Spy Sub is interesting on several levels. It’s the story firstly of a young man who was thrown out of college for having miserable grades. Yet the Navy saw fit to train him as a nuclear reactor operator on a highly classified submarine mission. Their faith and assessment procedures worked for the author went on to become a respected physician after leaving the Navy. Dunham explains many of the techniques used to learn the material. Basically, it was peer pressure — he would have been ostracized by his shipmates if he failed to perform — and self- preservation — he would have destroyed himself if things went wrong.
Because the nature of the mission they trained for, which involved lowering an electronic device thousands of feet below the sub to search for something, even the name of the submarine was required to be changed for the book although numerous photographs are reproduced as illustrations.
Working on a submarine could not be less appealing. The confined quarters with no view of the surface for weeks at a time required that the Navy do extensive psychological testing of each candidate. Constant emergency drills — the flooding drill was particularly scary — tested everyone’s nerves and skills. When a real emergency did occur, caused by a defective 49 cent diode, they had to spend hours on battery power after SCRAMming (emergency shutdown) the reactor to track down the problem.
Life was not without its amusing moments, however. During one exercise a surface ship was supposed to deploy a top secret device — so secret it was lowered into the ocean covered by a box. The device would then be sought out by the pseudonymous Viper Fish's fancy electronic surveillance gear. Unfortunately, whoever designed the strange object didn’t consider its density in relation to salt water and the device floated where it could be seen by all after popping out of its cover, a terrible security lapse that probably caused the end of the world as we know it.
The mission takes place as tensions over the Vietnam War escalate. The protests at home were intensely demoralizing to the crew. After a man is washed overboard during an attempt to fix a hydraulic mechanism during a violent storm, and Dunham’s partner at the reactor control panel begins to act a little weird, tensions increase....