One of "The Most Fascinating Books WIRED Read in 2020"
"One part science book, one part historical narrative, one part memoir . . . harrowing and inspiring.”—The Wall Street Journal
How a determined scientist cracked the case of the first successful—and disastrous—submarine attack
On the night of February 17, 1864, the tiny Confederate submarine HL Hunley made its way toward the USS Housatonic just outside Charleston harbor. Within a matter of hours, the Union ship’s stern was blown open in a spray of wood planks. The explosion sank the ship, killing many of its crew. And the submarine, the first ever to be successful in combat, disappeared without a trace.
For 131 years the eight-man crew of the HL Hunley lay in their watery graves, undiscovered. When finally raised, the narrow metal vessel revealed a puzzling sight. There was no indication the blast had breached the hull, and all eight men were still seated at their stations—frozen in time after more than a century. Why did it sink? Why did the men die? Archaeologists and conservationists have been studying the boat and the remains for years, and now one woman has the answers.
In the Waves is much more than just a military perspective or a technical account. It’s also the story of Rachel Lance’s single-minded obsession spanning three years, the story of the extreme highs and lows in her quest to find all the puzzle pieces of the Hunley. Balancing a gripping historical tale and original research with a personal story of professional and private obstacles, In the Waves is an enthralling look at a unique part of the Civil War and the lengths one scientist will go to uncover its secrets.
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What About the Hunley
Being a scientist is like being an explorer. You have this immense curiosity, this stubbornness, this resolute will that you will go forward no matter what other people say.
-Sara Seager, planetary scientist
I stood on the deck of the slightly rolling ship and looked down at the sea below. A faint breeze across the Gulf of Mexico was not enough to make the day comfortable. I had rolled out of bed at 0330, or less specifically oh-dark-thirty, as the smaller numbers of the morning are sometimes called by the men and women of the United States Navy. That had left me just enough time to rouse myself to a state of consciousness sufficient for driving, get to base, and get safely on board the specialized military diving vessel before she got under way. We had been waiting for good weather to undertake this mission, and the calm waters off the starboard gunwale looked bleary through my tired eyes. I had been working toward the next moments for the last year and a half.
My job as a civilian engineer in Panama City, Florida, had been to get us to this point: to find a new underwater breathing system, prove it was safe, and get the navy to let us test dive it in the open ocean. It was a seemingly straightforward task, but one that had required plenty of sweat, creativity, and math. By the time the divers emerged from the ocean, I knew that the new system worked.
We cast celebratory fishing lines off the stern and trolled for dinner on the way home. The success of this project meant that the navy would want me to lead projects myself, to submit proposals for new technologies. They had even offered me the chance to go back to school and get a PhD in biomedical engineering so I could do it.
A few months later, I was assigned a seat at a curved desk with pale faux-wood veneer in the far corner of a narrow office on the Duke University campus. Wedged to the left of my desk was a battered black filing cabinet containing hundreds of meticulously labeled manila folders, shoved full of papers by a compulsive graduate student who had long ago studied cardiac function from my chair. The filing cabinet blocked my view of the lone, slitlike window on the wall opposite the doorway, and I had recycled the papers in the bottom drawer to make room for a small stockpile of individual-serving bags of potato chips-stolen booty from the catering tables at lectures on campus.
Unlike undergraduate students, who pay the costs of their own tuition, engineering PhD students are paid a stipend to perform their work and are often given the job title of "research assistants." However, these students are still different from normal employees because from the first day they arrive at their new labs they are already hoping to leave as quickly as possible. Graduation with a PhD is not guaranteed by completing certain classes; rather, the degree is granted only when, and if, a student's adviser declares the student to be finished. It's tacitly forbidden to ask the senior students when they will graduate because they are likely asking themselves the same question every day.
As students finish and move on, they often leave behind objects like relics of their time there, and new students moving into these borrowed spaces shift around the layers of abandoned artifacts to clear themselves an area. I had claimed my secret snack drawer but moved almost nothing else since I had first been placed into that office when I arrived at Duke in August 2011.
My research adviser was Cameron R. Bass, known as Dale to everyone who had ever spoken with him. He was an associate research professor of biomedical engineering and the director of Duke's Injury Biomechanics Laboratory. Dale believed in efficiency above all else. His white hair and facial stubble were all trimmed to the same short-cropped length, a process his wife could do for him at home without wasting time at a barber. Every day he wore the same type of black polo shirt, with black or gray cargo hiking pants that zipped off at the knee, and the same heavy black lace-up combat boots. This daily uniform saved time shopping or picking out clothes. The students in Dale's lab researched injury biomechanics: the various mechanisms by which human beings got injured and killed. About half the students worked on car crashes, and the other half, including me, focused on explosions.
For several months I had been working through medical case reports from underwater explosions. Scientists have long had a fairly clear idea of how well human beings can tolerate blasts in air, but not as much is known about human tolerance to blasts that occur underwater. Injured people and shrapnel chunks tend to stay where they fall when explosions occur on dry land, leaving a scene that can be safely examined later, whereas the waves and currents of the ocean quickly destroy all clues. The underwater science, therefore, had received much less attention.
But cases with eyewitness testimony, with survivors to describe the details of what had happened and where, were still useful. My first goal had been to compile as many cases of human exposures to underwater explosions as I could find. Then, I would use a complex piece of navy modeling software, called Dynamic System Advanced Simulation (DYSMAS), to calculate how strong of a blast each person experienced. The DYSMAS software could accept crucial information like the size of the charge and the depth at which it detonated, then model the resulting explosion. The output from the software about the strength of the shock wave could then be combined with the medical report describing how badly each person was hurt. These cases, examined together as a group, would allow me to find the blast levels at which humans in the water get injured or killed. The hope, at least at that time, was to turn the project into my PhD dissertation.
Most of my cases were from World War II. I had been spending long days sorting through testimonies of human wreckage, seventy years after the fact, hoping to convert them into something useful. I combed through dozens of reports a day, looking for those where a sailor's physicians reported enough information to let me model his case. The stories were usually the same: feeling of a sharp kick to the groin, with a stabbing pain in the gut. Sometimes they would immediately vomit blood, sometimes they would have sudden and uncontrollable bloody diarrhea. Both are signs of severe trauma to the intestinal tract. Sometimes they would start coughing blood, a sign of damage to the lungs. Sometimes they watched a nearby friend sink silently beneath the waves.
The doctors in World War II were weirdly obsessed with food. They seemed to think there was some relationship between injury severity and the victim's most recent meal. The case reports are riddled with statements like "Case 47 had a sandwich three hours before the blast, but Case 48 had only coffee. . . ." I would find a case that reported distance from the charge, plug it into the navy's software, and then stare vapidly at the blank beige wall above my desk, munching on stolen potato chips while the code ran, wondering what was in Case 47's last sandwich. Were there pickles? I wondered what it was like to be moments from death, screaming in agony, with a large intestine split open along its length by a bomb, and then to have your doctor ask you about your sandwiches.
It was during one of these depressing reveries that I was glad for a distraction.
In graduate school, you learn to sense when your adviser is coming for you. Dale in particular had a distinct way of walking down a hallway. Point A and Point B were never close enough together, and the time spent between them is time he could have used more beneficially for research. His office was at the west end of the hallway and the lab's grad students, myself included, worked in the shared offices scattered down the line between him and most useful destinations. We all knew the rapid staccato thunk of his ever-present combat boots coming down the hall.
Each of us would listen for the boots to pass our door. If they kept going, we kept working uninterrupted. But sometimes the boots stopped a few steps past a door, paused, and then reversed. This interruption in their rhythm meant Dale had an idea. This day, a few years after my arrival at Duke, the boots stopped for me. Dale pulled a tattered blue office chair out of the corner, sat down, and looked at me expectantly.
"What about the Hunley." The words were delivered as a statement. There seemed to be no question mark in his tone. I had no idea what he was talking about, and the expression on my face probably told him so.
"What about the Hunley," he repeated. Dale often spoke in the clipped, truncated pattern I was familiar with from working on the navy base and talking to military operators. Minimal adjectives. Pleasantries are an inefficient use of time. Make your point and move on. My need for the repetition must have irked him, but still I had no idea what he was talking about.
"Can your fancy software model it?" he asked.
"Sure," I responded, still without any idea what he was asking. "I don't see why not." In grad school, unless you already have a damn good reason locked and loaded, the correct answer is always yes. Besides, DYSMAS was designed to assess ship damage. Whatever he was talking about, assuming it was a boat of some kind, the navy's software could probably model it.
The boots proceeded back on their mission down the hall.
Once Dale was safely out of earshot, I pulled up a new browser window on my computer and began to investigate the Hunley and what I had signed up for.
Being a blast-trauma expert requires a certain degree of mental immunity to death. Every project is started because someone died, or because there is a good chance someone could die. Even in the early days of blast research, long before the Nazis and the Nuremberg Trials made patient and test-subject protections a global concern, doctors shared a common tendency to obscure the details of cases that would make the victims human and identifiable. Papers often contain detailed drawings of torn and perforated intestines, but almost never are there external views of stiff or distended abdomens. There are illustrations showing blast lung, but fractured skulls are limited to text descriptions. This hesitation is not because researchers do not want to think of victims as people; it is because, in order to function in our jobs, we simply cannot. The emotional toll of processing dozens of deaths per day in a normal fashion is not sustainable. Thinking of the case reports as only patchy blast lung or an isolated perforated bowel is a necessary defense mechanism. The alternative, at least for me, would have been spending every evening getting drunk in the bathtub.
But still, there were unavoidable moments. Like with the sandwiches. Victimless descriptions of gut trauma don't eat sandwiches. I could tell immediately that the Hunley would be one of those cases. The mystery of that night, without its human element, is not actually that interesting: tiny submarine sets off large bomb; tiny submarine sinks. But when the human element is introduced, the story becomes haunting and inescapable, like mental quicksand.
The afternoon passed quickly as I became absorbed in Hunley search results. The blast software finished its current project, and the large desktop computer I used for the DYSMAS computational modeling sat whirring softly, awaiting its next instruction. But I sat totally engrossed, reading piece after piece of the Hunley's story.
The little handmade submarine had been constructed during the American Civil War, and on the evening of February 17, 1864, the crew of the submersible boat decided the conditions were right to attempt her mission. The Hunley departed from near the city of Charleston, South Carolina, one of the last-standing Southern ports in the waning years of the war. She set out to try to break the Union blockade that prevented supply ships from bringing food and munitions to Charleston's battered citizens and weary troops. Her target had been the USS Housatonic, which she destroyed with what seemed like ease to become "the first successful submarine to sink an enemy ship during time of war." This victory was the Hunley's claim to fame, and almost the exact phrase was repeated in every reference. It was the reason she was remembered when so many earlier attempts at submarine technology had been long forgotten.
The small sub disappeared after her mission, and the relative lack of information meant that the internet was filled with countless speculative theories from professional and armchair historians. The modern public interest was resuscitated in spectacular fashion in 1995 when bestselling author Clive Cussler and his organization, the National Underwater Marine Agency (NUMA), announced they had found the wreck of the long-lost submarine. By 2000, a plan for raising the Hunley and an agreement for her preservation had been formalized, and in exchange, Cussler and NUMA released the coordinates of her resting place. The US Navy would own her, as she was sunk in combat and therefore considered the spoils of war, but the submarine would be on permanent loan to the city of Charleston, South Carolina. The nonprofit group Friends of the Hunley would be the public face of the collaborative "Hunley Project" to enable her conservation, and they would work in partnership with the South Carolina Hunley Commission, the Naval History and Heritage Command, and the Charleston Naval Complex Redevelopment Authority. Clemson University would also be part of the collaboration, and the university's Restoration Institute would employ the archaeologists and conservators who performed the conservation and preservation of the artifact. With the paperwork finalized, the Hunley was brought home to Charleston to see if her recovered hulk might reveal to the world why she disappeared that night so long ago.
In her custom water tank at her new home in Charleston, the archaeologists and conservationists from Clemson assembled into a team and got to work.
When the team cracked open the hull of the vessel, they discovered that the silt of the ocean floor had completely filled the interior cabin, but not until long after she sank. Based on the pattern of the layering in the sediment, they could tell that the hull had been intact when she first went down and for an extended period afterward, except for a small hole in the fore conning tower that occurred during or shortly after her sinking.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 What about the Hunley 7
Chapter 2 Suffocation 31
Chapter 3 Fish Boats 57
Chapter 4 The Fury Beneath the Waves 83
Chapter 5 Anatomy of an Explosion 109
Chapter 6 Preparations 135
Chapter 7 Apple Pie without Apples 165
Chapter 8 Pressure Trace 185
Chapter 9 From the Housatonic 213
Chapter 10 The Blast 233
Chapter 11 February 17, 1864 263
Author's Note 281