Book Review: K-19: The Widowmaker - The Secret Story of the Soviet Nuclear Submarine
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Book Review: K-19: The Widowmaker - The Secret Story of the Soviet Nuclear Submarine

K-19: The Widowmaker: The Secret Story of the Soviet Nuclear Submarine is both a book and a movie. Author Peter Huchthausen spins a fascinating story of the doomed Russian submarine.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a number of interesting stories have emerged from the secret military/political archives of the once-feared communist behemoth. One of the more interesting tales concerns the fate of the Soviet nuclear submarine K-19, commanded by Nikolai Zateyev, and its deadly radioactive calamity at sea in 1961. That murderous incident, one of many which comprises the secret history of the former Soviet Navy, is the subject of a fascinating book by Peter Huchthausen, a retired United States Navy captain whose own career spanned much of the Cold War from 1962 to 1990.

K-19: The Widowmaker: The Secret Story of the Soviet Nuclear Submarine by Peter Huchthausen, National Geographic Books, 2002 (National Geographic Society)

Soviet Naval History Explored

Huchthausen sets the stage for his book with a brief history of the early post-World War II Soviet Navy. Always impressed with Allied naval power during the war, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin sets out to build a world-class navy in the late 1940s and early '50s. Integral in Stalin's plans is the establishment of a powerful submarine fleet, whose principal technology will be based on German and Japanese subs acquired as part of war reparations.

Also included in this general history are selected accounts of various mishaps and disasters which plagued the Soviet Navy prior to the calamity that nearly felled the K-19 in 1961. Among the accidents recounted are the 1955 explosion aboard the battleship Novorossysk in Sevastopol, which claimed 608 seamen, many of whom were entombed alive; the 1956 collision of the Quebec-class diesel submarine Komsomolets with a Russian destroyer near Tallinn, Estonia, which resulted in the the deaths of 28 crewmen; and the 1961 sinking of the Whiskey-class, twin-cylinder diesel sub S-80 in the Barents Sea, which went down with 68 men aboard in 200 meters of water following a leak in a missile tube.

Russia's Nuclear Submarine Program

Always playing technological catch-up to the West, the Soviets embark on a program to build their own nuclear-powered submarines. Enter the "K" class, Russia's answer to America's U.S.S. Nautilus, the world's first nuclear-powered submarine which launched in 1954.

In October 1959, 33-year-old Captain Nikolai Zateyev takes command of the K-19, the USSR's newest nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine. A graduate of the S.M. Kirov Caspian Higher Naval School in Baku, Zateyev is a veteran submariner, having commanded his first diesel-powered sub at age 26.

Following a training period, the K-19 begins its initial sea trials in the White Sea in July 1960. Despite a short list of potential problems, the K-19 is pronounced operational and fully combat-ready by the fleet commander on April 30, 1961. While the sub remains berthed at Zapadnaya Litsa, Captain Zateyev and his crew prepare for their first patrol on the open seas.

Tragedy Strikes the K-19

On July 4, 1961, while submerged 1,500 miles from their home port off the coast of Greenland, tragedy strikes the K-19. A pipeline to the primary cooling loop of reactor number one ruptures, resulting in one of the most horrific nuclear accidents in naval history. In order to prevent a reactor fuel meltdown, 28-year-old Lieutenant Yuri Povstyev and his fellow engineers volunteer to crawl inside the small space atop the reactor and remedy the problem, all the while exposing themselves to deadly radiation and the possibility of a hydrogen explosion.

The K-19 later surfaces to decks-awash condition, only to discover that their long-range, high-frequency antenna has shorted out. They are now unable to send a distress signal.

Captain Zateyev ponders several options. Fearing the increasing spread of radiation throughout the ship, senior Captain Vladimir Pershin and several other officers opt to head for the nearest land, the Norwegian-owned island of Jan Mayen, where the K-19 would be beached and subsequently evacuated. Zateyev, however, decides on another course of action, an attempted rendezvous with a formation of Soviet diesel submarines using a small reserve transmitter whose effective range is only about 50 miles. In order to ensure his continued authority on the stricken vessel, Zateyev also orders Captain Lieutenant Mukhin to gather all the small arms and toss them overboard, leaving only five pistols for the top command.

Zateyev's gamble pays off, as another Soviet submarine, the diesel-powered S-270, eventually comes to their rescue. The eight most seriously irradiated men from the K-19 are then transferred to the S-270, where readings show that they are highly radioactive. The rest of the crew are then taken aboard as well.

Zateyev and his officers and men are later put aboard the destroyer Byvaly, where they are decontaminated by chemists and dosimetrists. The journey to home port takes three days.

Government Cover-Up in the Soviet Union

Back in the USSR, the crew of the ill-fated K-19 are hospitalized for radiation poisoning, with cases ranging from minor to extremely critical. Taking the full brunt of the disaster, of course, were those nearest to reactor number one. Captain Zateyev, knowing the critically afflicted are doomed, makes his last farewell to these men before they are flown to Moscow to be treated at the Institute of Biophysics. All six sailors would later die.

Bone-marrow transplants and blood transfusions are administered to many of the survivors in order to combat radiation sickness. On September 27, 1961, a military medical commission officially diagnoses the K-19 group as suffering from "asthenic vegetative syndrome" – a mental disorder. The phony diagnosis is rendered in order to mask their true condition and thus keep the fate of the K-19 from becoming public knowledge. It is a ruse the Soviet government would employ many times in order to conceal their naval disasters.

After undergoing extended decontamination, repairs and the installation of an entirely new power plant, the K-19 returned to service in January 1964. More problems, however, plagued the ship, including a collision with the American submarine USS Gato in 1969, a major fire in compartment nine in 1972 and an oxygen explosion and fire in her reactor compartment while in port in 1976. Decommissioned in 1991, the K-19 – nicknamed "Hiroshima" in a bit of gallows humor – is moored today at the Shkval shipyard in Polyarny.

More Soviet/Russian Naval Disasters

The remainder of K-19: The Widowmaker deals with the many naval problems experienced by the USSR (and later the Russian Federation) from the 1960s to the beginning of the 21st century. In addition to the narrative, a handy appendix titled "Soviet/Russian Naval Accidents" is included in the book, listing these mishaps from 1952 to 2000. The final entry is the August 12, 2000, explosion aboard the submarine K-141 Kursk, which went down in 356 feet of water north of the Kola Gulf, claiming 118 crewmen.

The lasting legacy of these nuclear disasters at sea is driven home by the author via a number of chilling statistics. Citing the official 1992 Yablokov Report, a survey commissioned by the Boris Yeltsin government, Huchthausen reports that "eight Russian submarines lie at the bottom of the Atlantic, Barents, and Pacific, along with eighteen reactors in various states of damage – six still containing partially spent nuclear fuel. This total includes those submarines scuttled with their reactors aboard. Additionally, more than 46 nuclear warheads are scattered in the world's seabeds – 44 of them in 18,000 feet of water 450 miles northeast of Bermuda, where they were lost inside the hull of the world's first nuclear-powered submarine to sink at sea [in 1986] loaded with ballistic missiles – a Project 667 Navaga submarine with 16 missiles, each tipped with two nuclear warheads..."

The plutonium from an atomic warhead, Huchthausen explains, has serious consequences. For its entire half life, estimated at 200,000 years, it has the potential to remain a threat to sea life and the vital food chain in the world's oceans, "a grim prospect at best," the author concludes.

K-19: The Widowmaker Movie

K-19: The Widowmaker ends with an afterword by Kathryn Bigelow, the director of the $80 million Paramount Pictures film of the same title which hit movie theaters on July 19, 2002. Movie fans will find this section interesting, as it details the genesis of the picture: early development, research trips to Russia, casting (Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson, Peter Sarsgaard as the fictionalized principals) and on-location filming in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which doubled for the actual Russian submarine fleet headquarters in Murmansk.

K-19 is far from being a perfect book. Choppy editing, minor errors (two dates are given for the launching of the USS Nautilus, 1956 and the correct one of 1954), an occasional zigzagging chronology and what I found to be an oftentimes self-serving memoir by the doomed sub's captain, the late Nikolai Zateyev.

But the greater good of the book overshadows these imperfections. For those who want to learn more about the secret history of the submarine derisively called "Hiroshima" as well as other previously hidden incidents which plagued the Soviet/Russian Navy, K-19: The Widowmaker is definitely the literary ship to board.

Harrison Ford, left, with Liam Neeson in K-19: The Widowmaker (Paramount Pictures)

Vital Book Statistics

  • K-19: The Widowmaker: The Secret Story of the Soviet Nuclear Submarine by Peter Huchthausen (National Geographic Books, 2002)
  • Soft Cover 243 pages with 23 photos
  • Price: $16
  • Memorable passage: "Before they were loaded into the helicopters, I went to say goodbye to Korchilov, Ordochkin, Kashenkov, Savkin, Penkov, and Kharitonov. I approached Boris Korchilov first. My God, what a toll the radiation had taken! His face was red, his lips swollen, his tongue so thick he could barely talk, his eyes swollen shut." - Captain Nikolai Zateyev

Top Image

  • The K-19 traversing the ocean's surface (United States Navy)

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Comments (3)

Great review. Now I'm going to have to buy the book.

Great article William. This is a fascinating story. I loved the movie. Thanks.

Great review! Now I have to see the movie again.