Sunday, January 01, 2006

Undersea adventures spark imagination


The Decatur Daily
By John Davis
September 04, 2005

Who cannot imagine in his mind's eye that moment when Jules Verne's eternal creation, Captain Nemo, proclaimed, "Adieu Sun! Disappear thou radiant orb! Rest beneath this open sea and let a night of six months spread over my new domains." Who cannot see his submarine Nautilus slip beneath the seas in that immortal fiction? Such are the heart-pounding lines that fill this anthology of submarine fact and fiction, collated by Lamar Underwood, master of the genre.

Underwood, whose credits include editing the "Greatest War, Greatest Adventure" and other such collections, does not fail his readers with these grand stories of undersea heroism, terror, fear, strategy and wonder.

He has sought out 14 of the best submarine stories which, in light of this month's amazing rescue of the Russian micro-submergible by an international team, take on a powerful immediacy. To be sure, extracts of Verne's 1869 "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" are complemented by modern tales of undersea derring-do. There is for example the horrific true story of the loss of the USS Thresher. There is the incredible saga recounted in "The Terrible Hours," where Peter Maas tells of the actual events surrounding the Squalus that went down in 1939.

Each tale is more unbelievable than the last, but each stimulates the imagination by revealing what the mysteries of the deep evoke.

Again, great fiction is not forgotten. Who has not seen the movie "Hunt for Red October" by Tom Clancy, or been held spellbound by "Das Boot" (the Boat) about the last cruise of a German U-Boat? Each of these novels is extracted here. There is always, however, imminent death lurking in the background, for it is that which captures the reality of such a dangerous life. Robert Moore retells the sinking of the Kursk, the Great Russian nuclear submarine, pride of the North Fleet.

It is, perhaps, the mystery of death itself that plays such a central role in all these tales. One imagines a quiet death inside a metal container, where only technology can save those inside.

There, bereft of human agency close at hand, one is truly alone against the elements. Thus stories such as "A Time to Die," "Torpedo Junction" and "The Enemy Below" each reflect the business of submarines, to destroy enemies by secret attack.

Even a remarkable tale of victory against the elements, as recounted in the cruise of the USS Nautilus, America's first nuclear submarine, as it sailed under the ice caps, is tinged with melancholy. Lingering in the background is always dread, but the dread is paradoxically offset by the element of wonder.

It is, after all, the wonder we seek. Who, sitting quietly in an armchair before a crackling fire, cannot reflect upon these seafarers as one would upon heroes? I recall taking the measure of the recreation of the CSS Hundley, the first submarine of the American Civil War, which rests in front of the Charleston History Museum. Brave men entered that iron frame, there to pursue their dreams, for it is after all not only the conquest of the enemy they sought, but of the elements, and then of themselves.



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