Project COLDFEET: Secret Mission to a Soviet Ice Station, by William M. Leary and Leonard A. Le Shack, is an excellent retelling of another Cold War exploit that has come into public view over the last few years. The book is also a well-written introduction to the uncertainties surrounding polar submarine warfare and navigation in the early nuclear days. The authors were there-one as a parachutist dropped onto an ice sheet, the other as a CIA historian documenting a significant event in the struggle against Communism.

Anyone with an interest in submarine warfare, or the Cold War in general, will enjoy this well-written book.


Remember When
As WWII ended and the early days of the Cold War gave way to nuclear competition with the Soviet Union, the significance of the Arctic as a new battleground emerged slowly among the U.S. military. A few saw the future-- addressing the graduating class at West Point in 1946, General Hap Arnold warned that the U.S.' first line of defense lay to the north, and postulated that if the U.S. was to be attacked, the enemy "will surely come over the Pole." However, what seems obvious to us now, and what was clear to Arnold in 1946, was less certain to the rest of the military in the days before nuclear subs and ICBMs.

For example, they reasoned, how could diesel boats operate well in the Arctic when ice sheets could prevent them from snorkeling? Long range missiles did not exist, and even the state of the art rockets of the day had trouble navigating in the polar regions where magnetic oddities were the norm. The Russians, however, were ahead of the U.S. in polar research, and had teams working the ice soon after World War ended.

Changes in technology, primarily the arrival of nuclear submarines, plus concern over Soviet progress, caused the U.S. to finally acknowledge the lack of information about the northern arctic as a crisis of sorts. While U.S. boats were generally quieter than their Soviet counterparts, lack of information on Arctic bottom topography, salinity and sonar/ice interaction suddenly saw the U.S.' northern frontier open and vulnerable.

What We Didn't Know
Perhaps as important as what the U.S. didn't know was a lack of information on what the Soviet's already did know. How could we hide our boomers under the ice without knowing what the other side knew about finding them?

When in May 1962 surveillance showed a Russian ice station quickly abandoned as the ice pack threatened to crush it, the Office of Naval Research and the CIA launched one of the most exotic and successful spy missions of the Cold War: the parachuting of two intelligence officers onto the abandoned Soviet drift station on a deteriorating Arctic ice pack to collect data. They expected a treasure trove of hardware and data recordings that would allow the U.S. to know what the Russians did know, giving the Navy the chance to work around Russian capabilities.

Game On
Combating untested equipment and killing cold, the American team raced against time to take advantage of a short-term, one-time-only opportunity to assess the Soviet's progress in technology, meteorology, oceanography and submarine detection, before the ice station disintegrated.

Getting on to the ice was easy enough, as the team dropped in by parachute; the problem lay in getting the information off the ice. Helicopters of the day could not refuel enroute, and the ice pack was unable to support a fixed wing landing strip. The key to the mission itself was thus the Fulton Skyhook, a new technology designed to snatch the men off the ice on a 500 foot, balloon-lifted line and then reel them up into a specially outfitted B-17.

Those readers old enough to have seen Sean Connery as James Bond in the movie Thunderball saw this device (and the exact, same B-17!) in action. While variants are in somewhat common today in use with Special Forces, the Skyhook was largely untried in general, and had never been used in the polar regions at all, until it picked up the American team off the ice in 1962.

The Book
As mentioned, this book is coauthored by one of the officers who participated in the mission itself, assisted by a CIA historian. It combines the guts and tension of a good adventure novel with a non-fiction inside look at the U.S.-Soviet struggle to conquer the Arctic. Based on logs, after-action reports and interviews with the participants themselves, you can't get any closer to the action than this.
Project COLDFEET is recommended to anyone with an interest in submarine warfare, polar studies or the early struggles of the Cold War. It is a good read, and another fine effort in naval studies published by the nice folks at the United States Naval Institute.

Project COLDFEET is available now from Click on the cover to the left to buy it online!



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