Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage, by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew with Annette Lawrence Drew
It says here it was a "New York Times Bestseller". It's a book largely about US Naval intelligence operations during the Cold War. It's also about a few other things, since most knowledgeable parties aren't willing to say too much on the record about the subject. The authors fill in with more or less related anecdotes that turned up while they were researching the book. We'll get back to that later, but it's worth mentioning at the outset that this book is more of a series of entertaining anecdotes than a real history. By necessity, it's heavily weighted towards the experiences of those veterans who were willing to talk to the authors. I doubt very much that the authors have the full picture.
Broadly speaking, the United States and the Soviet Union spent the years from 1945 through 1991 like two clinically paranoid and heavily armed teenagers in the back of a car on prom night, desperate to explore each other's recesses yet at the same time consumed by rage and loathing. We all know about spy satellites and spies, but submarines were also among the numerous delicate fingertips with which the United States groped for the Soviets' magical secret places.
The most obvious trick was to sneak up very close to some interesting portion of the Soviet coastline and take pictures through the periscope. It seems naïve, but worthwhile information was gathered that way. Submarines are a good way to keep an eye on somebody's navy. Bear in mind that this is done within the three mile territorial limit generally accepted by international law, and well within the twelve miles that the Soviets claimed. Theoretically, those submarines were doing a very bad thing.
The other major arena for submarine intelligence-gathering was keeping an eye on the Soviet navy at sea, which largely meant tailing their submarines. You can get a rough notion of where that often led in the informative Submarine Collisions node, which contains information gleaned from this very book.
In the early days of old diesel electric submarines, this was all scary stuff indeed: Those submarines were loud, and they couldn't stay underwater for very long. While submerged, they crept slowly along on secondary electric motors. Soon enough, the batteries ran out. This is all very grim stuff when you've got a flock of fast, freely-breathing destroyers giggling over your head and dropping explosives on you. If you haven't read Run Silent, Run Deep (or another grim one about the other side in that war, Iron Coffins, allegedly true, by Herbert A. Werner), do so. There were, as they say, men in those days. Usually there weren't quite so many at the end of the day as in the morning, though. Here, we get an account of the experience of the USS Gudgeon2, pursued by Commies in the Pacific. It was just a cold war, though, so they used little tiny non-lethal depth charges and broke off the engagement when Gudgeon surfaced after a day and a half of torment. It is claimed that before steaming off, they signaled thanks to Gudgeon for the ASW practice. You can imagine the hilarity, I'm sure.
There were cases where the batteries in those old submaries just up and exploded, too. Those aboard USS Cochino did so in the Barents Sea in 1949, causing the loss of the submarine. Another sub, USS Tusk, was with Cochino at the time, and only seven men were lost.
In the 1960s, nuclear submarines came into vogue. They could move much more rapidly underwater, and they could stay there until they ran out of food1. Other technology improved along with naval architecture; in the 1970s, the United States tapped a Soviet telephone cable in the Sea of Okhotsk, thereby intercepting sensitive communications between the mainland and the Soviet naval base at Petropavlovsk on Kamchatka (that's in the North Pacific). A few years later, we tapped a similar cable in the Barents Sea. Both of those operations are covered in great detail.
Another brief for our brave submerged cold warriors was locating Soviet military hardware from the ocean floor. Normal modern military submarines can only go down to 2,000 feet or less below the surface before they implode, and divers who can get out and pick things up are even more limited. Therefore, submarines would usually just locate things, and more exotic technology would be used to retrieve whatever could be retrieved. There was a wonderful episode in the late 1960s where an nearly obsolete Soviet Golf-class missile submarine was lost in the Pacific, and the US Navy was able to locate and photograph the wreckage. In 1973, when everything aboard the Golf had finally become thoroughly obsolete and uninteresting, the CIA spend $350,000,000 trying to retrieve the submarine itself. They got a small part of it, but that part didn't contain the obsolete encryption materials and obsolete missiles that they were really after.
And so on. It's a good read. There's only a smattering of meaningless babble about how much such-and-such captain liking blueberry muffins, this one had pizza parties for the crew, etc. More meaningful babble includes the following claims: Submariners often have propellers tattooed on their buttocks. When drunk, they often perform the "Dance of the Flaming Assholes", which involves both (a-hem) visible propellers, and flaming toilet paper anchored just where you might think. I can't vouch for any of this, thank God.
Some of the best parts are irrelevant stuff that doesn't really belong there, except that the authors have a journalist's eye for a good story: Many, many pages, for example, are spent on the tragic case of the USS Scorpion, lost mysteriously somewhere near the Azores in the mid-1960s. A massive search was mounted, and the wreckage was found. There were commissions and reports, some of which disagreed with each other and much of which remained classified for many years after the incident. Nobody's really sure what happened to Scorpion, but some retired Naval officials have a guess: Various bits of evidence which never got put together at the time suggest that some gruesomely boneheaded engineering decisions may have led to a torpedo battery running amok and "cooking off" the torpedo's warhead right there in the torpedo room. The whole story is fascinating one, even though it's really got nothing to do with intelligence. There's another good story about looking for a misplaced hydrogen bomb off the coast of Spain. That one doesn't involve submarines at all, but one of the authors' sources knew about it and again, it's great fun to read about.
1 Anybody with a layman's knowledge of submarines can't help but notice that the old diesel subs had a bow shaped like that of a ship, designed for travelling on the surface of the ocean. They were relatively ship-like in cross-section as well. They even had decks (and deck guns, since they often attacked shipping from the surface). Modern submarines are radially symmetrical and have rounded (or I should probably say ovoid) noses like torpedoes always did: Diesel submarines submerged only when there was a pressing need. They weren't really full-time, 24/7 submarines. Nuclear submarines are, and the design reflects that. Functioning well on the surface is not a priority when so little time is spent there.
2 Traditionally, US Naval submarines have been named after fish. By the 1980s, they were running out of fish with cool names, so some new submarines of the Los Angeles class were named after bail bondsmen, bartenders, and other pillars of the Naval way of life.