Hostile Waters, by Peter Huchthausen, Igor Kurdin and R. Alan White, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1997, $23.95.
Innumerable incidents and several near disasters have resulted from the interaction at close quarters of American and Soviet warships during the Cold War. Hostile Waters is an account of one such incident, the sinking of the Soviet submarine K-219. The story has been reconstructed from the memories of surviving crew members, ship’s logs, official Soviet investigations, and interviews with other American and Soviet participants.
K-219 was a Navaga-class nuclear ballistic missile submarine armed with 15 RSM-25 nuclear-tipped missiles. On October 3, 1986, K-219 was on her way to a patrol zone north of Bermuda when faulty seals around the exterior hatch of her No. 6 missile tube allowed a small amount of sea water to seep into the compartment. In spite of constant pumping to expel the water, enough nitric acid formed to erode a welded hydrazine pressure line. The line burst, allowing hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide to mix. Besides filling the missile compartment with corrosive and poisonous nitric acid gas, the explosion breached K-219’s hull, ignited fires within the missile compartment and caused the ejection of an RSM-25 into the ocean.
USS Augusta, a Los Angelesclass attack submarine that had been stalking K-219, immediately went to battle stations, believing the Soviet sub had launched a missile. When it became clear that the missile had not been launched and that the Soviet vessel was in trouble, Augusta dispatched a flash report to Norfolk, Va., and a race between the rival navies ensued. The U.S. Navy hoped to reach K-219 before the Soviets in order to search the submarine for useful intelligence data, while ostensibly rendering assistance to her crew. The Soviets sought to prevent that from happening.
Both nations diverted naval and air assets to the area, at the risk of the situation’s escalating into a major international incident. Meanwhile, K-219’s crewmen struggled amid intense heat and noxious fumes to avert a nuclear catastrophe, either from a meltdown of the crippled submarine’s VM-4 nuclear reactors or the “cooking off” of the warheads on her 14 remaining missiles.
Hostile Waters is an intensely dramatic account that provides many insights into the practical aspects of life aboard a Soviet nuclear submarine, as well as a glimpse into the convoluted political situation within the Soviet navy’s command structure during the perestroika period. Best of all, despite all the technical details, Hostile Waters still reads like an adventure novel–all the more chilling because it really happened.
Christopher A. Victor-Pinho