Tom Clancy Departs
I was saddened by the news that Tom Clancy had died. And it was ironic that he died in October. His first great hit was the novel, The Hunt for Red October. My Navy commander wife brought me this short book to read as I was recuperating from a near-fatal bout of meningitis at Bethesda Naval Hospital.
Many of our friends are Navy submariners and she said they were all reading Clancy's action-packed story. In one month, this first fiction book published by Naval Institute Press had sold more, they said, than that little publishing house had sold in the previous century. They affirmed that Clancy got the technical details of the naval nuclear standoff between the U.S. and USSR just right.
I sat up in bed and read the first page. It described a Soviet submarine commander -- the skipper of the Red October -- who hatches a plan to defect to the West. "The submariners may think it's perfect, but tell them the Russian interpreters don't. There's no way the Communists in the Kremlin would let a half-Lithuanian guy -- Captain Marko Ramius -- get his fingers on the button to launch a nuclear missile. They'd be afraid he'd target Moscow!" Still, it was fiction, and ripping good fiction, at that. I couldn't put it down. It helped my recovery, I'm sure.
I had been a Russian interpreter on the Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell. My language teacher had been an exiled Russian Jew, a brilliant man named Solomon. Our submariner friends called my ship, along with every other surface vessel, "targets."
At an all-Navy "Red October" theater party, I wore my Coast Guard nametag. It was the Cyrillic language one I'd had made for boarding Soviet trawlers. After we all came back from the movie, our hosts served Submarine sandwiches. Folks all laughed at my Russian nametag, too.
All except one serious-looking senior fellow. The unsmiling gentleman with the steel-gray-hair and steel-rimmed glasses asked me pointedly where I'd gotten such a thing. I cheerily explained I was a veteran of the "hooligan navy" and that I was on our side.
Only the next day did our Navy hosts explain that my steely-eyed questioner was a four-star admiral -- the Chief of Naval Intelligence. I'm really glad I didn't have to answer any questions at some black site. It's OK, sir, I had a Top Secret clearance.
It turns out Tom Clancy was inspired to write his blockbuster novel by an incident I had studied. Clancy had read about a 1975 mutiny aboard the Soviet submarine hunter, Storezhevoy, a surface vessel. The Storezhevoy-English name Sentry--was a state-of-the-art Soviet warship.
The Second Officer on the Storezhevoy, Valery Sablin, had seized control of the ship and seemed to be headed for Sweden. But the mutiny collapsed when Soviet jets were scrambled and struck the ship with missiles, threatening to sink her if the mutineers didn't turn back.
What happened to the leader of this mutiny I did not know until years later, but I could guess it was not pretty. A bullet to the back of the head was the KGB's "signature." Not for nothing was the entry to Moscow's Lubyanka Prison called "the Gates of Hell."
I naturally sympathized with Sablin's failed break for freedom. The Coast Guard chief petty officers at my first duty station didn't. They didn't like mutineers or disorder of any sort.
Only decades later did I learn what actually happened back in 1975. The story had been suppressed by the USSR. The History Channel provided a dramatization. of the real story of the Storezhevoy.
Sablin, the 37-year old leader of the mutiny, was a committed Leninist. Sablin only mutinied because he wanted to ignite a second revolution for a purer form of Communism. Good grief! So the Coast Guard chiefs were right all along.
Clancy's writing is memorable. Whenever I go out Gate 3 of the Naval Academy, I think of that scene in the movie Patriot Games where the Marine guard gets in a shoot-out with the IRA terrorist. And now, Tom Clancy takes his leave from us -- in October.