Excerpt from Blind Man's Bluff by Sherry Sontag, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Blind Man's Bluff

The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage

by Sherry Sontag

Blind Man's Bluff
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  • First Published:
    Nov 1998, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 1999, 255 pages

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This was the atmosphere of mistrust that gave birth to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and plunged its agents into an immediate duel with Soviet spies. This was the era of fear that inspired the West to once again join forces, now as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). And all of this was the inspiration for the blind man's challenge, the call for submariners in windowless cylinders to dive deep into a new role that would help the nation fend off this menace.

The Soviets had always used their subs, most of them small and antiquated, for coastal defense. But in dividing up Nazi war booty, the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union had each come into a few experimental German U-boats, highly advanced subs with snorkels and new sophisticated types of sonar. This technology promised to make submarines more lethal than ever and raised fears that the Soviets would change their coastal strategy and design subs for the high seas. What Benitez and the other commanders wanted most was time to learn, time to practice, time to transform their submarines into the "hunter-killers" needed to meet the flood of Soviet subs that might one day head for U.S. shores.

Patterned after the Nazi technology, Cochino's snorkel promised to enable her to stay underwater for days or weeks, hiding tons of bulk that stretched as long as a football field while showing only a target about as wide as a suburban garbage can. She could even stay hidden while she ran her diesel engines to recharge her batteries, her sole source of power when she needed to run silent with her engines off. Thanks to the Germans, Cochino had batteries with greater capacity than any of the classic World War II fleet subs.

Cochino also was outfitted with a new passive sonar system: she could listen, and therefore "see," underwater without making much sound herself. World War II submarines used "active" sonar, which sent out audible pings and relied on the echoing sound waves to create a picture of the surrounding waters by detecting targets and measuring distances. The result was a lot like shining a flashlight. Submarines could see what was out there, but they lit themselves up in the process. Passive sonar systems scan the entire spectrum of sound, never sending out telltale tones, and this silent sight promised to provide the crucial edge in any undersea dogfight.

The U.S. Navy was also preparing for the ultimate in undersea one-upmanship. An obscure engineer, Hyman G. Rickover, was developing a plan for nuclear-powered submarines that would be able to stay underwater indefinitely without ever having to snorkel, raising the stakes in the undersea war once again. But for now, nuclear propulsion was little more than a concept, and Cochino and subs like her were the best the Navy had. In a new program, aptly named "Operation Kayo," the Navy was readying Cochino and other World War II fleet boats to deliver a knockout punch should war come.

There was one hitch in the submarine force's plans: the nation's spies saw more immediate threats and wanted to use subs to counter them. There was still no evidence that the Soviet Navy was building snorkel subs, and the CIA and the Office of Naval Intelligence thought the submariners had plenty of time to prepare for undersea dogfights that were still far in the future. More worrisome, in the opinion of senior intelligence officers, were other bits of inherited German technology: the unpiloted V-1 "buzz bomb," a mini-airplane on autopilot with a bomb on board, and the V-2, the first rocket to pass the speed of sound. These German designs, also seized by the Allies, were the forerunners to the cruise missile and the ballistic missile, bombs with their own rocket engines to propel them. The United States was already fashioning experimental "Loon" missiles that could be fired from specially configured boats, the first crude missile subs. The Soviets also were showing signs that they were developing their own infant missiles. Reports were already coming in from defectors that the Soviets were conducting test launches from land and from old submarines stationed in the Murmansk area.

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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