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Shadow Divers: The Deep, Blue Saga of a Watery Grave

Nancy Sundstrom - July 29th, 2004
When written with a true passion for their story, non-fiction writers can craft their works into anything as gripping, compelling and powerful as that concocted by their peers in the fiction genre. The latest in an impressive, long line of these comes from Robert Kurson, and follows in the tradition of bestsellers like “A Perfect Storm,” “Into Thin Air” and “In Harm’s Way.”
Kurson’s book has quite a lot in common with the last in that list, (written, of course, by Northern Michigan’s own Doug Stanton) starting with the fact that both were written for Esquire. Then there is the name of the book, “Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II.” Like Stanton’s fine tome, which dealt with what really happened on the U.S.S. Indianapolis, Kurson’s tackles another little-known, yet important facet of WWII history, and is superbly told as well.
The “shadow divers” are John Chatterton and Rich Kohler, two deep-sea wreck divers who didn’t have much of a friendship in real life, but had their lives forever intertwined and forever changed when, in 1991, they dove to a mysterious wreck lying off the coast of Brielle, New Jersey, on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. One thing the men did have in common was that their mentor was the legendary diver Bill Nagle, the man who had found the bell of another shipwreck, the Andrea Doria. Nagle, though, was intent on destroying himself with alcoholism and could no longer dive, but when he learned about what might be found at the perilous depths of 230-feet underwater, he enlisted Chatterton and Kohler to take up the cause.
In the first chapter, “The Book of Numbers,” we meet Nagle and learn what happened to send him, and eventually others, in pursuit of uncovering the identity of the wreck and why it sank.

“Bill Nagle’s life changed the day a fisherman sat beside him in a ramshackle bar and told him about a mystery he had found lying at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Against his better judgment, that fisherman promised to tell Nagle how to find it. The men agreed to meet the next day on the rickety wooden pier that led to Nagle’s boat, the Seeker, a vessel Nagle had built to chase possibility. But when the appointed time came, the fisherman was not there. Nagle paced back and forth, careful not to plunge through the pier where its wooden planks had rotted away. He had lived much of his life on the Atlantic, and he knew when worlds were about to shift. Usually, that happened before a storm or when a man’s boat broke. Today, however, he knew it was going to happen when the fisherman handed him a scrap of paper, a hand-scrawled set of numbers that would lead to the sunken mystery. Nagle looked into the distance for the fisherman. He saw no one. The salt air blew against the small seashore town of Brielle, tilting the dockside boats and spraying the Atlantic into Nagle’s eyes. When the mist died down he looked again. This time, he saw the fisherman approaching, a small square of paper crumpled in his hands. The fisherman looked worried. Like Nagle, he had lived on the ocean, and he also knew when a man’s life was about to change.
In the whispers of approaching autumn, Brielle’s rouge is blown away and what remains is the real Brielle, the locals’ Brielle. This small seashore town on the central New Jersey coast is the place where the boat captains and fishermen live, where convenience store owners stay open to serve neighbors, where fifth graders can repair scallop dredges. This is where the hangers-on and wannabes and also-rans and once-greats keep believing in the sea. In Brielle, when the customers leave, the town’s lines show, and they are the kind grooved by the thin difference between making a living on the water and washing out.
The Seeker towers above the other boats tied to this Brielle dock, and it’s not just the vessel’s sixty-five-foot length that grabs one’s attention, it’s the feeling-from her battered wooden hull and nicked propellers-that she’s been places. Conceived in Nagle’s imagination, the Seeker was built for a single purpose: to take scuba divers to the most dangerous shipwrecks in the Atlantic Ocean.
Nagle was forty years old then: a thin, deeply tanned former Snap-On Tools Salesman of the Year. To see him here, waiting for this fisherman in his tattered T-shirt and thrift-shop sandals, the Jim Beam he kept as best friend slurring his motions, no one would guess that he had been an artist, that in his day Nagle had been great.
In his twenties, Nagle was already legend in shipwreck diving, a boy wonder in a sport that regularly kills its young. In those days, deep-wreck diving was still the province of the adventurer. Countless shipwrecks, even famous ones, lay undiscovered at the bottom of the Atlantic, and the hunt for those wrecks-with their bent metal and arrested history-was the motion that primed Nagle’s imagination.”

What Nagle, Chatterton and Kohler were onto was the discovery of German submarine U-869 that sank 60 miles off the Jersey coast in 1944. The pursuit of the truth that followed over the course of the next seven years could only have come from the action-adventure of real life, and pushed everyone involved to unimaginable extremes of every sort. Lives were lost (three were the divers’ peers and Nagle eventually succumbed to his disease), demons were faced or backed down from, danger lurked in everything from sharks to divers’ narcosis and decompression sickness, and ghosts of the past surfaced with a vengeance.
A fascinating blend of history, sociology and psychology, diving action, mystery and more, Kurson’s tale is near impossible to put down. What is learned about the boat is a remarkable story all on its own (it was probably destroyed by its own torpedoes) and certainly fills in some blanks in military history of WWII, but as Kohler, in particular, connects with his own German heritage and becomes a serious U-boat scholar, he uncovers some moving personal stories of the men who were on the boat. At the saga’s end, after being obsessed with tracking down the relatives of some of the men who went down with the boat, Kohler goes to Germany to meet with them and even gives them some of the precious artifacts he collected. It was hard not to weep, just as the brothers, former fiancées and now-grown children of the German sailors did.
In a word, “Shadow Divers” is remarkable. Don’t miss reading this one, and do it at your earliest opportunity.
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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