Benitez had been expecting to take his submarine out and test her new equipment, train his crew, and learn how to run her as a true underwater vehicle. But Austin's orders were adding another dimension to Benitez's mission, transforming it from one of just war games and sea trials into an operation in an unproven realm of submarine intelligence. Furthermore, all this was to take place in the frigid Barents Sea inside the Arctic Circle, near the waters around Murmansk where the Soviet Union kept its Northern Fleet.
Worse, the cables and antennas for Austin's crude eavesdropping gear had to pass directly through the sub's pressure hull. That meant drilling holes in the very steel that held the ocean back.
Benitez took one look at the plans to drill through the sub's hull, what he considered the sub's "last resort" protective shell, and became clearly upset. What happened next is a story that Austin would tell and retell.
"Drill holes in the pressure hull?" Benitez said loud enough to get the attention of his executive officer and chief of the boat who came running. Drill holes without direct orders from the Navy's Bureau of Ships, which was supposed to oversee all submarine construction and modifications?
"You got anything from BUSHIPS?" he demanded.
"No sir, this is what they gave me," Austin replied. In a hapless gesture at conciliation, he added, "They're going to be small holes."
Austin waited for a reply. There was none. Instead Benitez turned and left the room. He was going to call London. He was going to take this to his command. At the very least, he was not going to stay and argue with Austin.
There was already little room for error in these fragile and cramped diesel boats, where fuel oil permeated the air and electrical generators had a disturbing tendency to arc. There had always been countless possibilities for disaster. Sometimes mere survival took heroic effort. That was especially true during World War II, but at least then Benitez and the others had faced a known enemy in the more familiar waters of the Pacific. Now he might have to face violent storms at the outer edge of nowhere. And on top of all of that, he was being asked to make a direct, from-the-sea grab for Soviet secrets, risk his boat and seventy-eight men on a spy mission before anyone was certain the sub could survive the ocean itself.
Benitez was back quickly, not quite contrite, but admittedly stuck. The orders had withstood his aristocratic ire. His first priority was now Austin's spy mission.
It was with this rocky start that submariners and spies began forging a relationship that would come to define the cold war under the world's oceans and seas. And from their battles would come new missions that would ultimately make these stealthy crafts the most crucial and richly symbolic of the era.
Already it was clear that the United States had a dangerous new adversary and that the world was very different from the one that existed when Benitez had last emerged from the sea. Then, a nation inflated with victory had been transfixed by the image of a sailor grabbing a girl for an exuberant kiss in the middle of Times Square. Now, as Benitez prepared to return to the depths, people across the United States were terrified of the means of that victory. They had sat in stunned silence in theaters, watching newsreels of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, crying at the sight of women and children horribly burned, women and children who once were only the enemy, faceless monsters who deserved nobody's tears. People who once cheered the bomb saw it as a looming horror that could, any day now, be aimed at their own homes. There were reports that the Soviet Union, the ally turned enemy, was racing to build its own atomic bomb. And there seemed no doubt that the Soviets were out to make a grab for world dominance. The Chinese Communists had just driven Chiang Kai-shek from China. A Communist takeover had occurred in Czechoslovakia. The Soviets had instituted the Berlin Blockade. And Winston Churchill had declared that an Iron Curtain had fallen over Eastern Europe. It seemed that at any moment there could be a Communist takeover within the United States. How else could the nation read the headlines pouring out of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, especially the sensational charges that a former State Department official, Alger Hiss, had spied for the Soviets?
From Blind Man's Bluff : The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage, by Sherry Sontag; Christopher Drew; Annette L. Drew. © 1997 by Sherry Sontag; Christopher Drew; Annette L. Drew. Used by permission.
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