Reviews ...

Book Review on "Blind Man's Bluff"

... Description of espionage conducted
by the U.S. Navy submarines in the cold
war, written by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew

Len Dalton

Photographing Russian submarines, following them around the Atlantic and tapping Russian military phone cables seems a bit farfetched. Early Russian submarines were really no match for American technology, but as soon as the Soviets decided to get on the program and become a factor in the nuclear confrontations, that all changed.

When the U.S. Navy realized this, it became imperative to monitor developments in the Russian Navy. To this end, U.S. submarines spent a lot of time in the Barents Sea, photographing newly-launched Russian subs and monitoring missile launches. This was not quite as easy as it sounds. The salty U.S. sub skippers took plenty of license and chances to keep our Navy up- to-date on Soviet technology. They took photos of Russian subs as they were tied up at base, taking many gambles to do so.

Commander 'Whitey' Mack took his sub, the Lapon, to the Barents Sea and followed a new 'Yankee' Russian sub down into the Atlantic. Mack tailed that Russian for the entire cruise of the vessel; refining sonar measurements of the various sounds emanating from the sub for use by other American subs. His sub, the 'Lapon' received the Presidential Unit Citation. It became a challenge for other U.S. sub skippers to tail the Russians as well and measure everything they had, either through sonar or photography.

In 1968, the Russians lost one of their 'Echo' subs in the north Pacific. They tried to find it and gave up. The Americans did find it and decided to get it off the ocean floor and examine the technology of not only the sub but the nuclear missile heads therein. To this end, the Howard Hughes Company built the ship, Glomar Explorer, which went to the scene, lowered enormous grapples and raised much of the lost sub. It was a mission thought impossible by the Russians, but it got done.

Later, in a brainstorm, Commander John Craven dreamed up the idea of tapping a Russian undersea telephone cable under the Sea of Okhotsk. His dream involved his experience of seeing American signs along the Mississippi announcing the presence of telephone cables and 'do not anchor'. He figured that Russian telephone cables in the Sea of Okhotsk would be there and designed a mission for American subs to take advantage of the location of those signs to tap the cables. The sub, Halibut, was refitted for the mission and a "tap" was designed for the effort. Navy Seals, breathing special gasses in air tanks at 400 feet, placed the tap with long tapes astride the cable and for several years the tapes were picked up and replaced. The phone information on many channels were easily analyzed and the information was invaluable to Naval intelligence.

Craven decided that the same effort was needed in the Barents Sea off Murmansk.
As a result, a 20-foot long module was placed 12 miles off the Kola peninsula astride the Russian phone cable. Long lasting tapes were picked up by Seals periodically and thus the Americans were able to keep abreast of Soviet  technology. At one point, a retired Navy Chief Petty Officer sold out the American effort for $35,000 from the Russians and he told them of the tap in the Sea of Okhotsk. There was no denying the source of the tap as the module read, "Property of the United States of America". One of the Navy intelligence people suspected a spy and eventually the man was discovered and shut down. Meanwhile, the Barents Sea tap continued unabated until the Soviet regime collapsed.

This book is great reading. A lot of the information was confidential and brings a measure of pride in the knowledge that American Submariners had the wherewithal to dare to accomplish these missions.

The book is ISBN 0-06-103004-X
It is a Harper paperback by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew. Well recommended.

March 3, 2000

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