Eat Your Heart Out, Tom Clancy!

As a career naval officer and submariner I am familiar with both conventional and nuclear-powered submarines and I can honestly say that Tom Clancy’s first novel in 1984, The Hunt for Red October, seriously impressed me with the depth of its realism. He not only mastered a wealth of technical detail about submarine operations but also captured submariners’ patterns of thinking very accurately.

I recall reading that Clancy had some very knowledgable contacts in the U.S. Navy – he had to have. In subsequent novels Clancy demonstrated similar skills and contacts while spinning yarns about special operations and politics.

Senior Chief Michael Wheeler

Recently my son, a retired Navy NCO (E-8), sent me a link to a New Yorker article that reads like a Clancy novel, except in this case “Getting Bin Laden” is true stuff. It is clear that investigative reporter Nicholas Schmidle had Clancy-like access to top sources in order to piece together the riveting narrative of how Navy SEALs eliminated America’s top enemy.

You won’t find any big revelations in this account that you haven’t already read in the press accounts, but just like the fine-grain, realistic detail of a Clancy novel pulls the reader along, so does this. It’s a page-turner. Clancy himself, in my opinion, could not have written it any better.  Maybe not Bob Woodward either, come to think of it.  Enjoy:  Getting Bin Laden

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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9 Responses to Eat Your Heart Out, Tom Clancy!

  1. johncerickson says:

    Obama was pretty gutsy petting the dog “cold”. I wouldn’t approach the poor animal without his handler AND treats – and I can get kissy-face with dogs who are virulently anti-contact! Seriously, I’d love to see more written about the animals involved in military ops, but that’s a personal bug of mine. Maybe that’ll be my first, million-dollar-earning book……
    The weapons choices are interesting. I know the SiGs are popular pistols, though they come in several calibres. I’d like to see the SEALs’ choices – I would think they’d want a pretty good penetrator (way above 9x18mm) with the likelihood of body armour. (Sorry, I’m a hardware nut.)
    Good write-up all around. I agree it’s quite the “ripping read”.


  2. ansonburlingame says:


    Only one note regarding Clancy, whom I met personally about a year after Red October was published.

    Today Clancy has a roledex on military matters similar to Woodward’s on a larger scale. But he did NOT have those contacts before Red October hit the bookways. In fact he obtained most of his insights in that first book straight from open source literature and plugged the “holes” in his knowledge with some very informed suppositions or “guesses”.

    And in some cases he was just wrong, at the tactical level such as a high speed evasion down the “canyons”. I took Clancy on his first tour aboard a nuclear submarine. I also know that the Navy launched an investigation into Clancy and his book out of fear that he had gained unauthorized access to classified information. The investigation, a tough one by the Naval Investigative Service showed no such access and all concerned were exhonerated without any publicity.

    Long ago and after Red October, I saw Clancy frequently in the halls of the Pentagon, on the E-ring being “courted” by 4-stars from all services. Red October established his credibility that came from keen intelligence on his part (he was smart) and hard work reading a lot of “stuff”.

    After Red October he had all sorts of access but not before the book. And of course when my wife read Red October long ago she asked, “Did you REALLY do that kind of stuff?”. My reply was simply, “Some of it”.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Yes, Anson, of course I recognized that the “canyons” stuff was for Hollywood, but it is still hard for me to believe that Clancy didn’t have inside help. I distinctly recall there were reports of such soon after Red October’s stunning success and verification that he had visited USNA and knew officers there.

      I don’t doubt for a minute that Clancy would have told you he didn’t have help. The Cold War was in full bloom then and I’m sure there must have been some serious concerns about classified information that could have affected careers. But to believe a Maryland insurance salesman came up with all that in the open literature is not credible to me, smart or not. I didn’t just fall off the hay wagon. And assuming he lied to you about it, I don’t blame him at all. I read nothing in his book, as you say the investigation found, that was directly damaging in my opinion. In fact, I believe he has been the best one-man recruiting program the nuclear submarine service has ever had.



  3. Jim Wheeler says:

    BTW, Anson, I had a second thought about those submarine “canyons” we talked about. While we both know those are far from typical, it’s not entirely impossible. Our discussion stirred a memory in my old brain of the AUTEC sonar test range on the Tongue of the Ocean. I don’t know about you, but when I was a sonar project officer for COMOPTEVFOR, I spent a fair amount of time there. You are doubtless familiar with it, but for others it is indeed a submarine canyon and one of the oddest and most interesting oceanographic features on the planet. The U.S. Navy and some of its allies have conducted weapons and sensor testing there for a long time now.

    Here is a link describing Tongue of the Ocean. (The lighter colors show shallow water, dark blue is deep, as you would expect.) LINK:


  4. PiedType says:

    Jim, if you and Anson haven’t already come across them, you might be interested in the letters I got from Tom back around the time Red October was published. They are on an old website of mine that was archived on The Wayback Machine:
    To my knowledge he was just another insurance agent until after his book was published. Then his detailed research and much-too-accurate guesses about Navy technology drew a lot of attention in a hurry.


    • Jim Wheeler says:


      Anson and I, as you must have seen, disagree on whether Clancy likely had USN help on technical and cultural details, but the emails here confirm what I recall from media reports after Hunt was published, i.e., that he made regular visits to friends at USNA. The patter and the familiarity is too good, in my opinion, for a non-military insurance agent to capture so perfectly, no matter how good a researcher he is. I would be surprised if he did not protect his source(s). As I told Anson, he did a great deal of good for USN morale and gave nothing critical away.


    • John Erickson says:

      Thanks for posting these letters! As an early Apple aficionado, I love Mr. Clancy’s thoughts on the Apple 2e, Mac, and Lisa – not to mention his foresight on PCs comparing to the old mainframe IBM “big iron” mainframes (which I programmed for over 15 years). And I have to admit, there was a heck of a lot more information about the military wandering around pre-9/11. I had acquaintances at a recruiting office that actually supplied me with carrier task force members and locations – long before the days of the Net. And I had several reference books that gave an AWFUL lot of detailed information about then-current serving ships.
      Very interesting info. Thanks, Pied!


  5. PiedType says:

    Emails? Did I miss something?


  6. ansonburlingame says:

    To all,

    A later reply but hopefully will be read by “you guys”.

    Today one reads nor hears anything about nuclear submarines. They are still “out there” but no longer in the numbers and with the consistently dangerous missions of the Cold War. A book today on nuclear submarines would be boring, probably.

    But good Lord do we not hear a lot about Special Operations today like the quest for and ultimately killing of OBL. There are books galore all over the place about how those men are trained, equipped and now some details about earlier missions in such operations.

    In the past Seal Team Six was a phrase never heard and if a “civilian” heard it, someone would be in Leavenworth Prison. Such was the case with Ivy Bells of long ago as well, the decades long program to “tap” Soviet undersea cables resulting in unbelievable intelligence collection for years.

    About the only thing we cannot yet “see” today are the pictures of the men in Seal Team Six. But anyone with some careful open source reading and imagination can understand how today, Seal Team Six and Delta does what it does or can do.

    In that regards today, there are a lot of “Tom Clancys” our there. Tom did in the early 80’s what others are doing today regarding state of the art military missions today.



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