|Return to Writings
The Terrible Hours: The Man Behind the
Greatest Submarine Rescue in History
Authored by Peter Maas - HarperCollins, 1999. 240 pages
Back in the boom-boom Eighties, when I was at Duke and Ronald Reagan was commander-in-chief, I spent three long, indistinguishable days and nights as a Navy ROTC midshipman aboard a nuclear submarine out of Charleston, South Carolina. Even though Tom Clancy's obscure breakout novel, The Hunt for Red October, had yet to catch on with the civilian public (it was originally published in 1984 by the U.S. Naval Institute Press), by 1985 the Navy's nuclear program was attracting the cream of the recruiting crop.
Smart-as-heck high-school graduates with no college experience were signing up for good money to learn physics, wear snappy blue jumpsuits and turtlenecks, and stalk pesky Soviets along the ocean floor. As far as naval duty went, subs had become the good life. The work was intellectually stimulating, the vessels were air-conditioned, relatively roomy, and fast, and the food was great. Midshipmen who sought slots as nuke-power officers used our training voyage to suck up to anyone with shiny brass lapels.
I would never have survived life as a submariner in the 1930s. In reality, few in the Navy did, for those were the days without sonar and before the atomic bomb unleashed nuclear power, when submarines were actually battery-powered surface ships that occasionally dipped beneath the surface. In fact, in the ten years before 1939, 700 men were lost in twenty submarines, leading sailors to dub submarine duty the "coffin service." As Peter Maas writes in his latest book, The Terrible Hours: The Man Behind the Greatest Submarine Rescue in History, if a submarine failed in those days, "every man on board was doomed. It was accepted that there would be no deliverance."
A prize-winning literary journalist, Maas has spent decades writing creative nonfiction prose that illuminates the heroics, treacheries, and moral quandaries of people outside the scope of ordinary American life, particularly in the world of organized crime. Often compared to such nonfiction chroniclers of the shadow-side of human nature as Joseph Wambaugh (The Onion Field) and Truman Capote (In Cold Blood), Maas combines keen observation with a sense of character and narrative, and the alliance has made many of his books enormously popular.
Now he has returned to his earliest days as an author to explore one of the most virtuous, albeit two-dimensional, archetypes of heroism--the real-life action figure who, through brains and grit, saves innocents from near-certain death. The Terrible Hours is a revised version of his first book, The Rescuer, written in the mid-1960s. "It sold about 300 copies," he said recently. "At that time, nobody was interested in a submarine that went down in '39."
The book recounts the story of an Annapolis grad named Charles "Swede" Momsen, who spearheads a harrowing effort to rescue crew members of the Squalus, a U.S. Navy submarine that sank in 240 feet of water off the coast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1939. Momsen, a marine researcher and submariner, was famous for inventing the "Momsen Lung," a piece of scuba-diving equipment that reduced the risk of decompression sickness, or "the bends." Before Momsen came along, it was standard procedure to treat downed subs as irretrievable.
The book often reads like a real-life Tom Clancy effort, which is a mixed blessing for any writer seeking to attain bestseller status while maintaining cachet as a serious journalist. The details are slathered on thick--"the aroma inside the hull, a combination of diesel fumes, sweat, dirty socks, and unwashed clothes, was something you never really got used to." The plot is filled with suspenseful twists, from flooding engine rooms and deadly chlorine gas to bad weather, snagged life-lines, and divers struggling to remain conscious while stretching the limits of 1930s deep-sea technology. The tale is well-paced and, thanks to its verisimilitude, maintains interest all the more.
Unlike past Maas works, however, the fleshing out of the pivotal characters occasionally achieves melodrama, as in this "high noon" account of Momsen facing the fearful possibility that the Squalus is beyond hope, and facing the impact the potential loss might have on his career: "For most people, the worth of their lives is a blend of shaded grays. But for Swede Momsen, that judgment would now come swiftly. And in black and white. There would be no in-between."
Most of Maas' real-life protagonists display brains and courage, though not always in the service of virtue. In The Valachi Papers (1968), he introduced readers to a government informant who played a catalytic role in confirming the existence of the Mafia, or Cosa Nostra, in post-war America. The U.S. Justice Department tried to sue Maas, claiming his book would be "injurious to law enforcement." Despite the government's seal of disapproval, twenty-four publishers turned the book down at first, telling him the Mafia "didn't sell." In fact, he helped create a new genre in the book industry (Mario Puzo's The Godfather was published a year later). The Valachi book became a bestseller and was made into what Maas called "one of the worst movies I've ever seen."
As the author of Serpico (1973), Maas told the true story of an undercover narcotics cop who dares to expose corruption within the New York police department. Returning to his crime roots, Maas wrote the 1997 bestseller Underboss, chronicling the life of Sammy "The Bull" Gravano, the Gambino crime family's second-in-command, whose testimony put his boss, John Gotti, behind bars for life.
After graduating from Duke, Maas moved to Paris, where he wangled his way into a brief stint at what is now the International Herald Tribune. After being drafted into the U.S. Navy during the Korean War, he spent the next fifteen years leading up to The Valachi Papers working as a journalist, primarily for magazines such as Collier's, Look, and The Saturday Evening Post. During the 1960s, he evolved into an investigative reporter and adopted the creative techniques of the "New Journalism," with its emphasis on literary detail, plot, and characterization. Eventually he joined fellow genre-bending reporters Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese as founding writers of New York magazine.
In The Terrible Hours, Maas is true to those reporting roots, displaying a admirable penchant for in-depth research. Ultimately, his book is a taut tale that entertains, despite occasional lapses into action-movie mode. With the current revival of interest in World War II and America's "greatest generation," don't be surprised to see a glossier take on the Squalus incident on HBO or at the local cineplex sometime in the near future.
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Best-selling author Peter Maas died August 24, 2001 at a Manhattan hospital, a spokeswoman said.
The author, who wrote more than a dozen novels and works of nonfiction in his long career, died at 5:40 p.m. at Mount Sinai Hospital, said spokeswoman Lucia Lee.
She did not disclose the cause of death. Maas was 72.
Maas' 1973 work, "Serpico" -- a real-life story about an undercover cop who couldn't be bought -- was made into a successful movie that garnered an Academy Award nomination for star Al Pacino.
Other well-known works -- including 1969's "The Valachi Papers" and 1997's "Underboss: Sammy the Bull Gavano's Story of Life in the Mafia" -- chronicled the world of organized crime.
Maas also wrote "Killer Spy" in 1995 about the case of CIA agent Aldrich Ames, convicted of spying for the Russians and the former Soviet Union.
His most recent book, 1999's "The Terrible Hours," detailed a U.S. submarine rescue before World War II. The NBC made-for-TV movie "Submerged" was based on the book.
Maas was born on June 27, 1929, in New York, and lived there until his death.