Summary and book reviews of Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson

Shadow Divers

The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II

By Robert Kurson

Shadow Divers
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  • Hardcover: Jun 2004,
    400 pages.
    Paperback: May 2005,
    400 pages.

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Book Summary

In the tradition of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm comes a true tale of riveting adventure in which two weekend scuba divers risk everything to solve a great historical mystery–and make history themselves.

For John Chatterton and Richie Kohler, deep wreck diving was more than a sport. Testing themselves against treacherous currents, braving depths that induced hallucinatory effects, navigating through wreckage as perilous as a minefield, they pushed themselves to their limits and beyond, brushing against death more than once in the rusting hulks of sunken ships.

But in the fall of 1991, not even these courageous divers were prepared for what they found 230 feet below the surface, in the frigid Atlantic waters sixty miles off the coast of New Jersey: a World War II German U-boat, its ruined interior a macabre wasteland of twisted metal, tangled wires, and human bones–all buried under decades of accumulated sediment.

No identifying marks were visible on the submarine or the few artifacts brought to the surface. No historian, expert, or government had a clue as to which U-boat the men had found. In fact, the official records all agreed that there simply could not be a sunken U-boat and crew at that location.

Over the next six years, an elite team of divers embarked on a quest to solve the mystery. Some of them would not live to see its end. Chatterton and Kohler, at first bitter rivals, would be drawn into a friendship that deepened to an almost mystical sense of brotherhood with each other and with the drowned U-boat sailors–former enemies of their country. As the men’s marriages frayed under the pressure of a shared obsession, their dives grew more daring, and each realized that he was hunting more than the identities of a lost U-boat and its nameless crew.

Author Robert Kurson’s account of this quest is at once thrilling and emotionally complex, and it is written with a vivid sense of what divers actually experience when they meet the dangers of the ocean’s underworld. The story of Shadow Divers often seems too amazing to be true, but it all happened, two hundred thirty feet down, in the deep blue sea.

Chapter One
THE BOOK OF NUMBERS
Brielle, New Jersey, September 1991

Bill Nagle's life changed the day a fisherman sat beside him in a ramshackle bar and told him about a mystery he had found lying at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Against his better judgment, that fisherman promised to tell Nagle how to find it. The men agreed to meet the next day on the rickety wooden pier that led to Nagle's boat, the Seeker, a vessel Nagle had built to chase possibility. But when the appointed time came, the fisherman was not there. Nagle paced back and forth, careful not to plunge through the pier where its wooden planks had rotted away. He had lived much of his life on the Atlantic, and he knew when worlds were about to shift. Usually, that happened before a storm or when a man's boat broke. Today, however, he knew it was going to happen when the fisherman handed him a scrap of paper, a hand-scrawled set of numbers that would lead to the sunken mystery. Nagle looked into ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Reader's Guide
  1. Is there something you would risk everything — your family, sanity, and life - to discover?

  2. Was it proper for Chatterton and Kohler to risk their lives, and the lives of others, by insisting that all divers allow the remains of the fallen U-boat sailors to remain undisturbed?

  3. Chatterton and Kohler lost their marriages to their quest to identify the U-Who. Was it worth it?

  4. Why weren’t Chatterton and Kohler bothered more by the German sailors’ mission — namely, to sink Allied ships and kill American sailors?

  5. Do you think the U-Who’s crewmen would have appreciated the efforts of Chatterton and Kohler to identify their submarine and explain their story?

  6. The German government told ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

Kurson brings considerable journalistic experience to his debut book, which combines the derring-do of a great modern-day adventure story with a 60 year old mystery. In other words, it's a book that can be enjoyed by a much wider audience than diving buffs (just as 'Into Thin Air' isn't just for climbers).   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

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Media Reviews
Author Blurb Hampton Sides, author of Ghost Soldiers The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission
A winning tale exceedingly well told, Shadow Divers takes us on a dangerous and seemingly quixotic descent into the murk–and then, in a fog of nitrogen narcosis, brings us back to the surface with a richer, fuller fathoming of a history we only thought we knew.

Author Blurb Clive Cussler
An engrossing saga of the suspenseful, intriguing, and dangerous underwater investigation of a Mystery U-boat.

Author Blurb Scott Turow, author of Reversible Errors
Robert Kurson’s Shadow Divers, about the divers exploring a sunken shipwreck off the New Jersey coast, is a gripping account of real-life adventurers and a real-life mystery. In addition to being compellingly readable on every page, the book offers a unique window on the deep, almost reckless nature of the human quest to know.

Author Blurb John McCain, author of Faith of My Fathers and Why Courage Matters
A tremendously suspenseful story of discovery that comes as close as any book could to providing the reader with approximate sensations of deep sea diving and of life on a submarine at war, and that leaves us with a hell of an impression of the grit, guts, and compassion of a U-boat crew and the two American divers who risked everything to solve the mystery of their last mission.

Author Blurb James McManus, author of Positively Fifth Street
Robert Kurson’s status as an undiscovered pleasure among Chicago readers is about to change, I suspect, in a hurry. Shadow Divers is so culturally astute and terrifyingly suspenseful that it should reach the sort of audience John Berendt, Susan Orlean, Jon Krakauer and Laura Hillenbrand have recently earned. Kurson’s new focus is the larger historical world--a world of U-Boats, forensics and lung-crushing pressure--and his prose is, as always, plain gorgeous.

Booklist - Brendan Driscoll

All of these elements--military history, mystery, action tale, ethnography--combine to make this book very hard to put down.

Kirkus Reviews

Deep-shipwreck diving is among the world's most dangerous sports. So promises this well-paced tale of adventure on the high seas, which goes on to demonstrate the thesis in gruesome detail.....Kurson's account of how the divers determined which U-boat it was-until they did, they were calling it the U-Who-and why it ended up not far from the New York docks adds sizzle for those readers who are less interested in the minutiae of ocean-floor exploration than in good old Eye of the Needle/Hunt for Red October-style tales of derring-do. Still, buffs of either category of adventure will find this a pleasure.

Publishers Weekly

[A] superlative journalistic narrative....Kurson doesn't stint on technical detail, lovers of any sort of adventure tale will certainly absorb the author's excellent characterizations...

New York Times Sunday Book Review - Mark Bowen

Exploring deep-sea shipwrecks is not for the fainthearted. Kurson lays it out in an early chapter entitled ''Zero Viz,'' a masterpiece of explication. It familiarizes you with the tools and methods of the sport and manages to evoke both the dangers and the thrills. It is artfully written -- objects at the sea bottom are ''sweatered in sea anemones,'' and when a man is trapped in a shipwreck, ''his brain starts to think in declaratives, not ideas. I'm gonna die! Get out! Get out!'' These passages set the scene for the intense drama to come, and at the same time help you understand how much is at stake when men like Chatterton and Kohler return again and again to test their skills and their judgment, quite literally, under pressure.

USA Today - Deirdre Donahue

Without being didactic, Kurson does an excellent job making the technology of diving comprehensible to those who will never strap on a tank.

The New Yorker

Some of the most haunting moments occur on land, as when the divers research the lives of the doomed German sailors whose bones they swim among. Once underwater, Kurson’s adrenalized prose sweeps you along in a tale of average-guy adventure.

The New York Times - Janet Maslin

The story told in Robert Kurson's new book features undersea thrills, a gripping mystery, incredible discoveries, true-blue friendship, life-or-death crises and history unfolding before the reader's eyes. In terms of finding the right material, writers of adventure nonfiction just don't get any luckier than this. Shadow Divers would work on those ingredients alone. But it also happens to be written with great you-are-there intensity and dynamic verve.

Reader Reviews
Gail L.

Shadow Divers
Shadow Divers is a wonderful book about two Americans who have a passion for diving; specifically wreck diving. They found a U-boat off the coast of New Jersey and helped solve a mystery that had lingered since World War II. A fantastic read; a ...   Read More

Selene Booklover

Shadow Divers
I thought this book was great. It was engrossing from page 1. I have given it as gifts to a few friends who are strictly nonfiction readers, and they loved it as well. After reading a couple of the above reviews, and being a nondiver, I will just ...   Read More

Lonnie Johnson

I am the type of person that doesn't read books often, and when I do, if they don't "grab" me soon, I don't finish them. I couldn't put this book down. I like stories that are true, and when they become more fascinating than fiction, then ...   Read More

Firebrand

As a newly certified diver, I read this book with great interest. Those brave men and women who perform deep sea wreck dives and survive are the elite of the diving community, and have the right to doubt the countless divers who never dive beyond the...   Read More

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The partial pressure of nitrogen in  compressed air below a certain depth causes a mental state similar to being drunk, known as nitrogen narcosis. 

Decompression syndrome or nitrogen embolism, also known as 'the bends', is caused because nitrogen bubbles form in the bloodstream and tissues of the body at depth. If a diver surfaces too quickly the bubbles don't have time to dissolve which can cause extreme pain, paralysis and death.  To avoid this divers must surface slowly.

Because of issues such as these, deep diving requires mixing oxygen with other gases such as helium.  Although these mixes are not without their own issues.

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