The Shadow Divers is, unintentionally perhaps, a testimonial to the value of having passionate, dedicated, amateurs involved in the exploration of history.
It’s a beautiful story about how a group of deep sea salvage divers who, in 1991, discover the remains of an unidentified WWII U-boat off the coast of New Jersey. The wreck should not have been there, and figuring out what it is and where it came from becomes an obsession — even to the point where they were willing to become real scholars to solve the mystery. And they discovered a universal truth: experts can be wrong.
Over the last half century, various assessors had ascribed three fates to U-879: they first pronounced her lost without a trace; then sunk off Halifax in Canadian waters; then sunk off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. As the divers studied further, they recognized that the current assessment by German naval historian Axel Niestlé - - that U-879 had been sunk off Cape Hatteras - - was correct. But the lesson was stark and by now familiar: written history was fallible. Sloppy and erroneous assessments had been rushed into the official record, only to be presumed accurate by historians, who then published elegant reference works echoing the mistakes. Unless a person was willing, as Chatterton and Kohler were, to ditch work, and sneak off to Washington, chisel away at mountains of opaque original documents, sleep in fleabag motels, eat street-vendor hot dogs, and run outside every two hours to shovel quarters into a parking meter, he would presume the history books to be correct.
Amateurs like these aren’t bound to established orthodoxies, they don’t play by the rules, and they’re driven by curiosity, frustration, and a sense of moral justice for the truth. These guys are heroes to me.