accumulation of nitrogen within their bodies that restricts their peripheral vision and interferes with cognitive thinking.
Like Jon Krakauer did with the dangers of high-altitude mountain climbing in Into Thin Air, Robert Kurson offers a chilling account of all the things that can go wrong during wreck diving. He points out:
If a deep-wreck diver stays in the sport long enough, he will likely either come close to dying, watch another diver die, or die himself. There are times in this sport when it is difficult to say which of the three outcomes is worst.
The shipwrecks along the Atlantic coast, especially along the New York and New Jersey shores, do not contain a lot of treasure to make diving a lucrative profession. It’s a sport that consists almost entirely of men, and the attraction is to find wrecks first and dive to sections of existing wrecks that have not been penetrated yet. Salvaging items from the wreck are for personal trophies, proof that they’d cheated death and returned with items from the wreck. Kurson explains the mindset:
And they did it to explore. Many of the deep wrecks hadn’t been seen since their victims last looked at them, and would remain lost while nature pawed at them until they simply didn’t exist anymore. In a world where even the moon had been traveled, the floor of the Atlantic remained uncharted wilderness, its shipwrecks beacons for men compelled to look.
In the fall of 1991, a group of divers headed for an unknown object found by a fishing boat’s sonar system. It was 60 miles off the coast of New Jersey, and they were nervous because it was lying in what appeared to be almost 200 feet of water, deeper than they’d ever dived before.
For all they knew it could be a sunken garbage barge or pile of rocks. What they found was a World War II German U-boat lying in 230 feet of water. It had obviously been sunk by a large external explosion. When they announced their discovery (before others could find their location and dive it themselves), they found that no known U-boat was sunk within 100 miles of their dive spot.
The divers were led by two men, John Chatterton and Richie Kohler. Chatterton was a Vietnam veteran, a medic who often walked point during patrols. Kohler was of proud German ancestry. Initially, the two were at odds, mostly due to different philosophies about wreck diving.
They clashed often on the first dives to the U-boat, but once they realized they had more in common than they thought, they become good friends. Chatterton and Kohler began researching the identity of their U-boat. They worked with historians, government officials, and U-boat hobbyists who had collected as much information as they could.
They dove the wreck often, looking for information within the submarine that might identify it, and looking at the design of the U-boat that might identify it further. It turned out to be a dangerous puzzle to solve, as accidents claimed the lives of men who dove with them. They came to call the mysterious submarine U-Who, and it became known as a killer dive.
Chatterton and Kohler heard from the German embassy that they shouldn’t be diving the U-boat since it contained the remains of German sailors, making it a war grave. Chatterton was especially sensitive to this and explained that their only purpose was to identify the boat so that the families of the men on it could know the final resting place of their loved ones.
It became an obsession for the two friends to solve the mystery of U-Who, placing their own lives in jeopardy each time they penetrated farther into the submarine. Their challenge seemed insurmountable. Nothing in the U-boat would reveal its identity. Decades of salt water and currents had dissolved tags and other items that usually contain the U-boat’s number. They vowed to disturb the sailors’ bones as little as possible.
It was an obsession that would take them seven years to solve. They would discover historical records inaccurate and would rewrite a small portion of history. Robert Kurson does an excellent job of portraying Chatterton and Kohler, explaining the personal traits of each man that drove them to keep diving the wreck and researching what might have happened to it.
By the time they solved the mystery, both of their marriages had ended. Kohler even walked away from diving for a while to concentrate on family matters. In the end, their perseverance would provide the answers and provide solace to the German families of the dead sailors.
The unraveling of the mystery would be enough to propel Shadow Divers along at an enjoyable pace. Robert Kurson adds the stories of Chatterton and Kohler along with a healthy respect for the men who died in the service of their country. While the suspense in the book may be the determination of the identity and ultimate story behind the unknown submarine, the real strength of Shadow Divers is the story of the men involved.
The men who challenged death to identify the sub and the men who went to sea aboard it, knowing their return home was unlikely, provide the humanity and the poignancy to the story. It is the story of the inner forces that drive these men, and their strength and character to excel and do the right thing against improbable odds that elevates Shadow Divers above your average exploration or mystery book.
Robert Kurson has written a book that will challenge us all to wonder what we’d have done in similar circumstances and marvel at the men who remained true to their purpose.
The editor of The Readers Loft, and pursuer of relatively interesting information, Simon has a Masters Degree in Creative Writing and Journalism from the University of Wales, and is a photo-journalist and writer whose written and photographic work has been represented by the AFP news agency and appeared in newspapers across Europe and Asia.