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Under the sea they lie

Posted By Richard Grenier On 08/21/2000 @ 1:00 am In Commentary | Comments Disabled

“They hid it from us for two days,” said a former major in the Soviet
anti-aircraft forces near Murmansk. “The most disgusting part,” said the
Russian, “is that foreigners offered aid and we rejected it. And now our
own people are telling us stories. These men are state criminals. I’d
hang them all.”

Few people down by the water at Murmansk — which was the Soviet end
of the convoy route that brought supplies from America during World War
II — extend much hope for the Kursk, the submarine recently reported
sunk in the Barents Sea, between Russia and Finland. It’s now freezing
cold, and a Soviet sailor says with feeling, “Those guys are in a hell
you can’t imagine. You know there’s help right above you.” He pauses.
“But they’re just waiting for death.”

Most of the Soviet Navy personnel that has gathered near the dock
speak in quiet tones to government officials. The local governor in a
television interview has just announced that he had nothing to announce.
“We don’t know what’s happening inside the boat,” he says. “It’s
freezing cold down there.” And then, “They’re just waiting for death.”

“I was in the fleet for three years,” says an older man whose son is
now trapped on the Kursk, the father having no faith in the military.
“They don’t care about people at all,” he says bitterly. “Sailors are
cannon fodder for them. I think half the crew of the Kursk may be dead
already. Meanwhile our President Putin is taking a vacation. He wouldn’t
accept help from the British. And Putin won’t interrupt his vacation in
Sochi (a vacation spot on the Black Sea). The sailors on the Kursk are
prisoners of Putin’s pride.” As of this writing, we are still awaiting
results from the British rescue team — finally given the go-ahead very
late in the game.

The Kursk might be at the bottom of the Barents Sea, but Russia has
nonetheless changed. Not in its absence of concern for the well being of
the individual — this apparently remains the same — but in earlier
times it would have been suicidal to talk this way about a Soviet
national leader.

There is sometimes an eerie similarity between all disasters at sea.
On May 23, 1939, the Squalus, an American fleet submarine, went down off
New England during a test dive. As it happens, well after World War II,
I myself crash-dived a U.S. Navy attack submarine while I was at our sub
school at New London, Conn. I was not unduly nervous considering that
with a valve left unclosed I could kill the whole crew. But I was young
and just didn’t think such a thing could ever happen to me, I suppose.
Having experienced both flying and submarines, I now think flying a Navy
plane is comparatively what we used to call “fruit duty” (a term I
always thought must come from early American ships crossing the balmy
Pacific. Later experiencing a typhoon in the Pacific, I realized that a
Pacific typhoon isn’t “fruit duty” either.)

But the Squalus, now 61 years ago, with 59 men aboard, dove in the
North Atlantic with a key valve open, instantly killing 26 men of its
crew by drowning when seawater flooded almost half its compartments. One
man — one man — saw what was happening and by a feat of superhuman
strength managed to close a key hatch against the force of the ocean,
thereby saving the lives of 33 men.

A few days ago, the Russian submarine, perhaps with a skipper less of
a man than the American sailor who closed the Squalus’ hatch came to
rest in Arctic waters at a depth of about 250 feet. Then it was
something of a miracle but 33 men were saved. Meanwhile, some six
decades later, Russia’s newest, most advanced nuclear submarine, rests
on the floor of Arctic seas, and Russia seems unable to save it. For
something like four days, the Russian commanders, perhaps not wanting to
lose “face,” gave not a sign of what was happening aboard their ship to
the outside world — sacrificing the lives of 116 men.

The sound of men tapping ever more feebly with their hammers on the
hull will be the last historical echo of the Hunley — the Confederate
submarine which was the first sub to sink an enemy warship. Only four
feet in diameter and forty feet long, the Hunley, raised from the ocean
floor last week, had a crew of nine — at its oars. She sank a Union
vessel Feb. 17, 1864. Thirteen men had died on earlier Hunley runs.

Dating from the time of “Gone With The Wind,” whose hero, Rhett
Butler, was captain of a “blockade runner,” the Hunley was
unquestionably the real thing. And this time there will be little debate
over whose flag she should fly. Held in custody by the state of South
Carolina, she will presumably fly the Stars and Bars, the Confederate
colors, when she eventually goes on display in the Charleston Museum.
Nine Confederate sailors who died when she went down will be buried in
Charleston’s Magnolia cemetery “with the utmost respect they deserve.”


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