Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage

Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage

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by Sherry Sontag, Christopher Drew, Christopher Drew, Annette Lawrence Drew

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For decades American submarines have roamed the depths in a dangerous battle for information and advantage in missions known only to a select few. Now, after six years of research, those missions are told in Blind Man's Bluff, a magnificent achievement in investigative reporting. It reads like a spy thriller — except everything in it is true. This is


For decades American submarines have roamed the depths in a dangerous battle for information and advantage in missions known only to a select few. Now, after six years of research, those missions are told in Blind Man's Bluff, a magnificent achievement in investigative reporting. It reads like a spy thriller — except everything in it is true. This is an epic of adventure, ingenuity, courage, and disaster beneath the sea, a story filled with unforgettable characters who engineered daring missions to tap the enemy's underwater communications cables and to shadow Soviet submarines. It is a story of heroes and spies, of bravery and tragedy.

Editorial Reviews

Steven Komarow
Blind Man's Bluff is not a policy tome. What moves readers from page to page is the struggle and pride of those who envisioned these missions and the sailors who carried them out. The stories of their lives, and sometimes deaths, are only enriched by the scholarly underpinnings of the volume. -- USA Today
Norman Polmar
Portions of this book are as exciting as early Tom Clancy novels: 'There was no way the officers and crew manning the diving planes could keep Halibut level... Outside, the divers watched as Halibut began to drift upward. The men were still linked to the submarine through their air hoses. They knew they would die if Halibut pulled them up before they could decompress. If they cut themselves loose, they would suffocate.'.... This work is highly recommended for everyone with an interest in submarines or intelligence.
--Sea Power
Roland Green
Two investigative reporters and a researcher have joined forces to produce an excellent history of U.S. submarine espionage operations that reads like a Tom Clancy novel. They take the story from the early days of the cold war, when we lost, by accident, the diesel submarine Cochino on a spy mission and nearly lost the Gudgeon to Soviet antisubmarine forces. They continue through the shift to nuclear submarines, the loss of the Scorpion (destroyed by defective torpedoes after completing a spy mission), the role of the Halibut in finding the Soviet missile boat later salvaged by the CIA's Glomar Explorer, and the cable-tapping operations in which the Parche won more Presidential unit citations than any other submarine in American history. They also cover open-sea efforts to shadow Soviet submarines, which occasionally led to dangerous collisions, and add to our knowledge of the horrendous safety record of the Soviet nuclear navy and the vices and virtues of Hyman G. Rickover, father of its American counterpart.
-- Booklist
Wall Street Journal
Brilliant . . . Full of hair-raising stories of men in peril under the sea.
New York Times Book Review
A compelling study of magnificent men and spying machines.
Roy H. Boehm
A long overdue, well deserved tribute to those unsung heroes of the U.S. Navy's ‘silent service' with whom I was privileged to serve.
New York Times
A real-life Hunt For Red October.
Don Imus
From page one, it reads like a novel. How they uncovered all this stuff is remarkable.
Baltimore Sun
The most comprehensive look at the work of these intrepid sailors . . . A celebration of their ingenuity and valor.
Seyour M. Hersh
Reads like an adventure novel, but it's all to real.
John Lehman
The veterans of the 'Silent Service' are silent no more. —Wall Street Journal
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In an unusually successful amalgam, veteran journalists Sontag and Christopher Drew combine a gripping story with admirable research to relate previously unknown information. Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. depended heavily on submarines for intelligence gathering, whether tracking Soviet missile subs, monitoring Soviet harbors and missile tests or, in some cases, retrieving lost Soviet equipment. The U.S.S.R. responded with everything from comprehensive espionage operations to depth charge attacks on particularly intrusive snoopers. The broad outlines of this clandestine confrontation are relatively familiar, but the details have largely remained secret. Although the authors have based their book largely on interviews with submariners, intelligence operatives and politicians, they recognize the possibility of distortion and back up personal accounts with an elaborate and convincing system of verification. While necessarily incomplete, the resulting work depicts what was arguably the most successful long-term, large-scale intelligence operation in American history. From captains to seamen, the participants combined technical proficiency, insouciant courage and a cheerful scorn for regulations that often interfered with their missions. That mind-set was hardly calculated to avoid direct confrontations, and accidental collisions were not uncommon. The authors nevertheless make a solid case that the risk of a destabilizing incident was far outweighed by the gains of the campaign--especially given the depth of mutual ignorance during the Cold War.
Jeff Stein
Vividly told, impressively documented, and persuasively argued...Honors must go to the steel-nerved captains and crews whose dangerous and daring exploits are given an unparalleled and sometimes hair-raising rendition in Blind Man's Bluff
-- The New York Times
Bremerton (WA) Sun
Chapter after chapter describes nail-biting undersea exploits that are nothing short of heroic. . .It reads like a Tom Clancy novel, but it isn't fiction -- it's all real.
Timothy Naftali
. . .[A]n evocative an important look at the cold war. . .also satisfying to read, at times hurtling forward with the speed of a Polaris submarine. . . .The authors also provide simple stories of individual courage. . .
-- The New York Times Book Review
David Ayer
Lock the doors and draw the shades, because this book is a well written, highly readable account of man and machine working together to do the impossible for the highest of stakes.
-- The Washington Monthly
Kirkus Reviews
Enthralling real-life stories of American submarine spying that read as if torn from the pages of The Hunt for Red October, full of high-tech highjinks and human drama. With materials combed from newspaper reports, American and Soviet archives, and the testimonies of officers and servicemen that could come forward only with the end of the Cold War, Blind Man's Bluff looks at one of the hottest theaters of that era—the ocean depths, and how submarines have been used by both the navy and the CIA to gather intelligence and launch covert operations. Many of the actions described will be familiar to fans of military thrillers, but few readers will have heard these exploits described in such detail before. Included in the book are the stories of American tapping of Soviet communications cables in the Barents Sea, how the navy used a mathematical formula to find a lost warhead, and the tale of the legendary Glomar Explorer, a CIA-built excavation vessel. The authors, veteran investigative journalists (Drew is a reporter for The New York Times), have concentrated equally on the interdepartmental rivalry between the CIA and the Navy. They paint an intriguing portrait of the internal struggles—for funding, materials, manpower, and the President's attention—that dictated how the Cold War was waged. The work does lack a degree of unity. At times, it seems the writers threw in every submarine secret they could possibly scrounge up. But whenever they falter, rest assured that in just a few pages, the next incredible operation stands reliably revealed.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Harper Perennial
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.97(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

A Deadly Beginning

"You gotta be nuts," Harris M. Austin grumbled under his breath as he watched the ugliest-looking piece of junk he had ever seen pull into the British naval base in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. This couldn't be his sub. This couldn't be the Cochino.

Almost anyone else on the busy pier would have thought that he was just a twenty-eight-year-old radioman. He knew better. He was here on direct orders from the U.S. chief of Naval Operations. He had been briefed by admirals who commanded the U.S. naval forces in Europe, his background checked and doublechecked. And today he was about to join the crew of this sub as one of the Navy's newest spies, a "spook," someone who had been trained to snatch Soviet milltary signals and electronic communications out of thin air. It was going to be his job to attempt a daring grab for some of the Soviet Union's deepest secrets.

Austin jumped down onto the pier and began pulling mooring lines along with a handful of other men. Then somebody said it, said that this was Cochino, U.S. submarine SS-345, the boat Austin had been awaiting for three days.

"Goddamn ugly piece of junk," he thought as he hoisted a sea bag stuffed with classified documents over his shoulder and lumbered down the hatch to introduce himself and his orders to Cochino's commanding officer, Commander Rafael C. Benitez.

Austin had leapt to submarines from battle cruisers in a search for excitement, the same reason he had volunteered to make this latest leap, transforming himself from a radioman into a spook. That he was in the armed forces at all had been a nearcertainty from the day he was born. He came from a long line of Scottish warriors, a line he could trace back to the fourteenth century without breaking a sweat. His father had been a cook with an American air squadron in England before shifting to whalers and ocean freighters stateside. His Welsh mother had worked for a British ammunition company. Austin himself had been only nineteen years old when he first went to sea, his auburn hair quickly earning him the nickname "Red."

Benitez, thirty-two years old, was one of those men who had been bred to decorum. His father was a judge in Puerto Rico, and Commander Benitez had just finished law school, a perk that the Navy had awarded to hold on to him. As a submarine officer during World War 11, he had survived several depth-chargings and earned a reputation for calm under fire. Now, in late July 1949, he had been back in the sub force for only three weeks, and he had his own command.

Actually, it was a command Benitez had tried to turn down, embarrassed by his sub's name. Cochino may have been named for an Atlantic trigger fish, but in Spanish, the language of his family and friends back home, he would be commanding the submarine Pig.

He had admitted as much to his mother when he

wrote home, but her reply had yet to reach him as he stood in his cramped wardroom, shoulders back to make the most of his less than imposing frame. He was alone with this hulking enlisted man, this sailor turned spy, the kind of man who would still be declaring that he was "tougher than shit" when he reached his seventies.

Red Austin handed over his orders. The captain scanned them and tensed as he read that Cochino, his sub, was about to become an experimental spy boat.

Benitez was stunned. Cochino's mission was already complex enough. She had been scheduled to embark on a training run designed to change the very nature of submarine warfare. Classic World War 11 fleet submarines could dive beneath the waves only long enough to attack surface ships and avoid counterattack before needing to surface themselves. But since the war ended, Cochino and a few other boats had been dramatically altered. They now sported new, largely untested equipment, including a snorkel pipe that was supposed to let them take in fresh air, run the diesel engines, and shoot out engine exhaust without having to surface. That would allow the boats to spend much of their time underwater, rendering them effectively invisible and making it possible for them to go after other subs as well as surface ships.

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."

Meet the Author

Sherry Sontag is a former staff writer for the National Law Journal and has written for the New York Times.

Christopher Drew is a special projects editor at the New York Times and has won numerous awards for his investigative reporting.

Annette Lawrence Drew, the book's researcher, has a PhD from Princeton.

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Blind Man's Bluff 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 52 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Provides a very good history of the evolving submarine war and espionage after WWII. History buffs will like it. Gives an insight on what goes on that the public is not aware of. Puts on display those unsung heroes of this country.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
All I have to say about this book is thank you Sherry and Chris, for being our voice on the things we cannot say because we are bound by secrecy but wanted to say all along. A MUST READ!!!
PrinceT1 More than 1 year ago
Unlike the movies which center on submarine tales from either the US, Soviet or German perspective the book really delves into the history and politics of the events that have occurred over the years underwater and above. It is interesting how the spy missions were more and more ramped up during the cold war and the book details this in many respects. A page turner I would not call this book but a very good read if you're into the stories of submarine events between the US and the Soviets from an American perspective. In addition the author does an excellent job in describing the evolution of the subs and the men commanding them as well as those who shaped the policies that ensured the submarine's place in history.
smanke More than 1 year ago
I finished reading Blind Man's Bluff this week. A departure from my traditional fiction based novels, this book details submarine based spying and counter-spying during the Cold War. Throughout the book I had to keep reminding myself that this wasn't an outlandish functional accounting of American and Soviet naval activity, but in fact entirely fact based. So many of the missions detailed seemed larger than life and too far fetched to be reality. But, just the same they were real. This is where the book shines. Each chapter is the result of a mountain of research conducted by the three authors. Declassified Navy reports, political documents, new coverage, and person to person interviews were all used to flush out the facts needed to properly document the history of submarine warfare throughout the Cold War. It was shocking to read what the Navy allowed to be reported in the book. It only makes me wonder what else happened out there that no one will ever read about. Chapters cover the entire history of submarine spying staring in 1949 as an early CIA operative joins the crew of the Cochino as it heads for Soviet waters carrying a new antenna design to pull intelligence secrets out of the air. Other chapters cover the race for dominance of the worlds oceans as the arms race pits Russia and the United States in a competition to build quieter, faster, and more heavily armed submersible weapon platforms. None of this happens without the loss of life and the authors do an admirable job of educating the reader about the human element every step of the way. Undersea collisions, battery problems, fires, missing ships- you name it, its in there. Simply put, you have to read this in order to believe it. Amazing stuff. If America had been aware of the recklessness of many of the Cold War undersea missions, tensions of the time would have been even more intense.
JustaWelder More than 1 year ago
I am really enjoying this book. I look foreward to going to bed every night just so I can lay down and turn a few more pages. I don't want it to end. It has been so interesting that I just ordered 4 more submarine books about subs of the cold war area from B&N. Very good book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The history buff who says this book is not well written sounds like 'sour grapes' to this writer and literary consultant. The writing is very well done, the pacing is exact, the research is superb and the stories obtained are uniquely placed upon the pages of the book. Not well written - Bah!!!!!!!! Go find a book that ISN'T well written and we'll listen to you, maybe.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am appalled that someone would find fault with the technical writing of this book - I am in awe of the research that had to have taken place in order to write this book. I have worked for the U.S. Government and am aware of the twists and turns that go into the flawed bureaucratic decision-making processes which unfortunately guide our policy administrators. All told, the book is about human beings sending other human beings into harm's way, with the information they had at the time. The amount of money spent on government programs run amok amongst agency conflict and competition was jolting. The book was stunning - I couldn't put it down. (And as a woman, I am pleased that several of the writers of this detailed and technical book about what was essentially a 'man's world' are women!)
Guest More than 1 year ago
Starting with the nascent Cold War in the late 1940s and closing with recently declassified post-Cold War releases, the book traces American submarine espionage episodes with energy and humor. American submarines were literally on the front lines of the Cold War, where more than a few were lost at sea. The authors follow the first disastrous exploits of American diesel submariners in 1949 as they eavesdrop just off the Soviet coasts for signs of Soviet nuclear testing. Though this first publicly-known incident ended in miserable and tragic failure, American submarine espionage would become a huge endeavor by the Cold War's end. Starting where the Germans left off with snorkeling diesel subs, the American navy began rapidly rebuilding its submarine fleet using nuclear power under the highly controversial Admiral Rickover. Nuclear power largely relieved submarine crews of having to surface in hostile Soviet waters, which allowed them to avoid detection and 'push the envelope' ever further. The authors present most important personalities (such as John Craven, John Bradley, Bobby Inman, Waldo Lyon, and many of the top sub commanders) and their contributions during this critical time. Among the most exciting episodes are the first ever multi-week trailing by Cdr Whitey Mack of the Yankee-class Soviet sub, tapping of undersea Soviet military phone cables, extended depth charging of the USS Gudgeon, and the CIA's misguided epic attempt of lifting an entire sunken Soviet attack sub to the surface from miles beneath the ocean. This book also explains how quickly disaster can strike at sea either between rival subs 'playing chicken' under the sea or how fishing trawlers can be instantly sucked under by subs roaming the deep. An excellent read that will opens our eyes to all we DIDN'T see during the Cold War.
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Dont know why i even picked up this book... much less pay good money for it. Im not a military history fan. Damn glad I did. Fascinating and worth keeping for a second and third read.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My dad found out he qualified for a Meritous Unit Commendation after reading this book and its back pages. He applied to the Department of Defense, and they sent him the medal.  He says he still has no idea what it's for, but talking about it made him raise his chin a little, and gave his eye a gleeful gleam.  For that gleam alone, I am thankful to the writers for this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book relates the long-hidden, and presumably true, history of US submarine espionage before and during the Cold War. How the authors gathered what in large part would seem to be highly classified inside stories remains a mystery, but the suspense, action, and humor that they have put together makes Hunt for Red October seem almost tame. A fascinating and entertaining eye opener.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My husband is a retired submariner and a fan of this book. It gives a good look at these sailors' bravery--some might say foolhardiness-- and the sacrifices they and their families made for their country. Well worth the time it takes to read it. If your spouse is a submariner, you might want to wait until retirement to open it. Or brace yourself.
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kamas716 More than 1 year ago
A really good and surprising look at what our navy can do. I really enjoyed this book, even if it came off a little like propaganda at times.
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