Dark Waters Book Review

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

By Lee Vyborny and Don Davis

Hardcover in dustjacket, 243 pages, appendices, photographs, and index

Published by New American Library January 2003

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0-451-20777-7

ISBN-13: 978-0-451-20777-7

Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.0 x 9.2 inches

The NR-1 was a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine, unique in many respects.  Its stated purpose was scientific research, survey, and rescue, but it also performed clandestine military operations, many of which remain classified today.  It was the smallest nuclear-powered vessel in the world, displacing only 400 tons with a length of less than 150 feet (45 meters).  It was never commissioned into the U.S. Navy but was administered through the Nuclear Reactors department, one of several manipulations which kept the program firmly under Admiral Rickover’s control.

Author Lee Vyborny was one of the commissioning crew (a “plank owner” in Navy parlance) personally selected by Rickover.  As such he was present during the construction and fitting out of the ship and was part of the crew responsible for developing her operational procedures during her first missions.   He is uniquely qualified to record the story of the construction of the ship and training of her crew.  Vyborny pulls no punches in discussing the technical obstacles and budget over-runs which delayed the NR-1’s construction, and he relates Rickover’s controlling nature and infamous temper.

Only a select few of the NR-1’s operations are described here for security reasons.  Her well-known retrieval of an F-14 Tomcat and the AIM-54 Phoenix missile she carried from 2,000 feet (610 meters) below the North Atlantic is related, along with routine aspects of shipboard life which give the reader a good feel for what it was like to serve aboard her.  I was surprised at how vulnerable the tiny submarine was and how close it came to disaster on several occasions.  Her reactor was only able to produce 160 HP which gave NR-1 a maximum speed of five knots, barely enough power to get her out of trouble.  Getting entangled in nets or cables or stuck in the muddy sea floor could have proven fatal.

This account is interesting and well-written, and provides an insight into the guarded world of the submarine service and covert operations.  I was constantly aware that the author was leaving out as much of the story as he was able to tell, but what is there is fascinating.  Perhaps someday the NR-1’s entire history will be open to the public but I doubt I’ll still be around to read it.  This is a good book with a great story, recommended.

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