The Mac McDowell Series written by Robert Williscroft is about the Officer-in-Charge of the Test Operations Group (TOG), a Top Secret Navy saturation diving team. He and his team of daredevil divers take on the might of the Soviet Union during the Cold War in harrowing underwater missions that challenge his team’s abilities to their limit and beyond.
Each book stands on its own, but the books follow each other in sequence, each challenging Mac and his team to accomplish what appears to be an impossible mission. Operation Ivy Bells the first book in the series, Operation Ice Breaker & his new book Operation Arctic Sting.
Tell me a little about your A Mac McDowell Mission Series
The Mac McDowell Mission Series consists of sequential stories about J.R. “Mac” McDowell and his saturation diving team as they undertake dangerous, challenging underwater missions during the Cold War. In the first, Operation Ivy Bells, they tap into Soviet underwater communications cables on the floor of the Sea of Okhotsk. In the second, Operation Ice Breaker, they take USS Teuthis, a newly modified special operations sub, under the Arctic ice pack to lay SOSUS arrays off Thule, Greenland, and Point Barrow, Alaska. They are dogged by high-tech Soviet submarines for the entire time. Both these books are published, the first in all formats including audio, the second in all formats except audio. The audio is in production right now. In the third, Operation Arctic Sting, they capture an abandoned Soviet Alfa sub (one that dogged them in book two) and transport it through the Arctic ice pack to Electric Boat in Groton, Connecticut. Soviet subs do their best to retrieve or sink the Alfa during its Arctic transit. The third book is in the final editing process. It will be released in late February or early March in all formats except audio. Audio will follow somewhat later. The fourth book is still in the concept stage. Following Arctic Stin in the mid-1980s, Mac and his team with Teuthis are assigned to lay SOSUS arrays in Antarctic waters, looking north into the Atlantic and Pacific. They discover an automated oil extraction facility on the bottom that turns out to be operated by the Taiwanese. As they work to ensure the surreptitious safe delivery of the oil to Taiwan, Red China and the North Koreans attempt to foil the delivery. This fourth book should be released about a year from now.
What is the backstory behind these books? And why did you decide to write these books?
In the 1970s, I was the OIC of the Test Operations Group (TOG), whose story is told in Operation Ivy Bells. I decided to write the book because it is a story that needed to be told. Mac is loosely patterned after me, and various team members are a concatenation of the personalities of the actual team members. Most of the events actually happened, although not necessarily where, when, and how they appear in the book. The book became a bestseller. My publisher urged me to write a sequel, which turned out to be enough material for two more books. The fourth book is based in part on my own experiences while spending a full year at the geographic South Pole.
How has writing helped you personally? And changed the way you think?
I have wanted to write stories and novels ever since I was a teenager back in the 1950s. It just took me this long to make it happen. I write not only these Cold War technothrillers but also popular hard science fiction. Learning to look at the world from these dramatically different perspectives, and presenting the concepts so that an ordinary reader could understand and enjoy them has broadened my whole outlook on life.
I am not so sure my writing has changed how I think so much as the perspective from which I approach problems. Whereas my Mac McDowell books are written only from Mac’s perspective, my other books often look at problems from several perspectives. This, in turn, has taught me to shift perspectives when my present approach to a problem doesn’t seem to be working.
Is there one short story from your book you would like to share?
Operation Ice Breaker starts out with an incident that, for the most part, actually happened (although to someone else). Here it is, extracted directly from the book:
U.S. MISSILE SUB SUBMERGED—OFF CÁDIZ, SPAIN, EARLY 1970s
“Lieutenant McDowell, Sir…My planes are jammed at full dive!”
“Diving Officer, get a handle on that!” I ordered while checking my depth. Three hundred feet and dropping. I was doing twenty knots—depth was increasing fast. The stern planes frozen at full dive caused the 425-foot-long fleet ballistic missile sub to pitch down by the bow twenty-five degrees.
“Stern planes are still jammed!” My Diving Officer, Lieutenant junior grade (Lt.j.g.) Dick Franconi said. “Manual bypass doesn’t solve the problem.”
“Chief-of-the-Watch…” I said.
“Working on it,” Master Chief George Sedrick said. “Sonofabitch isn’t responding!”
I checked the depth. “All stop!” I ordered as the sub passed 500 feet. “Back full!” Maybe I could shake it loose—whatever it was.
As the sub began to shudder from the reverse turns, the captain charged out of his stateroom in his skivvies. “What the fuck’s going on, Mac?”
I briefed him quickly as we passed 600 feet. “All stop!” I ordered. “Chief…?”
“Still jammed, Sir.”
“Pump all forward tanks to sea!” I ordered. Perhaps I could bring the bow up that way. “Full rise on the Fairwater planes! Try to get us level.” We still had some forward motion, so that might help. I punched the Sonar intercom. “Give me your contacts, Sonar.”
“Clear three-sixty, Conn. We had a tug off the starboard bow a half-hour ago, but he’s gone now.”
Seven hundred feet.
“Get the captain’s jumpsuit from his stateroom,” I told the messenger. Turning to the Fairwater Planesman who controlled the fairwater planes, the rudder, and the engine order telegraph, I ordered, “Ahead one third!”
The captain and I watched the bubble. We were still down about fifteen degrees. As the screw took a bite, the bow dropped another four degrees. “Ahead slow—make bare steerageway! Chief…pump water from all tanks!”
As the captain donned his jumpsuit, a loud screech penetrated the hull from somewhere aft. A second later, the Control Center sound-powered phone warbled. With a nod, the captain indicated I should answer it.
“EOW here…something’s scraping along the port hull back here. Making a hell-of-a-noise.”
“Yeah, Jer…We hear it up here. Any ideas?”
“Nada, Mac, no fucking idea.”
“Passing one-thousand feet, Sir!” The Chief-of-the-Watch announced.
“Can you free up the stern planes?” I asked the EOW.
“They’re jammed tight. Never seen anything like it,” Lt. Jerry Dunston said. He was the Reactor Control Assistant—number two in the Engineering Department and the current Engineering-Officer-of-the-Watch. “Nothing we can do here right now, Mac, nothing.”
“Passing eleven-hundred-fifty feet!” Master Chief Sedrick announced. “Tanks are dry…we’re still headed down.”
About a minute passed.
“Passing test-depth, thirteen-hundred feet.”
Around us, the sub creaked loudly as the hull compressed from the extreme outside pressure. I looked at the skipper. “You have the watch, Mac,” he said, “and you’re running out of options. You know what to do.”
I picked up the 1MC mike and looked at the skipper again. He smiled grimly and nodded. I was glad he was at my side ready to counter anything stupid I might do, but it was pretty clear the skipper wanted me to do it.
“Sound the Collision Alarm! Emergency-blow all main ballast!”
A three-second rising sweep-tone filled the sub. Immediately after that, high-pressure air forcing its way into the ballast tanks surrounding the bow and stern drowned out every other sound.
“Passing fourteen-hundred feet!” Master Chief Sedrick announced. “Slowing…”
The skipper and I stood quietly on the raised platform of the Conn, watching the depth gauge as the bow lifted to nearly level.
“Passing twelve-hundred feet!” Master Chief Sedrick announced.
“Secure the blow!” I ordered as the sub continued its rise.
As the sound of rushing air subsided, the three-second rising sweep-tone of the Collision Alarm once again filled the sub.
“Passing nine-hundred feet,” Master Chief Sedrick announced, “rising fast!”
“Sonar, you got anything?” I asked over the intercom.
“Negative, Conn. Too much sound. I’m deaf.”
“Secure the Collision Alarm,” the skipper told me. Then he reached for the 1MC mike. “This is the captain. We are on an uncontrolled ascent to the surface. We don’t know what’s above us, so grab hold of something and hang on!”
SURFACED—OFF CÁDIZ, SPAIN
It seemed to take forever, but in actuality, it took only about a minute. One moment we were rising like a skyscraper elevator, and the next, we slammed into something and stopped dead, surrounded by the awful sound of shrieking, tearing metal.
I tried raising the attack periscope, but it didn’t move. The skipper tried the navigation scope, got it to rise about a foot, and that was it.
“Mac, go to the Bridge and see what’s going on,” the skipper told me. “Captain’s got the Conn,” he announced to the Control Room personnel as I donned a headset with boom-mike and started up the ladder leading to the Bridge.
I opened the lower trunk hatch. It swung up into the trunk. “Trunk’s dry,” I announced to the Control Room. I climbed the rest of the way and cracked the upper hatch. “Just a few drops of water,” I announced as I let the spring open it all the way. I squinted into the bright noon sun. “Conn, Bridge,” I said over the circuit, “it looks like we surfaced directly beneath something—a barge maybe. I can’t tell for sure. Whatever we struck must have sunk.” I scanned around the surfaced sub, gently rocking in the nearly calm sea off Cádiz, clearly visible to the northeast. “There’s a tug two hundred yards off the port bow. A guy on the stern is chopping frantically at a steel tow hawser. It’s stretched taut pulling down the tug’s stern.” I watched for several seconds. “The hawser just parted…disappeared below the surface immediately. The tug’s on an even keel. Now the guy is screaming bloody murder, shaking his fists at us.”
“I’m sending lookouts to the Bridge,” the skipper said in my ears, “and the photographer.”
“There’s more,” I said. “Two missile hatches are sprung, and the Bridge is pretty much a twisted mess.”
“The screw and rudder work,” the skipper said. “You got the Conn. Keep us away from anything else, but stay as close to where you are as possible. I’m on my way to the Bridge.”
ATLANTIC SUBMARINE FORCE HEADQUARTERS—NORFOLK, VIRGINIA—TWO MONTHS LATER
It was a formal hearing—just the skipper and me. It seems the tug was towing an old WWII Victory Ship to a Mediterranean destination to be scrapped. The tug went DIW (that’s dead in the water for you non-Navy types), and the Victory ship drifted up on the tug. Sonar didn’t hear anything because the tug had shut down its engines, and the Victory ship didn’t have any. The steel hawser catenary dropped down 300 feet and wedged between our port stern planes and the sub’s hull. That caused the hydraulics system to force the planes to full dive and keep them there. When we emergency-surfaced, we did so directly under the Victory ship, piercing its hull with the ice-hardened submarine sail, and sinking her. It was an unfortunate accident with no assignment of fault. That was the official finding of the Navy inquiry.
The skipper received a special commendation for saving the billion-dollar ballistic missile submarine with no loss of life, and I was given an official pat on the back and the opportunity to choose my next duty assignment. I chose the Man-in-the-Sea Program, not having any idea what it was really all about. I ended up as the Officer-in-Charge of a team of saturation divers. We shipped out on the USS Halibut for a highly classified mission that changed the course of the Cold War (as related in my account, Operation Ivy Bells).
MARE ISLAND NAVAL SHIPYARD—VALLEJO, CALIFORNIA—FIVE YEARS LATER
And that brings us to the present. Following the secret award ceremony in the Mare Island Rodman Theater described in Operation Ivy Bells, Defense Secretary John Lehman’s aide motioned for me to approach his boss.
“We have a special assignment for you, Lieutenant Commander McDowell.”
“Sir?” I said.
“That’s right,” Lehman. You are herewith promoted to Lieutenant Commander. In sixty days, you, and in thirty days, your team will report for temporary duty to the Commanding Officer, USS Teuthis (SSNR-2), at General Dynamics Electric Boat Division in Groton, Connecticut.” He looked left and right, and continued quietly, “This assignment is Top Secret/SCI0F. Everything, including the vessel name, is classified. You and your team will be briefed on arrival.” He shook my hand firmly. “Good luck, Commander!”
What can fiction teach us that can not be taught by non-fiction?
Fiction allows the flexibility to place protagonists into situations tailored to let them exhibit their skills and abilities. In books like The Mac McDowell Series, I blend real situations with real people and fictional characters designed to exhibit certain characteristics in order to solve real problems.
What lessons can a Junior Officer take from your book?
A real submarine environment. A skilled junior officer rises to an impossible task, working with his team and the submarine crew in general to achieve nearly unobtainable goals. This same officer is subordinate to his seniors but does not kowtow to their authority. He works with them, applying his special skills to solve problems as they arise. He is respected by his seniors and loved by his team. Among other things, he would never require of one of them something that he would not do himself, and they know this.
What books do you recommend which influenced your thinking about leadership?
I have a vast list of reading under my belt. During most of my teen years, I read a book a day, covering about any subject you can name. On the fiction side, I think the hard science fiction novels of Robert A. Heinlein and A.E. Van Vogt had the most influence on my thinking and sense of leadership. Heinlein’s juvenile novels explain the entire concept of leadership through exciting stories about young men and women solving leadership problems. Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels teach strong leadership skills. James Clavelle’s Asian historical novels are all about leadership—successful and failed. John Le Carré’s spy novels are about failed leadership.
Nonfiction is more difficult to pin down. Philip Wylie’s An Essay on Morals was very influential. Present at the Creation by Dean Atcheson gives tremendous insight into the formation of the Cold War. Dumas Malone’s six-volume history of Thoman Jefferson defines leadership. Scorpion Down by Ed Offley illustrates failed leadership on a grand scale. Total Freedom by Chris Sciabarra takes a completely fresh look at leadership in a modern world. Beyond Freedom and Dignity by B.F. Skinner describes a predetermined world where leadership plays no part. I recommend it to help a leader focus on what really matters. Will and Ariel Durant’s ten-volume Story of Civilization tells how people lead and followed throughout human history. It’s heavy-duty reading, bot worth the journey.
Why is reading important for our Military and/or the Nation?
Reading what other men and women think helps military leaders to hone their own leadership skills. A military leadership that actually knows how to lead is critical to our nation’s survival. Books outlast whatever drives the “current” administration in Washington. Exposure to the ideas of those who think like we do and who do not think like we do helps us to define our own ideas more clearly.
What are you reading right now? Are there any authors (living or dead) that you would name as influences?
I am currently reading several books—Two hard science fiction, a military historical novel, and Will and Ariel Durant’s ten-volume Story of Civilization. My influencers are Robert A. Heinlein, Thomas Jefferson, Chris Sceiberra. There are others depending on the subject, the time frame, and the purpose.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading — and why?
My own work: The Starchild Trilogy. This is an epic tale that stretches in time from a few years hence to the future in several hundred years. It details humanity’s progress away from Earth into the Solar System, the conflicts, scientific advances, government choices—everything that makes us human.
Give us three “Good to Know” facts about you.
Humble origins; grew up in post-WW II Germany. Enlisted submariner selected for a commission. Undergraduate degrees in marine and atmospheric physics and doctorate in engineering. Saturation diver. 22 submerged months underwater. Research: 1 yr in equatorial Pacific, 3 yrs in Arctic ice pack, 1 yr at the geographic South Pole. 17 books; dozens of articles; many regional and national radio and TV interviews.
Writing a book is tough, were there any surprises as you set out on that journey?
Writing is not tough so much as tedious. A book doesn’t write itself. It requires discipline and resolve. All my writing is backed by detailed research. I am frequently surprised by what I find, such as an odd unknown source of underwater pinging in the Arctic near Fury and Hecla Strait, right where my protagonists actually placed an autonomous transponder in 1985—one that would still be pinging today. This gives my story an immediate sense of realism. I include an article about the find in my appendix.
General Mattis talks a lot about using reading as a tool to learn from other people’s experiences. Can you provide a specific example or story where reading has helped you learn from others’ experiences?
Gen. Patton describes in his memoirs about how he beat Field Marshall Rommel on the field of battle because he had read Rommel’s book.
What is next for you?
I’m 78. For the most part, my high-adventure days are past. Now I am concentrating on incorporating my experiences into my writing.
Dr. Williscroft is a retired submarine officer, deep-sea and saturation diver, scientist, author of 17 books and hundreds of articles, and a lifelong adventurer. He spent 22 months underwater, a year in the equatorial Pacific, three years in the Arctic ice pack, and a year at the Geographic South Pole. He holds degrees in Marine Physics and Meteorology and a doctorate for developing a system to protect SCUBA divers in contaminated water. A prolific author of both non-fiction, Cold War thrillers, and hard science fiction, he lives in Centennial, Colorado, with his family.
Dr. Williscroft is a member of Colorado Authors’ League, Science Fiction Writers of America, Libertarian Futurist Society, Los Angeles Adventurers’ Club, Mensa, Military Officers’ Association of America, American Legion, and the NRA. He spends most of his time writing his next book, speaking to various regional groups, and hanging out with the girl of his dreams, Jill, and her two cats.