March 29, 2011

The top-secret battles that threatened America’s shores

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<B>The top-secret battles that threatened America’s shores</B> I am a lucky man and I know it. I’ve managed to have two interesting careers, one as a NASA engineer and another as an author of memoirs and novels. Most of my fans assume I transitioned from NASA to writing but the truth is I’ve been a writer nearly all of my life. Mrs. Laird, my third grade teacher, told me someday I’d make my living as an author and was mightily disappointed when I decided some years later to become an engineer. My training in the sciences, however, never stopped my love of the written word. I first broke in as a freelance writer for a variety of scuba diving magazines during the 1970s. After being certified as a diver in 1972 and then as an instructor in 1973, I began to write for <I>Skin Diver, Sport Diver, Aquarius</I> and other magazines dedicated to the sport. My specialty was stories about diving on sunken wrecks. This would lead to a most remarkable adventure and, to my surprise (and Mrs. Laird’s joy), my first book.

My adventure began in 1975 when a fisherman off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, saw something long and narrow on his depth recorder. Curious, he invited some local divers to dive on the thing, whatever it was. At a depth of 110 feet, the divers found what they believed to be a submarine. Before long, I got a call from one of them. Would I come up and perhaps write an article about it? I jumped at the chance.

When I dived on the wreck, I recognized it immediately as not only a submarine but a World War II German U-boat that had been sunk in battle. There were torpedoes and 88-millimeter shells strewn about, and its deck gun was blown away. In its conning tower I found a human skeleton. What had sunk this submarine and when? Whose body was in the conning tower? And what in heaven’s name was a German <I>Unterseeboot</I> doing in American waters, anyway? The answers to those questions and so many others would not come easy. After digging, I discovered that nearly all the records of World War II German U-boat activity off the American east coast were still classified. Fortunately, being the lucky guy I am, the Freedom of Information Act was passed shortly afterwards. This allowed me to be one of the first researchers to look at a treasure trove of documentation. I was astonished to learn of a battle within sight of our shores that had not only sunk this particular U-boat (the U-352) but six others along with over 400 American and allied ships in a nine-month period. It was, in fact, one of the greatest and longest battles of the war, yet was virtually unknown. Soon, I tracked down American, British and German sailors who had fought in the bitter contest. After writing a number of articles about my findings, I realized I had enough for a book. My military history best-seller <I>Torpedo Junction</I> (Naval Institute Press, 1989; Dell, 1991) was the result.

After <I>Torpedo Junction</I> was published, I began to receive many letters from folks who had lived on the North Carolina Outer Banks during the war. They thanked me for writing about the battle and then continued with their own eyewitness accounts. One man wrote to tell me about his mother who was living at the time on Hatteras Island. One day, she’d been hanging out the laundry when what should motor by but a U-boat with its crew sunbathing on deck? They had waved at her and she’d waved back before recalling they were the enemy. She retrieved her husband’s rifle and began shooting! Wildly ducking, the Germans had immediately scrambled inside their U-boat and submerged. Other letters I received were more ominous in nature, stories of saboteurs off U-boats who had been met by the local citizenry with shotguns. Although these accounts were not verifiable, I came to believe there was more than a kernel of truth to them. Eventually, I knew I had to write a novel that would encompass not only the research I’d done for <I>Torpedo Junction</I> but the unique people of the Outer Banks. <B>The Keeper’s Son</B> is the result.

Nearly all of my books have been about small towns, and so I was pleased to write about another, this one set on the fictitious island of “Killakeet, south of Hatteras, north of Lookout,” a place of “fishermen, clam-stompers, oyster-rakers, Coastguardsmen, and lighthouse keepers.” The Keeper’s Son is a novel of the Thurlow family, keepers of the Killakeet lighthouse. The Thurlows must endure a great tragedy when Jacob Thurlow, only 2 years old, is lost at sea due to an error of judgment by Josh, his older brother. Seventeen years later, after a self-imposed exile, Josh returns to the island as a Coast Guard officer. When the marauding U-boats arrive, Josh and the crew of his tiny patrol boat are all that can stop the destruction of the people of Killakeet. What Josh cannot imagine, however, is that one of the U-boats is harboring a secret that might tell him the fate of his baby brother.

Although there are more than a few stirring battle scenes in my novel and also the mystery of the lost son to unravel, there are also several romantic subplots, one of which includes Dosie Crossan, a lusty young horsewoman who sets her sights on Josh. It’s always been my belief that it isn’t plot that makes for the good story but, perhaps more importantly, the people in it. It was a lot of fun to create Dosie and all the colorful characters who populate Killakeet and the U-boats offshore. I hope my fans will enjoy reading <B>The Keeper’s Son</B>, a novel of high-spirited adventure and love in a time of war. The Keeper’s Son <I>is the first work of fiction by Homer Hickam, a former</I> NASA <I>engineer who first won a wide audience with</I> Rocket Boys<I>, a memoir of his West Virginia boyhood that was made into the movie</I> October Sky. <I>Hickam, who has also written two other volumes about his small-town upbringing, lives in Huntsville, Alabama.</I>

Homer Hickam

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The Keeper’s Son

The Keeper’s Son

By Homer Hickam
St. Martin's
ISBN 9780312301897

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