By Pat Guthrie
Shadow Divers was published in 2004 and written by Robert Kurson.
It details the story of divers trying to unlock the identity of a unknown U-boat off the New Jersey coast starting in 1991. Bill Nagle first heard about the wreck from fishermen who had hooked their nets on something in the waters over 200 ft deep. Divers to the wreck quickly found that it was a undiscovered U-boat but identifying which boat it was and trying to find out what happened to it would take years and cost 3 men their lives. For years, the unknown submarine is simply known as the “U-Who?”
John Chatterton and Richie Kohler really form the core group in this book and the story focuses on them, their lives and their part in the identification of this wreck. Their work, research and exciting diving scenes make for a great read.
All in all, the book is great. It’s exciting to read, has interesting stories about the boat, the research and thrills of identifying a u-boat. In the end, they try to make an educated guess as to what happened to the sub and how come it’s location was not known until it’s discovery in 1991. The book will always be one of the “must read” of the dive communities and really helps to relate the hobby of diving and, more specifically, technical diving and exploration to readers who may know little to nothing of the sport or what drives people like this.
I found the actual narrative and writing style of the book to be fine but it’s interesting that Robert Kurson’s only commercially successful book written prior to Shadow Divers was “The Official Three Stooges Cookbook” (I haven’t read this one yet).
However. There is another book written by another famous east coast wreck diver, Gary Gentile. It is called “Shadow Divers: Exposed!”
Gentile has done some incredible exploits of his own- many dives to the Andrea Doria, including the first penetrations to the first class dining area, dives to the Lusitania and discovery and dives to the famous “Mitchell Fleet”; World War One German Imperial Fleet ships that Billy Mitchell famously sunk to prove how air power could counter naval strength. He was also a pioneer in the field of technical diving including the first uses of Trimix gases to ward off the effects of nitrogen narcosis in deep diving. He has written many books about these adventures.
He obviously is very jealous about the attention and fame that Chatterton and Kohler have received since Shadow Divers was published. On the pretense of “setting the record straight” with regards to the discovery and identification of the U-899, he wrote a book called “Shadow Divers: Exposed” that claimed to tell the true story of these events. Gary’s book has had a much smaller publishing and sales so it is a little harder to come across- you can find copies of Shadow Divers in almost any bookstore or library.
There are two ways to take Gary’s book. In one regard, he is nit-picky to the point of insanity when he critiques Shadow Divers. He snipes about bad grammar, incorrect facts and dates and other points that hardly matter. The major point he tries to make is that the book is “loosely” based on true events. The actual telling and narrative of the book has been modified from actual events somewhat to make it a more interesting tale. The work of diving on the wreck, researching it here and abroad, and all the events that led up to the identification of the wreck not only involved Chatterton and Kohler but a whole host of other great divers and researchers to make it happen- as you would expect. Shadow Divers does minimize all other people involved with the wreck and really thrusts Chatterton and Kohler to the forefront. It seems it was all their work when you finish the book.
Gary also proposes that this wreck isn’t that big of a mystery and tries to support that by showing there was naval action against u-boats in that area that was recorded. He also proposes a counter theory as to how the ship was sunk which is much different than the one Chatterton and Kohler suggest.
I felt like the book was a real fit of jealously against Chatterton and Kohler recieving the fame and fortune that Gentile felt he had rightfully earned. In sections of the book, it felt like a 8 year old kid was pointing a finger at a schoolmate and shouting, “He’s lying and hit me first!”
However, in other sections, his arguments make a lot of sense and ring true. In fact, in sections of the book where he drops the feud and begins to talk more about his exploits, it becomes very interesting and engaging reading- to the point of me wanting to read other books from him where he isn’t bickering about his perceived loss of fame.
One thing is for sure- it made me think that if I had never read this second book, I would have never thought to question anything put forth by Shadow Divers. I actually had a email conversation with John Chatterton about the two theories as to how the U-869 was sunk and, in my mind, he really didn’t make a convincing case for his argument.
Still, I believe that all of these divers and others mentioned in both books are incredible people – all with amazing stories to tell about diving on wrecks and telling those tales to us.