Norman’s Corner: Tom Clancy

By Norman Polmar

(Editor’s note: This is the seventeenth in a series of blogs by Norman Polmar—author, analyst, and consultant specializing in the naval, aviation, and intelligence fields. Follow the full series here.)

Tom Clancy. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Naval Institute.

Tom Clancy at home. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Naval Institute.

In July 1983 a friend asked my wife, Beverly, and me to attend a bar-b-q at his home. Among the few others at the gathering was a rather tall, interesting young man wearing sun-glasses. I was introduced to Tom Clancy and his wife. I knew immediately who he was. The year before he had an article published in the Naval Institute Proceedings —“The Floating Shell Game.”  His article called for placing MX ballistic missiles on air-cushion vehicles moving across the open spaces of the mid-west during a crisis. I did not agree with his proposal.

Following the bar-b-q, I received a letter from Tom on insurance company letterhead dated 26 July 1983. It began:

“As you see, I really am an insurance agent. I am not, however, licensed in the state of Virginia, hence you are safe from my professional depredations. But not from my hobby.”

Tom went on to explain that he had to make a living, hence he was an insurance agent. He wrote, “I am a frustrated would-be officer. I learned in college that even during Vietnam the military did not need overly myopic people. To compensate for this rejection I have for years purchased and read numerous books on military and naval affairs, including at least three of yours.”

Then, after telling how selling insurance was “boring stuff,” Tom next related his plan for a trilogy of books that he was writing—the first was Patriot Games, although the first that he was actually writing he called Hunt for Red October—about a Soviet strategic missile submarine whose captain was defecting and would hand his submarine over to the Americans. He based his defection story on the incident involving the Soviet destroyer Storozhevoy in 1975.

Then, in his five-page, self-typed letter, Tom went on to tell me the proposed plot of Red October. My reaction: “Wow!”

Subsequently, Tom would ask me questions about submarines and how the United States could “hide” a huge missile submarine from Soviet spy satellites. As is well known, the Naval institute published the book in 1984—its first work of fiction. It was an instant best-seller.

A few months later Time magazine published the first major interview with Tom, a full page in the 4 March 1985 issue. Citing President Reagan’s question as he praised Hunt for Red October—“How in the world did he have all this knowledge?”—Time reported:

“The answer is that Clancy, 37, studied the major unclassified books dealing with Soviet submarines, such as Combat Fleets of the World and Norman Polmar’s Guide to the Soviet Navy. Another important resource was the $9.95 war game Harpoon, devised as an instruction manual for Navy ROTC cadets, which comes with a 40-page rule book of strategy and tactics….”

Unsaid was that retired submarine officer and analyst Ralph Chatham was a key source for Tom. Red October was dedicated: “For Ralph Chatham, a sub driver who spoke the truth, and for all the men who wear dolphins.”

I also gave Tom some advice for Red October that he did not use: On 12 September 1984, Tom wrote to me asking for my comments on a letter that he planned to have in the book that was sent by the captain of the submarine Red October to his mentor, the head of the Soviet Navy’s main political administration. I carefully read the proposed faux letter and sent a few comments to him.

Years later, I came across Tom’s 1984 letter in my files. I immediately raced up to my library to see if Tom had incorporated my suggestions. Gulp!  The letter was not in the book!  The text refers to the letter, but it was never provided for the reader. I reproduced the letter, with a commentary, in the Naval Institute Proceedings in April 2010—“The Missing Ramius Letter.”

Tom and I kept in contact and periodically he called me with questions about Soviet weapons and tactics when writing his massive Red Storm Rising (published in 1986). Although Tom sold movie rights to that book as well as to Hunt for Red October, the second book was never made into a film.

And, Tom was off and running. He produced or collaborated on dozens of books. A key participant in his efforts was John D. Gresham, a systems analyst for McDonnell Douglas, whom I had first met in 1985.  A few years later he became Tom’s chief researcher and, later, a coauthor. John and I became close friends, and periodically John came to me with questions for Tom’s projects.

One day John called to say that Tom wanted us to come out to his home on the water in Calvert County, Maryland. The 80-acre estate was a former boy’s camp, Camp Kaufman. I visited Tom there on several occasions: indeed, he made it clear that I always was welcome for lunch if I brought corned beef and Jewish rye bread. He provided the trimmings and drinks.

John Gresham and I drove out to Tom’s home to discuss a proposal for a television series of spy stories. Tom would be the “star” of the series, introducing and closing each episode. We agreed that John would rough out the television scripts and I would write a monograph to accompany each of perhaps a dozen episodes. The byline on the monographs would read “Tom Clancy and Norman Polmar.”  We drank some of Tom’s single malt scotch to seal the bargain.

John and I got to work… the first episode would deal with intelligence and spies during the Cuban missile crisis (1962). Then came word that Tom’s new literary agent objected to the project and the deal was dead. Tom gave us permission to use the material that we had researched and we began writing a book about the crisis. Thus, in 2006, John and I published DEFCON 2: Standing on the Brink of Nuclear War During the Cuban Missile Crisis. Tom wrote the foreword for the book, which sold very well.

Subsequently, the book was made into a two-hour television documentary for the Discovery Channel. The documentary was filmed in Moscow and Cuba as well as in the Washington, D.C. area. I accompanied the film crew to Cuba. We got Tom to do the film’s introduction and closing, his only appearance on the “big screen.”  The film also did very well.

Tom and I kept in contact… the periodic corned beef lunches at his home in Calvert County and, later, in his apartment at the Baltimore Harbor. And, we continued to have e-mail exchanges. When I was a member of the Secretary of the Navy’s Research Advisory Committee (NRAC), I chaired a panel established to determine future research and development requirements for the Navy and Marine Corps, I brought the panel members out to Tom’s home. As we sat in his dining room eating delicatessen, Tom waxed forth with interesting and perceptive views about the future.

Tom was a very private person. But on occasion he would open a small window. At dinner in New London, Connecticut, in September 1986, with a friend of mine, then-Lieutenant Karen DiRenzo, and me, Tom had a drink and then we three finished off a couple of bottles of wine. Tom began talking about personal and financial matters related to his book and film contracts.

Another time, in private, he mentioned some of the several institutions that benefited from his largess: Make-A-Wish Foundation, for children with serious diseases, and the eye institute of the Johns Hopkins medical complex in his native Baltimore. Later he made major contributions to establish the cancer ward at Johns Hopkins.

And, one time he told me about a conversation that he had with General Colin Powell, uncle of his lovely wife, Alexandra, and his views of their pending marriage. (Tom and Powell were close following Tom and John’s interviews for one of their books.)

But Tom was mostly a private man.

Tom Clancy died on 1 October 2013, at age 66, from a massive heart attack. Earlier he had undergone bypass surgery.

It was a tragic loss for many people, especially for his wife and his four children. He was a good man. And, he was a talented man. He will be missed for both characteristics.

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4 Responses to Norman’s Corner: Tom Clancy

  1. Walter Boyne says:

    Beautifully done, Norman.

    Walt

    • Harry Butowsky says:

      Norman,

      This is a wonderful tribute to a great and talented man. I have enjoyed reading Tom Clancy’s books for many years and they have given me many hours of entertainment.

      Harry Butowsky

  2. RADM Jerry Ellis USN(ret), Chair, Undersea Warfare/Director Undersea Warfare Research Center, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, CA says:

    Norman – Great Blog on Tom Clancy. I first met him when I was the Chief of Staff for COMSUBLANT (VADM Roger Bacon) and we were preparing for the opening of the film “The Hunt for Red October”. It was an exciting time and I enjoyed talking to Tom Clancy. The Premier of the movie in Norfolk was a great success and a wonderful party as it was in many other cities. Thanks for bringing those memories back to me.
    Sincerely – Jerry

  3. Christopher Ami says:

    Great read…thanks for putting it online. I always wondered how Tom Clancy got his info.
    Time to dig out my old copy of “Harpoon”- chuckle

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