Behind the mind of Michael DiMercurio
by John Channing
SUBSIM Review Exclusive; September 1998
For those of you who don't know, (if there are any of you left out there) Michael DiMercurio is one of the finest fiction authors writing on the subject of submarines and submarine warfare today. A true member of the "been there; done that" fraternity, Michael graduated with honors from the Naval Acadamey at Annapolis and went on to serve as a paratrooper, navy diver, and finally as Chief Propulsion Officer on the USS Hammerhead, a Sturgeon class attack submarine. His first book, Voyage of the Devilfish, introduced us to Michael "Patch" Pacino, a young submarine captain forced to come to grips with the truth behind the death of his father while fighting a pitched battle with a renegade Russian submarine captain beneath the Artic ice pack. His subsequent novels -- Attack of the Seawolf, Phoenix Sub Zero, and his latest Barracuda Final Bearing -- chronicle Patch's adventures and rise through the ranks of the Navy. DiMercurio writes about what he knows. Recently I had the amazing good fortune to enter into a conversation with Michael DiMercurio regarding his experiences.
John Channing: Naturally I was curious as to whether you had tried any of the submarine attack simulators.
Michael DiMercurio: I've never taken on the wargames. If I'm honest, I wouldn't want to get beaten. I prop up my ego saying I caught two Soviet subs in the Med when on watch back in the Hammerhead days and was a battlestations pos two operator, the main computer solution guy, and having lived through that, I don't want to get my ass kicked by a simulation.
JC: Exactly what should we be looking for in a "real" simulator?
MM: Of course, to add realism to the simulation, you must first skip a night's sleep from standing a boring inbound midwatch, then skipping the nap you planned, go out drinking all night (to closing time after getting kicked out of two bars) with the other officers after having insulted the captain's wife, get dropped off at the boat and be loaded into your rack by the duty chief, then awakened two hours later to startup the reactor, then when the plant is self-sustaining in three hours, go to officers call, get screamed at for your behavior the previous evening by a hungover executive officer who just hours before had a naked stripper on each knee and a shit-eating grin on his face, only then find out that you have lipstick smeared all over your face from the last strip joint, lay to the bridge to be outbound officer of the deck with an annoyed and likewise hungover captain, hoping he doesn't remember what you said about his wife, and you pull in the lines and make way out of Fort Lauderdale without tugs, have dry heaves twice over the bridge coaming, then clear the continental shelf, try to rig the bridge for dive having lost the laminated checklist overboard, and hoping like hell you didn't forget anything, come down the ladder, dog the hatches overhead, walk into control and take the watch from the contact coordinator and check the rig for dive (still hoping you haven't forgotten anything), submerge the ship as officer of the deck and take her down to 548 feet, all ahead flank to get to the op-area, and now it's 11:45 am and you're too nauseated from seasickness and the hangover to eat, and you try to catch an hour of sleep, but then the captain calls battlestations for a target-of-opportunity submerged contact (incoming SSN bound for the same liberty port you're leaving) and you put on your headset, sit at the console and realize you've had less than two hours of sleep in about 45 hours, are sick from lack of food and drinking too much and about a pot of stale burned coffee, and the seasickness adds its vote, and you have to track an SSN on narrowband sonar with crappy bearings and make the call on range and if you're wrong, he hears you first and the captain's reputation is dogshit -- as if it could be worse -- because one poor fitness report from the captain wrecks your entire career...
Now THAT would be a realistic simulation!
JC: Sure, it sounds glamorous coming from you, but I will bet that there were days when it was just plain drudge work. One thing anyone who has read your books will have noticed is a pronounced lack of enthusiasm for the 688 class of submarine. Why is this?
MM: The 688s originally came out as aircraft carrier battle group screens, designed to run with nuke carriers out front and keep away Soviet subs, so they came out with high horsepower reactors and drive trains, two radio masts instead of one, and no provision for under-ice operations. It seemed like a sub designed by an aviation admiral, and the sub community was sickened by it.
JC: Compared to the 637 class?
MM: At the time the 637 Sturgeon class (called the Piranha-class in Voyage of the Devilfish since a lot of the 637 names were wimpy -- like "Sturgeon" and "Queenfish" and "Puffer"...come on!) was considered the ultimate, a ship that could do anything, punch holes in the polar icecap, trail quiet Victor III Soviet attack subs, and it went on all its missions alone, in the solitary pursuit of Soviet subs and surface fleets or covertly hanging out in Soviet harbors eavesdropping on comms. The idea that a sub commander would have to be the "boy" of a carrier battle group admiral made us all nauseated. We left the 688s to their carrier status and continued to prowl the seas of the world in 637s. An assignment to a 637 class (like Hammerhead) was considered something to throw a kegger over (I did) while an assignment to a 688 resulted in sympathy cards.
But as time went by and the 637s began to age, the tactical sub guys continued pressing their demands, and 688s -- still tasked with the unglamorous carrier screen missions -- began to evolve. First the sails got hardened and the fairwater planes (on the sail or conning tower) got moved to the bow and made into bowplanes, both mods designed to allow surfacing under ice, with the addition of the underice sonar (called "Sharktooth" in "Voyage" but actually referred to by its BQS number) making 688 a complete system. Further quieting came (they had clunking and rattling positive displacement sewage pumps, for God's sake, instead of a quiet sanitary tank air blowdown like the 637s) allowing them to go head to head with 637s, then the new sonar systems that finally gave them an acoustic advantage over 637s in the late 80s. Add on the new thin wire towed array, the vertical Tomahawk launch system, divorce them from the carrier battle groups, and voila! you have yourself the 688I improved LA class, at last the replacement to the 637s, and just in time for the 637s to hit the shipbreakers and be turned into razor blades.
JC: What an evolution.
MM: It's been a long journey for 688. The guys who sail them now swear by them. But when I was a pup, they were considered a giant step backward in nuclear sub technology.
Want more? Read the second interview with the master of submarine fiction. Piranha Firing Point
Finally, here is more good news. Michael has a new book coming out in February entitled Piranha: Firing Point so we addicts only have a few more months to wait. Having had the opportunity to learn what a class act this guy really is has only whetted my appetite for more. All of Michael DiMercurio's books -- Voyage of the Devilfish, Attack of the Seawolf, "Phoenix Sub Zero and Barracuda Final Bearing -- are available in paperback from Penguin USA at Ron Martini's SUBMARINE BOOK STORE.
Dive into DiMercurio's official website: USS DEVILFISH.COM
©1998 SUBSIM Review