First Prize is Nothing

by Jim Kirker

First Prize is Nothing

   The Navy's Cover-up Exposed

The age old conflict between the warriors and the politicians in the military is at the heart of this story.  The events of “First Prize is Nothing” transpire in the political and tactical world in which our Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarines (FBM’S) operated at the height of the Cold War.  The unrelenting tensions between East and West at that time, characterized by the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), created an environment of major stress for the operational commanders of all nuclear capable forces.  Nowhere was that stress greater than on board the FBM Submarine.     


“First Prize is Nothing” is the story of  the USS Marion, a United States Fleet Ballistic Missile  Submarine that, in 1970, comes perilously close to a tragedy of mammoth proportions when its Commanding Officer suffers a paranoid, delusional mental breakdown.  Although the incident brings the world to the brink of nuclear war and nearly results in the loss of the ship, it is suppressed, never publicly disclosed and is classified “Top Secret”.  This secrecy is motivated, not by concerns for national security, but to protect the iconic image of Admiral Hyman G. Rickover and the culture of the senior leadership of the U.S. Submarine Force.  The full implication of the incident is not discovered until, thirty years later, when a remarkable series of chance encounters between old friends and enemies reveals the truth behind a number of mysterious tactical events ignored by the U.S. Submarine high command in their rush for political cover.


“First Prize is Nothing” takes the reader on board the USS Marion during the events of that fateful patrol and its harrowing aftermath.


Many books that portray Naval ships and operations are viewed by veteran sailors with a touch of amusement due to their superficial knowledge of FBM equipment and operations.  “First Prize is Nothing” is authentic in every detail and nuance. 


 The issues raised by this book are extremely relevant today.  Since World War II, no threat has been great enough to purge the Navy’s senior leadership of officers that, while politically adroit, lack the instincts and integrity of the warrior.  Readers will be fascinated by the impact of political pressure on the senior military leadership and their decision making processes.


Synopsis of the Story  

Two professional colleagues, Patrick Conley, an ex-State Department employee who assisted with negotiations of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT), and the other, Mike Craig, a retired U.S. Navy Submariner, embarking upon a foreign business trip are shocked by the news of the sinking of the Japanese ship, the Ehime Maru by a show boating U.S. Submarine.  It becomes clear to Patrick Conley that the ex-Submariner is deeply affected by the tragedy and when by chance, they are met in London by Linc Mann, a former associate of Mike Craig and now a distinguished jurist, the explanation for his anger and frustration emerges.


Not realizing that, by a incredible coincidence, he will  soon discover the sequel to the story he is about to hear and the answers to its thirty year old mystery, Patrick listens as Mike recounts the events of an FBM patrol he had experienced thirty years earlier as Executive Officer of the USS Marion.


 On that patrol, an unnerving drumbeat of small distant explosions, combined with several highly suspicious tactical events had caused the Captain to question the security of his ship.  Already paranoid, the Captain’s concerns were exacerbated by his fear that Admiral Rickover, who had chosen him for his position of command, would judge his performance under pressure to be a failure. 


Faced with his Commanding Officer’s eroding mental stability, Craig, as the Executive Officer, was confronted with the twin challenges of controlling the delusional Captain’s panic and getting the ship safely back to port.  In the course of meeting those challenges, he was forced to deal with incidents that risked the loss of innocent lives and a scenario that could have brought the world to war.  Near the end of the patrol, the ship was almost lost in a collision with the sea bottom.


Following the patrol, the Captain, Craig, the Navigator and the Weapons Officer were subjected to a de facto court martial at the Submarine Base in Groton, Connecticut.  These proceedings  were orchestrated by Rickover loyalists as a “cover up” of the events that transpired on the patrol to safeguard his public image and protect their political interests.  Ultimately, with Linc Mann’s assistance, the Executive Officer’s career is saved by their exploitation of the senior commanders’ own self serving motives.


Bemused by the story he has just heard, Patrick Conley journeys on to Russia for a few days vacation to see an old friend from the SALT negotiations.  There, in a surprise ending, he discovers the true meaning and full scope of  the phrase “First Prize is Nothing”! 


First Prize offers readers:

  The suspense of the Cold War at sea

•  Authentic portrayal of technical details of the ship and its operations

•  Accurate characterization of people and life onboard an operating FBM submarine

• Revelation of previously unknown aspects of Admiral H.G.  Rickover’s character and the culture he fostered

• Absorbing behind-the-scenes look at the impact of political pressures on our senior military leadership