BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Robert Kurson, where did you get the idea for your book, "Shadow Divers"?
ROBERT KURSON (Author, "Shadow Divers"): A friend told me about the story originally. And at first, it sounded too unbelievable to be true. Two New Jersey shipwreck divers, recreational divers, find a virgin lost German U-boat off the New Jersey coast. I couldn`t believe it. It started from there.
LAMB: What were you doing at the time?
KURSON: I was at home, doing a little bit of work. And occasionally, I take calls from friends who have good book ideas for me. I`ve learned to be cautious about those ideas. They often, if not always, are less than the person thinks they are. This one was entirely different. It caught my attention from the start.
LAMB: What were you doing for a living when you got this idea?
KURSON: A writer. I`m a contributing editor and was a contributing editor to "Esquire" magazine and had been a lawyer before that.
LAMB: And where do you live?
KURSON: I live in the Chicago suburbs, the northern suburbs.
LAMB: So once somebody gave you the idea, what`d you do then?
KURSON: I immediately got on the phone to the divers, the two principal divers behind this story, and asked them, Could this be true. And they said, Not only is it true, it`s even more than that. And I asked if I might come out and see them. They agreed, and I was on my way.
LAMB: And who were the divers?
KURSON: John Chatterton and Richie Kohler, both New Jersey residents, who had made this amazing discovery.
LAMB: What year was the start of all this for you?
KURSON: For me, it was 2001. For them, it had begun 10 years earlier, in 1991.
LAMB: Now, before you got into this, there`d already been a major PBS program done on it for "Nova."
LAMB: Had you seen that?
KURSON: No, but I made it my business to see it right away, after I`d heard this story, and found it pretty amazing, and prepared myself, at least in watching that, before I went out to meet the divers.
LAMB: Now, I`ve never quite had this situation on this program, where -- I mean, it happens a couple times, but you wonder how much you want to talk about in this book, as you`re on your book tour. Have you decided how to deal with that? You know why I`m asking.
KURSON: Yes. The book is a mystery, and it has an amazing ending to it. And it`s an ending that I don`t necessarily want to give away because I think it`s quite satisfying in the end. But this is a real-life adventure story and mystery that has an incredible finish to it.
LAMB: So how long did you work on it?
KURSON: Nearly two years.
LAMB: So you go out to New Jersey and you find the two divers, principal divers, and you talked to them where?
KURSON: At John Chatterton`s house in Mantoloking in New Jersey, right on the coast, a house that is decorated by Harley Davidsons and heavy scuba gear and a lot of shipwreck artifacts that go back a long way.
LAMB: When did you know you had something unique?
KURSON: I knew going out there that the story, if it was what I thought it was, was great. I did not realize how great this could be until I met the two men, Chatterton and Kohler. They were so layered and bright and introspective that I realized within the course of a few hours that the story was really more about them, about these two men, singular men, even than it was about a lost submarine.
LAMB: One statistic in your book is that between `39 and `45 -- 1939 and 1945 -- there were 1,1067 U-boats that the Germans had somewhere in the world.
KURSON: That`s right.
LAMB: How many of those, when they went out during World War II, came back?
KURSON: Seven hundred fifty-seven of them never came back. But it`s even worse than that. Of the 869 or 870 or so that went to front-line patrol, 75 percent of them never came back. So by the end of the war, a U-boat crewman had about only a 2-in-10 chance of coming back from one patrol, and his statistical life expectancy was barely 60 days.
LAMB: So where did you go to get this story, besides talking to Chatterton and Kohler?
KURSON: I interviewed divers all over the world. I interviewed family members and friends of the fallen crewmen inside this -- who were inside this U-boat. I went to archives. I looked at classified -- or recently declassified documents and read a lot of books about diving, about the U-boat war, and even went inside the U-505, a Type 9 submarine on display in Chicago, my hometown, and which had served as a place of many school field trips for me during my childhood.
LAMB: You also cite, I think it`s uboat.net in here that people could go to, and I think it`s on that site that I saw, when I looked at it, that they`re moving that U-505 at that museum in Chicago to a permanent location.
KURSON: Yes, it has been outside for -- since 19 -- the early 1950s, and it started to take great damage from weather. And they invested $1.5 million just in the moving of it. I saw it a few weeks ago and saw them making a five-point turn with the U-boat at one inch per hour. I can`t even do a three-point turn in my car, so this is an amazing thing to see. But now they`re building a permanent display for it, and it`s long overdue.
LAMB: So where is this off the coast of New Jersey?
KURSON: It`s 60 miles east of Point Pleasant, New Jersey.
LAMB: Who found it and when?
KURSON: Well, a fisherman had stumbled across it, as fishermen sometimes do with shipwrecks, but didn`t know it was a shipwreck. All he knew was that the fish seemed to be jumping onto his pole from this location. And his instincts starting pinging that there was something important down there, but he had no idea what it was or couldn`t figure out how to determine that.
But he did know the captain of a dive charter boat, a boat that took divers out for money to various shipwrecks, and he kind of gifted these numbers to the captain, a man named Bill Nagle, captain of a boat called the Seeker. Nagle was already a legend in shipwreck diving, but the thing that moved Nagle more than anything was exploration, the quest for the unknown. There were some dive charter captains who looked primarily -- or took customers primarily to safe and known sites. That`s not what Nagle was about. He was looking for the very special.
And so he put together a group of guys to go check out the site. All of them believed that they would likely find a junk pipe barge or a pile of rocks. They had all been on those kind of searches before. The result turned out to be much different.
LAMB: How many were on that first boat trip to find out what this was all about?
KURSON: Fourteen men, including Nagle and Chatterton. Kohler was not yet part of the group
LAMB: How did they get to go on a trip like that?
KURSON: Well, it seems like it would be the opportunity of a lifetime, but because the odds were so great that they would find nothing, it was very, very difficult for Chatterton and Nagle to even recruit divers to pay the few hundred dollars to go look. So they called men that were capable of diving to a depth of greater than 200 feet. That already narrows the field greatly. And then of those, they had to find people willing to probably go waste their money searching for nothing.
LAMB: How many people knew about this site before the Seeker and Bill Nagle and that crowd went out there to find it?
KURSON: Maybe one or two fishermen, and that`s it. Fishermen keep these numbers very, very secret. It`s their lifeblood. When they can tell a customer, I can take you to a special site that nobody else is fishing, so it`s well stocked, that`s the money to them. And so they don`t tell anybody. But this fisherman needed to know, so he shared it. And that`s how Nagle came onto it.
LAMB: So when they go out on a boat like that, when do they leave? How long does it take them to get to a site like this? What kind of gear do they take with them?
KURSON: It takes, for this particular trip, about seven hours. And they leave at around midnight because they want to arrive just after sunrise. They pack probably 175 pounds of gear that they`re going to carry with them. So they`re only very, very distant cousins of the warm-weather recreational scuba diver that you and I are used to seeing. They`re very heavy, and they`re entirely dependent on their equipment.
LAMB: What was the date of that first trip?
KURSON: Early September, 1991. I think September 2.
LAMB: So what`s the weather that time of year off New Jersey?
KURSON: Well, it could be very rough seas. And in fact, a lot of shipwreck divers have called it quits by that time. But in this case, the weather was nice, and they had an opportunity. So they were going to go, no matter what the weather looked like.
LAMB: What`s the average age of people who do this kind of thing?
KURSON: Well, you need to be in very good physical shape to handle the punishing currents and the myriad of emergencies that invariably arise in this incredibly dangerous sport. So these -- this is a young man`s game, in general, usually early 20s to early 40s, at the most. That`s where you`d find the range.
LAMB: Were they worried about any competition?
KURSON: Yes. They are constantly concerned about competition, especially on the East Coast. There are decades-long blood feuds and bitter rivalries and pirates who will jump claims, who will go out after you`ve been there one day and clean out a wreck that you`ve discovered. These guys are even known to fight it out on the bottom of the ocean for artifacts. But that was a grave concern of theirs, that rivals, and especially one rival in particular, would come, either beat them to the wreck or jump the wreck after they`d been there. So they -- that`s another reason why they like to go in the dead of night.
LAMB: Who was the one rival?
KURSON: A man named Steve Bielenda, who owned a dive charter ship called the Wahoo, also a legendary boat captain and an accomplished diver, but one who had a terrible, terrible rivalry with Nagle, probably the most bitter in the history of East Coast wreck diving.
LAMB: And Bill Nagle, what was he like? How old was he?
KURSON: Bill Nagle, at the time, was in his early 40s. He was the man who went and took the bell off the Andrea Doria, a legend, someone who had been a snap-on tool salesman of the year, but who lived for exploration. And once he had put together a good amount of money, he bought this ship called the Seeker, and he built it for a single purpose, and that was to go to the most dangerous shipwrecks in the Atlantic Ocean. He was about exploration only, and he invited the most daring and accomplished wreck divers on his charters.
LAMB: How big was the Seeker?
KURSON: Sixty-five feet and built just to take passengers to the shipwrecks, not for comfort, by any means.
LAMB: What did it cost those 14 to ride on that boat?
KURSON: It probably cost them $150 at that time just to go out, no guarantees. In fact, everyone was told it`s likely nothing. And so most of them figured they were throwing their money away, and they were throwing a good 24, 26 hours away, as well.
LAMB: So the Andrea Doria is what? Where is it?
KURSON: Andrea Doria`s off the coast of New York. And that is considered by many to be the Mount Everest of diving, but that wreck surrenders beautiful artifacts and continues to do so nearly 50 years later. This U-boat would prove to be a much different story than the Andrea Doria.
LAMB: As the first trip heads out there to this site, where is Richie Kohler in this whole business?
KURSON: Richie Kohler was left home, and he didn`t even quite know about it or know why. He was a bitter rival of John Chatterton. They despised each other, and not just personally but for what each of them represented. Richie was very concerned with artifacts. He was part of a dive gang, an East coast dive gang known as the Atlantic Wreck Divers, a fearsome group of guys, but great divers, who valued hauling artifacts out of a wreck above all. They were considered tonnage kings. To Chatterton, who was about the beauty of the art and about what diving represented about life, couldn`t stand that sensibility. For that reason, Kohler wasn`t even invited on this trip.
LAMB: So how much does the U.S. government track things like this, the Navy and all? Do they know -- did they know about this site?
KURSON: They did not know about it then, and in fact, when Chatterton brought it to the attention of the Navy, they were flat-out shocked. They believed they knew of the location and the details about virtually all wrecks, and especially something as important as a World War II German U-boat. When Chatterton showed them a videotape and said he had returned to the site three times, so there was no question about where it was, they virtually couldn`t believe their ears.
LAMB: So early September, 1991, they get to the site. What happens?
KURSON: Chatterton is the only one on the boat capable, fully capable, of diving to 230 feet, which is where the bottom finder on the Seeker indicated this mast lay. So the plan was simple. Chatterton would go down and explore the wreck or whatever this mass was. If it was something spectacular, and if he believed it wouldn`t kill the other divers aboard, he would signal to them that they should join him. But he expected, and the rest of them did, that it was nothing, it was a pile of rocks or a pipe barge. And he was going to go down first. He was the most capable diver on board. He got down there and saw things he never expected in his life to see.
KURSON: He looked inside one room and saw what he believed was a shape that had existed in his imagination for a long time. But these deep wreck divers are plagued by something called narcosis. It`s a kind of anesthetizing effect on the brain from depth and from the build-up of nitrogen. So he wasn`t quite sure of himself. But he said to himself, That`s a torpedo. Now, Chatterton was very familiar with this area and knew what shipwrecks were supposed to be there and what weren`t. And there were certainly, in his memory, no submarines anywhere near this location.
He looked again and said, Am I seeing things? But he knew the shape. It was a torpedo. And he backed out of the wreck, and he started to see other indicators, like flooding vents. And he understood the decomposition of metal, and he said, This is World War II. I`m on top of a German U-boat.
LAMB: "Nova" of PBS has on its Web site an easy way to get some sense of what this summary is all about. We`re going to put it on the screen, thanks to "Nova," and you can see it there. That is -- you can -- anybody can take this tour. What do you see on the screen right now, before we change the picture?
KURSON: Well, that`s basically what the wreck looks like sitting on the bottom of the ocean. It`s hard to get that kind of picture unless you have a pristine day for diving, but that`s what it looks like. It landed upright, and as you explore -- now, that is 252 feet long. You can see that`s the control room area that we just passed. There`s a huge wound in the middle of the submarine at the control room. And you can see the conning tower, one of the most distinctive features of a U-boat, lying in the sand beside it. So this submarine, it was apparent from the very beginning, met its end very violently.
LAMB: Did they know when they first saw this how violently how the end came and how -- what did this?
KURSON: They had no idea. All they could tell was that something catastrophic had happened. But at first, they couldn`t even tell about whether there had been a blast or whether the blast came from within or without. It just looked terribly violent to them.
LAMB: Now, if you`re diving, how much gear do you actually have on your body?
KURSON: You have dozens of pieces of equipment, from the major life support equipment, like your tanks and your regulator, to three knives, to headlights, to flashlights, all kinds of gear, 175 pounds, sometimes more. And all of that, as necessary as it is for the exploration of shipwrecks, also can doom you if you get any of it caught up in the various tangles of pipe and conduit and other things that have been vomited out of the submarine`s or the wreck`s interior.
LAMB: When you go to 230 feet, how long does it take you to get down there?
KURSON: Probably four to six minutes in normal currents. It could take longer if the water is rough.
LAMB: So you go right straight down?
KURSON: You go right straight down, and you follow an anchor line from the dive boat to the wreck.
LAMB: So when you get down there, how long can you stay?
KURSON: In those days, 1991, you could probably stay 20 to 25 minutes, at the most. So once you got down there, you had to work and you had to make your time count.
LAMB: What about today, how long you can stay down?
KURSON: Probably a little bit longer. The technology`s a little better. But you`d would be surprised. The sport remains insanely dangerous, and technology has only made tiny steps in providing a little better bottom time and a little bit better mental acuity.
LAMB: How many people in the world do this kind of thing?
KURSON: Well, in the United States, for example -- in the world, let`s say, there are 20 million certified scuba divers, probably 10 million in the United States. Probably less than 200 deep-water shipwreck divers among those in the United States.
LAMB: And where is most of it done?
KURSON: A lot of it`s done in the East Coast. Much of it`s done in Florida, and some off California.
LAMB: Do you have to have a license?
KURSON: You have to be certified for the gas called Trimix, which is a newer kind of gas that divers breathe. But there are no licenses. Once you are certified to breathe the gas and that you`ve proved that you can swim and do the basics, it`s up to you.
LAMB: Who regulates all this?
KURSON: Well, there are certifying agencies, but nobody regulates shipwreck diving because it`s a very, very tiny percentage of the scuba divers that there are. So these guys are basically a band unto themselves.
LAMB: One of the things I noticed in your book, if anybody ever gets in trouble, the Coast Guard comes.
KURSON: The Coast Guard will come if you`re in trouble. They won`t come if you`re dead. And so that`s the -- one of the sticking points in an early tragedy that occurred with the divers on this submarine.
LAMB: Did you ever get into a philosophical discussion as to why would the Coast Guard come rescue you if you were doing something that took a -- you know, was a great risk?
KURSON: Yes, that`s always a question because they`re at great risk doing that themselves. There`s huge risk in flying those choppers out and coming so close to the boat, and then sending a rescue swimmer into the water and then onto the boat. This is just tradition, basically, that they will not let someone die, if they can help it. However, once the diver`s missing and he hasn`t been seen for a while, then they don`t risk their lives coming out, once they know he is dead.
LAMB: So John Chatterton went down to the sub. Did he find the name? Did he locate what sub it was?
KURSON: No. He was only down there for about 20 minutes and had to process what he was seeing, it was so counter to his expectations. But when he surfaced and the rest of the divers surfaced and they gathered `round, it was agreed that it was just a matter either of hitting the history books and finding out which one this was, or pulling a piece of identifying information from the wreck the next time they went. They expected it to take all of a week.
LAMB: I`m not so sure you want to give it away, but how -- I mean, the actual name of it - but, they were down there in `91, in September. How long did it take for them to find out what that -- whose sub that was and what the number was?
KURSON: It took six years. They had taken to calling this sub the Yoohoo because it was just impossible to figure it out. The wreck surrendered beautiful clues, things that should have solved the mystery right away, and yet none of the clues helped them in any way to get to where they were. In fact, it threw them off the track.
LAMB: So what time of day do you begin diving when you`re on a site like this?
KURSON: Usually, just after sunrise, they`ll dive for the first time. These charters usually have their divers dive twice a day. You owe a kind of deep compression obligation once you get to the boat. You have to off-gas the built-up nitrogen in your system. So the divers will dive, then take a long time decompressing, coming up to the boat. And then they have to wait three or four hours before they can make a second dive. After the second dive`s done, night has usually fallen, and that`s it for the day.
LAMB: What happens if you come straight up?
KURSON: It depends how long you`ve been down there and how deep. But if you`re at any kind of depth past about 130 feet and you`ve been down for any amount of time and you rocket to the surface -- or shoot for the sunshine and seagulls, as they say in the sport -- you`re in big trouble. Some people would consider it lucky if you only died from it.
LAMB: Did anybody in the whole process of those six years try to do that?
KURSON: Yes. In fact, a father-and-son team found themselves in a very, very bad situation, one that, unfortunately, is not uncommon in shipwreck diving, especially when you`re in such a treacherous wreck as this U-boat. The son panicked and shot to the surface. The father was not in trouble but followed his son, and the consequences were very grave.
LAMB: Like what?
KURSON: Well, they both went through terrible bends hit. The bends is what happens when you don`t off-gas your nitrogen slowly in the water. Your blood thickens and turns to foam, and that`s what happened to both of them. And neither ended up surviving it.
LAMB: In what part of the time of this process were these two men killed in this kind of thing?
KURSON: They were -- this was the second year of the diving. And they had been down in the water much longer than they should have been, so their decompression obligation was even greater than it normally would have been. They spent a lot of time trying to find their way out. And one of them died very quickly, and the other held on for a while before dying.
LAMB: So back to the first dive. John Chatterton had -- by the time that he had gotten involved in this, how long he had been diving?
KURSON: About six or seven years, not a huge veteran of the sport. He had come from a very interesting life and a very interesting background and was a rather late starter in the game. But by the time he had discovered this U-boat, he was considered one of the great wreck divers in the world.
LAMB: What did he do for a living?
KURSON: At the time, he was a commercial diver. He did construction projects underwater in and around Manhattan -- welding, construction demolition, cave work, things like that. And so he was used to a certain kind of diving environment, but shipwreck diving, free scuba, is a much different story. You don`t have an air supply attached to a topside boat or a topside help, and it`s a much different job.
LAMB: You have a picture here of a fellow who is actually, as I understand it, in the television business.
LAMB: Steve Feldman. Who is he?
KURSON: Steve Feldman was a stagehand at CBS and also a late starter in deep shipwreck diving. He found salvation in wreck diving after a very painful divorce, at a tough emotional time. He took to the sport immediately and loved the idea of freedom and of exploration, much like many of these divers did aboard the Seeker. He was on the discovery trip, and perhaps more than anyone, was thrilled by the incredibleness of the find. These divers knew that they could go through 100 lifetimes of diving and never find anything this special. He, in a certain boyish kind of innocent way, because he had the least experience of any of the people on board, was thrilled with it and told Chatterton, Thank you so much for including me. This is once in a lifetime. He was very grateful for it.
LAMB: So what happened to him?
KURSON: The next time they went out, Feldman and his partner made a very conservative plan. They understood the danger of this depth, and they understood the danger of the wreck itself, so they made a very conservative plan. They would stay down for a shorter amount of time than they could have, and they would not penetrate the wreck. They would only look outside it. And they would be very, very careful and stick together. And they did all those things.
When it came time to go, Feldman`s partner began his ascent up the anchor line, and Feldman did, too. When his partner looked back down to make sure he was there, he saw Feldman sitting in the sand, no regulator in his mouth, no bubbles coming out, seemingly for no reason at all. That set the panic in on his partner, and it almost cost several people their lives. In the end, Feldman was lost and drifted away at sea. They suspected he succumbed to deep water blackout. It`s a condition that science still doesn`t quite understand but which will kill a deep wreck diver without warning, and not infrequently.
LAMB: When did they find him?
KURSON: It was months later. A fishing boat pulled him up in its nets, largely decomposed. But he was about five miles from the wreck site, at that point.
LAMB: Along the way, do these kind of things make news out there in the New Jersey area or even nationwide?
KURSON: When it was shown this was a German U-boat, it made international news. This is simply unheard of. Crews from all over the world came to interview Bill Nagle and John Chatterton. Even the tabloid "Weekly World News" ran a story suggesting that the only explanation for this ship`s discovery was that it had sailed through a time warp from Hitler`s Germany to 1991. So it was big news when it did happen.
LAMB: So how do the divers keep the location away from the competitors during this time?
KURSON: When they first found the wreck and pulled up their anchor, they all gathered into the salon of the ship and swore an oath of secrecy. They knew they had come onto something very, very unique, and they wanted to be the ones, the crew, that identified it. They knew it would be international news. So they swore an oath of secrecy never to say where they had been or what they`d found and that they would return soon and pull identity from the wreck and the mystery would be solved. They also were very much aware of the pirate intentions of their rivals, so they knew that this had to be secret. The secret, however, lasted about two hours after they got back. It was simply too much to keep to themselves.
LAMB: How did the secret get out?
KURSON: Get out to the wreck or...
LAMB: Get out to other fishermen. I mean, you said it didn`t take but two hours to get it out.
KURSON: Oh. Right. The men came back, and some of them -- one of them blabbed the secret and told a friend. And the friend happened to be Richie Kohler, who would be the second principal diver involved in the story. He said, Don`t tell anyone. Don`t tell a soul. He ended up coughing up the secret. It was simply too much to contain.
Nagle, at the same time, who was suffering a terrible bout with alcoholism and himself was not quite capable of diving to this depth, also told his secret that midnight, quite drunk. And so by morning of the day they returned -- the night they returned, the secret was all over New Jersey. They were a little bit inoculated against that, though, because this wreck was so dangerous and so deep that even if people knew the secret, it was very difficult for them to go out there and risk it.
LAMB: So going back to the timeline -- `91 was when they found the wreck, `99 was when "Nova" did the PBS special.
LAMB: You came along in 2002?
KURSON: In 2001.
LAMB: In 2001. Why did you think that there was a book here, when it already had had international publicity and the "Nova" program?
KURSON: Because everybody treated this story as a story about a lost submarine and also about the U-boat war and U-boat technology, and finally, about a discovery. But after I met Chatterton and Kohler, it seemed to me much more than that. It seemed to me a story about two men in search of themselves and two men who were asking very fundamental questions about who they were and who they would be. And that element of it, that it was really about that moment in a person`s life when he gets to know himself, struck me. And it was completely absent in any story I`d read or seen about this adventure.
LAMB: Had anybody else tried to talk to the two of them?
KURSON: I believe they had, but I think other people`s instincts were consistent with what the earlier stories had been, that they wanted to talk about U-boats.
LAMB: Now, you said you were a lawyer.
KURSON: Yes, I was.
LAMB: How`d you get into that profession?
KURSON: Well, it was kind of by default. I was a philosophy major in college...
KURSON: University of Wisconsin, Madison. And like many people who come to the end of college, I didn`t know what to do with myself. But I had heard that in just a few years of study, lawyers could make very good money. And I had no money at the time, and so it sounded reasonable to me. I still didn`t intend to do it, but I made some applications to law school, and it went from there.
LAMB: Where`d you go to law school?
KURSON: I went to Harvard Law School. And it was the thrill of getting in there and the advice from people who told me, Don`t worry if you don`t necessarily want to be a lawyer, because I didn`t. The Harvard Law School diploma will carry you places you couldn`t dream of.
LAMB: And what year did you get your degree?
KURSON: In 1990.
LAMB: Did you ever practice law?
KURSON: I did for a few years, miserably.
LAMB: What year did you give it up, and why?
KURSON: I gave it up in 1993 because the clock always ticked backwards in my office. I would work on a memo and think, Boy, I just put in two-and-a-half hours on that franchise memo, and I`d look up and 25 minutes had elapsed. And that was a good indicator that I had chosen the wrong profession, I think.
LAMB: So what`d you do then?
KURSON: I quit and decided that I would try my hand at writing. It seemed that the only thing that I did especially well. I wasn`t a good lawyer, by any means, and my heart certainly wasn`t in it. But I could tell that I could write decently. So I decided to give that up. I tried hanging drapes and installing window blinds and then writing in the evenings. And it was just the opposite experience that I`d had in law. I would write a story and think, Boy, that only took me a half hour to write, and a few hours had gone by. Much better result.
LAMB: What book is this for you?
KURSON: This is my first serious book. I wrote kind of a compendium of Three Stooges humor a few years ago, six years ago, seven years ago, that came largely from my notes that I made during law school classes. It was hard for me to pay attention, because I was not that interested, but I`d always loved the Three Stooges as a child, so I used to make lists, and the book was a compendium of lists.
LAMB: So, if somebody picks up your book, are they picking up a writer`s tale, or are they picking up somebody who is really interested in scuba diving?
KURSON: Both, but more so a writer`s tale. This needed to be told by a writer. An enthusiast was not enough to do justice to the complexity of these two men and the inspiration of these two men, so I consider it a writer`s book intended for all kinds of readers.
LAMB: How did Richie Kohler, who was in the -- did he actually go on Wahoo?
KURSON: He had several times, yes.
LAMB: But he was on the competitor`s boat, also?
LAMB: How did he get together with John Chatterton, who you say they didn`t like each other?
KURSON: They hated each other. When Steve Feldman died of the deep-water blackout, a spot opened up on the wreck, but Nagle`s reputation was suffering because he had lost a man on this U-boat. He needed an excellent diver, and not only was Kohler an excellent diver, but he was a passionate amateur historian with the specialization in German history and especially World War II history. He was very proud of his German culture and read voraciously. So he seemed the perfect person to invite aboard. He could help with the research, and he wasn`t going to go get himself killed.
LAMB: How much education did John Chatterton and Richie Kohler have before they got into this?
KURSON: Neither went to college. They are both high school graduates. But both of them, in many ways, are the two brightest men I have ever met.
LAMB: Did you record these interviews?
KURSON: Yes, I did.
LAMB: On what kind of a machine?
KURSON: I have a digital Olympus recorder that replaced the mountains of cassette tapes that I had used previously. So it`s a wonderful little device that -- with just a plug into the computer would download your interviews onto a hard drive. So you don`t have to keep them in shoe boxes, or label them, and that`s the device I used. It is one of the greatest discoveries I`ve ever made.
LAMB: And so you talked to them for over 100 hours?
KURSON: At least. And that`s just in person. Countless hours on the phone at all times of evening, mornings, vacations, holidays -- it didn`t matter. I found myself becoming as obsessed with doing this book beautifully as they had been with conducting their quest beautifully.
LAMB: Did you ever worry that somebody else was gaining on you?
KURSON: No. I think I understood the story in a special way, so that didn`t worry me.
LAMB: When did you pitch Random House?
KURSON: Not long after I had my initial interview with these guys. I expected to meet with them for two hours and asked only for those two hours. Fourteen hours later, I was so thrilled with the men that I had found, that I knew this could be a very special book, and I probably pitched Random House later that week.
LAMB: Why did they -- not Random House -- why did these two men spend so much time with you?
KURSON: I think they appreciated that I appreciated them. Until then, people had only asked about the U-boat, and about the technical details of this discovery. I started to ask them personal questions about who they had been and what made them tick, and what it was they were really looking for, and I think that it was a new experience for them, but one which they relished in a certain way.
LAMB: So, what was their personal situation when you first got to them?
KURSON: They were -- it was summertime, and Chatterton was engaged to be married, his second marriage, and Kohler also was newly romancing somebody. They had both been recently divorced, and were in the throes of the summer excitement that invariably comes when a diver gets his chance and the weather warms up.
LAMB: But when you talked to them, you were talking about a period when both of them were happily married?
KURSON: Well, they had originally been happily married. This quest was very, very difficult on their families and on their marriages. They both became obsessed with this, and their wives, both nice people, had a very difficult time going along with them, and you have to remember that not only did it cost an incredible amount of time and passion on their parts, but every time they went to this wreck, there was a very good chance they weren`t coming back. It`s extremely hard on a marriage.
LAMB: How many different trips did each one of them take out there to the site and back over those six years?
KURSON: I would say probably 15 to 20 separate trips, and at a cost of probably $40,000 to $50,000 for each of them -- Chatterton, Kohler -- out of their own pocket. Remember, there is no gold on this submarine. There is no precious artifacts. There is only a number, an identity. And that is what they were looking for. And it cost a lot of money.
LAMB: When did they first see skeleton bones?
KURSON: They saw bones later in the first year, 1991. They had no idea whether there would be any bones on the wreck or not. When they went in, and penetrated the wreck, they were flabbergasted. There were not just bones, it was a bone yard, and in every direction and even on the furtherest most tips of the submarine, the most distant from the cataclysmic damage, there were skulls and bones piled high.
LAMB: What did they do with the bones?
KURSON: They determined very early on not to touch the bones at all. And it was a controversial decision, because they could have rummaged through the remains and rummaged through some of the clothing that was with the remains and perhaps found a lighter engraved with the U-boat`s identity or the name of a crewman, but they were very conscious not to do this. And it started to occur to them and occur to me when I talked to them, that they were doing something that would reflect on them for the rest of their lives here, and they wanted to do it at the highest moral level. So even though it risked their lives and the lives of other divers and would take a lot longer, they were unwilling to disturb the human remains.
LAMB: Now I don`t want to jump way ahead, but I do want to ask you this, because you keep -- as I read your book, I kept saying this is the last story like this, and of course it isn`t, as you know. It just keeps on going. It`s the story that keeps on giving. Did you purposely end up -- and I know you don`t want to give it away, but in the epilogue, did you plan that -- or when did you plan to have an epilogue that really kind of hits you between the eyes?
KURSON: I planned it from the start. Part of my writing style is to really think through what I`m doing. And that`s really the heavy lifting in terms of how I work. So, it took me months to really conceive the story and to understand how best to tell it. But once I understood them, I knew that an epilogue would be not just an important part of the book, but perhaps the greatest -- deliver the greatest impact of the book.
LAMB: When did you write that?
KURSON: I wrote it last. I wrote this book mostly in chronological order, but I knew what it would say the whole time.
LAMB: Now, besides going to the U-505 at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, and besides spending all that time out on the New Jersey shore, where else did you -- you personally travel to get this story?
KURSON: To Germany, and that that was with Richie Kohler. In the beginning of my research, he went to visit loved ones and friends of the fallen crewmen. And there was something I was a little bit nervous about, because I didn`t know what to expect. I wondered if they might say, why are you bothering us, what difference does it make where they lie, we know they`re dead, we`ve suffered for their demise for 50 years now. It was quite the opposite, though. One of the most moving several days I`ve ever spent.
LAMB: How much did the Germans pay attention to the U-boat story?
KURSON: Very closely. They`re still very conscious of it. And, you know, the U-boat man held a special position in the German consciousness, both in World War I and World War II. He was like an astronaut was to us a few decades ago, a miracle man, a man of science and daring and adventure. Kids had posters of the U-boat men on their walls. They were celebrated with parades, and in the newsreels. So they`re very conscious and respectful of the U-boat men, and still very concerned about what had happened to them.
LAMB: Did you end up telling the German families for the first time where their loved ones had been lost at sea?
KURSON: No. By this time they had known, but Kohler on this trip was delivering to them pieces of the U-boat. Little parts of a recovery raft, and of schematics that they could hold in their hand and touch. It sounds like it wouldn`t mean much, but the way they held it and stroked it and to see the tears come down from their eyes, you understood what Kohler understood years before when he was risking his life for this. He knew this would mean something to these people.
LAMB: How helpful was the United States Navy?
KURSON: The Navy intended to be very helpful once they got their arms around the fact that these guys weren`t a bunch of cooks and they had indeed found a virgin U-boat 60 miles off the New Jersey coast. Their intention was at first to help them raise it or salvage it, or at least identify it. But it was pointed out to them quickly that there was a case in France in which the French were trying to dive an American sunken ship, and America`s position was, hands off, that`s a war grave, leave that alone. So they couldn`t then go ahead and help these divers dive the U-boat, and maintain consistently their position in French court.
LAMB: So go back to the discovery process. When was the first time that they found something that had something German on it?
KURSON: On dive number three, Chatterton -- and Chatterton is behind almost all of the discoveries on this boat. He is a very unique diver. He pulled out two plates, china, made of china and brought them to the surface. And on the back was the year 1942 and the eagle and the swastika.
LAMB: What did they do when they found that?
KURSON: They couldn`t believe it. They had suspected that this was a World War II U-boat, but when they saw it and when they saw that symbol, which is so indelibly burned into all our consciousnesses, they could barely believe what they were holding. They said, we`re holding something that was last held by the enemy of the world.
LAMB: And up until that third dive, they did not even know that that was a German sub?
KURSON: They suspected it, because it didn`t look like the diagrams of American subs they had found, and the American subs that had sunk anywhere in the rough vicinity had been accounted for. So they started to have great suspicion that this was German, but until they pulled out those dishes, they didn`t know for sure.
LAMB: And somewhere in this process, Steve Bielenda, who has the other boat, the Wahoo, the competitor, found out about this site.
LAMB: What timeframe?
KURSON: After Feldman died, a report had to be made to the Coast Guard. Bill Nagle, knowing that Bielenda or suspecting that Bielenda would come raid the wreck, gave the Coast Guard only the most rudimentary, rough number, something that wasn`t quite the proper thing to do, but he wanted to keep his rivals away, and especially Bielenda. Bielenda ended up wrangling the numbers -- or get -- at least getting the numbers from somewhere else, and put together what he called a rescue mission to recover Feldman`s body. Chatterton and Nagle believed that rescue mission to be a complete farce, that he was going to dive the wreck with his guys, pull stuff out and try to claim the identity for themselves.
Bielenda denies that. But that was their fear at least. Bielenda did make that trip with a boatful of divers. None of them found anything, and many of them were too scared once they saw the dangerousness of this wreck to even attempt it.
LAMB: When was the set-up, though, when they got out there and they -- the Chatterton crowd had gotten out there early?
KURSON: Yes, Chatterton and their crowd on the Seeker had beat them there.
LAMB: But I mean, what was it they did? Remember the story you have in there about when -- the sign that they had ...
KURSON: Oh, that was on the Andrea Doria. This is one of the many basis for the rivalry between Chatterton and Kohler. Chatterton had figured a way to burn his way into the previously unexplored third class section of the Andrea Doria. When he did so, there were mountains and mountains of china, a total goldmine for the diver. But it was during the last day of a dive season, and so Chatterton and Nagle decided that they would come back early the next season and clean out the room.
Bielenda got word of that and planned to go there earlier, to beat the Seeker at its own game, and get there and take what Chatterton had discovered and what Chatterton had worked very hard and at great risk to discover.
That word got back in turn to Chatterton and Nagle, and they devised a plan that they would go out even earlier, and not only would they clean out that room but they would devise an ingenious steel grate that they`d put up after they`ve taken their own artifacts. And one which not only would lock out Bielenda and his crew, but which would make them look foolish and expend energy shaking it. It would look simpler to break than it was.
He did put that up. Bielenda and his crew came out, including Richie Kohler -- this is before the U-boat, and Richie Kohler was the first one down. When he got to the grate and saw what had happened and saw the sign that Chatterton had left, saying, "Closed for inventory, crew and patrons of the Seeker." Was so angry that he almost burned his own gas supply dry, came to the surface, and Bielenda and the rest of them were furious. That`s one of many stories of the conflict between these two boats. That is a major reason while Kohler was left off the U-boat discovery trip.
LAMB: By the way, are the boats still up there, in New Jersey?
KURSON: Yes. The Seeker is docked in Brielle, New Jersey. And the Wahoo I think is docked off Montauk, New York.
LAMB: And where is Brielle along the coast?
KURSON: It is a central coast near Point Pleasant. More people know Point Pleasant than Brielle, but they`re adjacent.
LAMB: How much time did you spend around Brielle?
KURSON: A lot of time. Coming from Chicago, I had no idea even what these fishing towns were, there is a lot of fishing boats there, including the one that belonged to the guy who discovered this wreck site, and there are charter boats for divers, lots of seafood restaurants, and the smell in the air of the water and of maritime.
LAMB: During that six-year period that they tried to find out all about this U-boat, did anybody give up?
KURSON: Many people gave up, especially after Feldman died. Once they processed what the situation was, which was a wreck that was a man-eater, combined with the wreck that was not going to give up anything tangibly valuable, they said this is crazy. I like exploration, I like shipwrecks, but I don`t want to die. And so many of them stopped diving the U-boat, and one or two even stopped deep shipwreck diving completely.
LAMB: Did Kohler and Chatterton stay together throughout the whole process?
KURSON: Yes. They came together and started to understand each other and respect each other. At first instinctively understood that there was maybe something deeper going on here than just wanting the glory of identification. And they grew not only to respect each other, but to really like each other and even love each other. By the end of the book, they were finishing each other`s sentences, and really taking care of each other`s lives.
LAMB: What`s their relationship today?
KURSON: They`re very good friends today. There`s still that little element of rivalry between them. They still are different people, with somewhat different sensibilities, but they became brothers in this. And there`s no denying that once you see them, you only need to know them for a few seconds to see that they love each other.
LAMB: Where do they live today and what do they do, and what`s their marriage and family situations?
KURSON: Chatterton moved to Maine a week or two ago, where he`ll continue diving. He`s now the host of a television show on the History Channel called "Deep Sea Detectives." He`s given up his hard-hat diving, his commercial diving.
Kohler lives in Yardley, Pennsylvania, and continues to run a family glass business, one that he had been running from the very start of this adventure. And he is newly married, I think as of a year ago.
LAMB: Does he still dive?
KURSON: He still dives and Chatterton still dives. And I might tell you that they still dive to the most dangerous shipwrecks in the world.
LAMB: What`s their motive, do you think, getting into the business? If there are only 200 in the United States that do this dangerous stuff?
KURSON: I think their motive in particular is exploration and the quest for the unknown. The artifacts they have piled high in their houses and, you know, there`s only so many teacups that a guy can have before it starts getting repetitive. But when you find a new wreck, even if it takes you a couple of years before you stumble on a new one, there`s nothing like that. It`s history. You`re the first ones seeing this moment frozen in time, since the people died aboard the ship. It`s that kind of sense of coming upon history, not protected by any museum kind of barriers, that really moves these guys. They`re looking to be the first.
LAMB: What was the date that they knew what this boat was?
KURSON: Late in 1997, they finally conclusively pulled proof from the wreck. They had their suspicions all along the way, many of which turned out not to be true. And many of which were proclaimed true by the history books and all the experts, so they ran a very jagged maze, but one that was fascinating the whole way through, until it came down to this final dive.
LAMB: By the way, did they get anything financially out of this?
KURSON: No, in fact, it only cost them money to do it. But they got ...
LAMB: I`m sorry. I meant this book.
KURSON: Oh, out of this book?
KURSON: Yeah, they were my business partners in the book. We`re equal partners, and that was OK with me. The only thing that I insisted on was that they had no editorial control or input at all. They read the manuscript only for fact-checking purposes and had nothing to say about the direction I took ,or the tone, or the style or anything.
LAMB: Do you know how many copies the publisher put out in the first run?
KURSON: I`m told that advance orders are approaching 150,000.
LAMB: How does that make you feel?
KURSON: Great. You know, I knew this book was about more than a shipwreck, and I think that that`s resonating already in these very early stages of publication.
LAMB: Again, not to give away the epilogue, and what you find in the epilogue, at what point did you find out the last thing you tell us?
KURSON: Early on. It was a known fact about their quest, but one...
LAMB: But NOVA didn`t know it when they did their documentary.
KURSON: I think they might have known it.
LAMB: I think I looked -- I think it came out right after that, but I -- maybe I`m wrong.
KURSON: Yeah, you might be right, but in any case, I knew it was explosive, and that it was huge. And...
LAMB: It didn`t make news?
KURSON: I think it did, yeah. It did at the time. But again, people didn`t understand what had gone into this quest and into this search. And so the impact wasn`t as great as it could have been.
LAMB: Have you sold the movie rights to this?
KURSON: Not yet. They`re working on that.
LAMB: All right, go back to the writing. Where did -- where physically did you write your book?
KURSON: I have a small home office that I do my writing in.
LAMB: In what city?
KURSON: Northbrook, Illinois. It`s a northern suburb of Chicago.
LAMB: So when you got into the writing of this, actually just the writing part of it, how long did that take you?
KURSON: The writing took me just short of a year. But there were constant interviews that I did. It wasn`t that I had researched it and accumulated everything and then set out to write it. I was learning as I wrote and figuring the story out bit by bit as I wrote also.
LAMB: What time of day would you write, how long would your write at any given time?
KURSON: It must be early in the morning. I`m no good after about 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning. So I made it a point to wake up early, maybe 5:00, 5:30 in the morning, and get to writing. I could research at any time of the day, but in order to be good with words, I needed to have my energy and do it only in the morning.
LAMB: Has somebody along the way told you that you can really write?
KURSON: Yes. Although it didn`t happen until I suggested myself as a writer, you know, 10 years ago or whatever it was. I had very good feedback on my writing, and I think it was an advantage to me not to have gone through writing programs or the traditional path of a writer. I had never written a word before 10 years ago, but I think I felt less bound by the conventions of writing. It wasn`t incumbent on me to have a nut graph in the story or something like that. I didn`t even know what a nut graph was when someone mentioned that I didn`t have one. So...
LAMB: What is it?
KURSON: A nut graph is the second paragraph after you start a story in an interesting way that explains what the story is going to be about.
LAMB: And how often do you have a nut graph on a story like this? You have it every chapter?
KURSON: No, I don`t care about nut graphs. Nut graphs really apply to magazine and newspaper writing much more so than books. But I have felt increasingly lucky not to have been bound up by any of those conventions.
LAMB: OK. What are some of the other things that you do in order to keep a story moving, in this story? What kind of techniques did you use?
KURSON: Well, I would ask myself if -- to try to read what I had written -- wrote the night before, to see if it had kept my interest. I have a reasonably short attention span when it comes to good writing. It needs to be good and it needs to be tight, or I lose interest quickly. And I think that`s another advantage I have. And so I held it up to that standard. And sometimes if it didn`t move quickly enough, I chopped stuff out and really made it go.
LAMB: Do you have a family?
KURSON: Yes, I have a wife and a young son, who`s nearly 2 1/2 years old.
LAMB: How many days a week did you write once you got into this?
KURSON: Every day.
LAMB: And did you find something in this experience that you want to write another book about?
KURSON: Yes. I want to always try to find people who are doing interesting things, brave things and things that reflect upon who they are. It is going to be a challenge to find a subject worthy of this one, but that`s my goal.
LAMB: Bill Nagle, owner of the Seeker, the captain, the one that took them out for all these trips, what happened to him?
KURSON: Bill Nagle`s greatest dream was to dive this U-boat and to identify it.
KURSON: Because in one wreck, it represented everything he was passionate about. Finding the unknown. Rewriting history. A challenging physical specimen, and the specter of the Nazi regime. He could not get himself in shape physically to do this. He was a terrible alcoholic at the time. Still a man of dreams and of beauty, but one who had ravaged his body to the point where he couldn`t make this challenging dive. He vowed that this would be the thing to change him. The U-boat would be the thing, but he could never overcome his alcoholism, and finally turned from reflective to bitter about this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity passing him by, and he drank himself to death.
LAMB: What year?
LAMB: What did he do for the last three years of the trips then?
KURSON: Chatterton would captain the boat often. Even if Nagle was aboard, sometimes he was not capable of even steering the boat. So Chatterton, in addition to trying to solve this mystery, was kind of keeping Nagle`s business afloat. Finally, Nagle was even unwilling to go out on some of these charters, it hurt him so badly emotionally to see what he couldn`t be doing.
LAMB: Where did you get the title "Shadow Divers?"
KURSON: It came from a remark that Chatterton and Kohler made to me early on, where they said -- they were describing to me what it was like to dive for these kinds of wrecks. You know, my picture of scuba diving was of lovely seashells and sea horses and blue waters, and they said, no, that`s not it. It`s so dark where we go and so dangerous that sometimes you`re just diving at shadows. And that struck me, that they were feeling their way through this whole thing, so that`s where "Shadow Divers" came from.
LAMB: Have you ever scuba dived yourself?
KURSON: No. I took lessons in an effort -- I had a crazy idea that I was going to go visit this U-boat once. And so I signed up for lessons. And when the instructors became informed about what my intentions were, they said, get out, and if you have any sense about you, sever all ties with anyone who even says they`re going to go to a U-boat, 230 feet down in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of New Jersey.
LAMB: And your reaction to that?
KURSON: My reaction was, I`m still going to do it, I want to do it, but I`ll probably die doing it, and I wanted to finish the book first.
LAMB: Here`s the cover of the book. It`s called "Shadow Divers." Our guest, Robert Kurson, and we thank you very much.
KURSON: Thank you so much.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2004. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.