The Birth of the Navy Diver, Part 1: An Outdated Program

The year is 1912. Gunner George D. Stillson undertakes a systematic examination of the Navy’s diving programs, finding them in a state of deplorable neglect. Battleship-oriented fleet commanders relegate diver training and underwater operations to the backwater Bureau of Construction and Repair, where the program languishes under successive administrations of general disinterest. Inadequate training programs pump out divers with no ability to use their training under even the most ideal conditions. Frequent fatalities take a toll on morale. Experienced divers are little more than survivors, men lucky enough to survive their close calls and smart enough to learn from them.

Stillson sets forth an ambitious experimental program to rectify these problems and bring diving into the modern era. He talks naval commanders into giving him the time, money and equipment needed to undertake more than a hundred test dives. These tests took Stillson and his team to previously unknown extremes as they purposefully expose themselves to accidents, unproven technologies and deadly medical complications. It is the birth of the modern US Navy Diver.

US Navy Diver Logo“The present method of diving is inefficient,” wrote Gunner George D. Stillson in his seminal experimental report on the deplorable state of the Navy diving program. The battleship-oriented fleet operations relegated USN diver training and operations to the backwater Bureau of Construction and Repair, where the program languished under successive administrations of ignorance and outright disinterest. Wholly inadequate instruction programs pumped out poorly qualified divers with no ability to use their training under even the most ideal conditions. Under realistic conditions, and combined with factors such as weather, badly-maintained equipment, and human error, divers suffered frequent fatalities, nearly all of which were preventable. Experienced divers were often little more than survivors, men who were lucky enough to escape their close calls and smart enough to learn from them. Accidents were generally as fatal as they were common.

“The present method of diving is inefficient.” – Gunner George D. Stillson

Naval officers did not generally view the diving service as a career-advancing position, and rarely bothered to learn the basic theory and implementation of the practice unless assigned to special duty. Nowhere was this failure of understanding and management more pronounced than that of compensation. In 1914, danger compensation for underwater work was a paltry $1.20 per hours. Worse, it did not take into account any matter of condition, meaning that a diver would be paid the same for successful or unsuccessful work. This also ran against the somewhat counterintuitive nature of diving work. Easy jobs, such as cleaning propellers, could be engaged in for many hours in relative safety, meaning the diver could earn a great deal of compensation for light work under ideal conditions. Conversely, a diver ordered to plunge into a flooding compartment after a collision, or a diver ordered to locate missing equipment at a depth of over eighty feet in black-out conditions with a strong tide would descend and ascend within minutes under highly hazardous conditions, perhaps making only fractions of the hourly bonus. Essentially, the diver who did a dangerous job quickly and competently would be paid less than his shiftless light-duty counterpart. In their world, only depth and conditions mattered—not the time at bottom that determined their pay.

Underwater Work

During the dive itself, divers would be largely left to their own devices before the age of the submarine telephone. There was a minimalist system of tugs and pulls on descending lines to signal ascends, descents and trouble, but it was crude at best. Should a diver run into problems, such as a fouled line, there may be no way to make their tenders on the surface aware of the problem. When things went terribly wrong, those on the surface had no idea, and were faced to wait until the allotted time had passed, then diligently haul up a corpse. With a dead diver and little in the way of physical evidence, there was oftentimes no method to find out what had gone wrong.

Hard Hat DiverActive divers were forced to be courageous, smart, and above all, lucky. The Bureau of Construction and Repair issued no standards for dive equipment acquisition, leaving individual teams to largely fend for themselves when making their purchases. Their hodge-podge of equipment were, more often than not, defective and occasionally outright hazardous. Even when materials were discovered to be inadequate, there was little opportunity for recourse; there were no standards for the construction of the individual parts. In fact, beyond a wholly inadequate dive manual, there were no regulations or instructions for any aspect of operations, maintenance, or preservation of dive equipment. Worse yet, the diving manual advised the use of antiquated practices, glossed over or categorically skipped vital information, and suggested the use of dangerous techniques. Some of the text, as Stillson discovered, had been outdated for more than a quarter-century—especially the medical and technical information.

US-Navy-Diver-In-1914Graduates of these elementary classes could not be counted engage in submarine work to any adequate degree. In fact, diving schools primarily focused on classroom-based education, and only six actual diving days. Their instructors oftentimes knew little more than they did, and students realized this fact. Consequently, the students had little confidence in their dive training. Many would simply refuse to dive under any condition, rather than to face the disgrace of failure. The more creative of them would invent a physical excuse, some physiological imperfection that would preclude their submarine duties. Even among those who were not terribly frightened, the opportunity to dive in a real-world setting occurred precious little, meaning they would never get an opportunity to use their training, limited as it was. Even those with both the opportunity and the courage to engage in diving found themselves wholly incompetent, and therefore unable to assume any responsibility over dive operations.

These student divers were required to qualify to a depth of sixty feet. While Navy commanders assumed the relatively shallow purpose to be sufficient for their purposes. In any case, they reasoned that any deeper would create issues with breathing—a fault demonstrably erroneous given proper pressure equalization and CO2 ventilation. The end result of this policy was a force of divers only able to dive to 60 or 70 feet. While some of them were capable and willing to dive to 90 or 100 feet, their peers viewed this as unusual, and assumed that no heavy work could be done at such an extreme depth. Any deeper invited the horrific symptoms of compressed air illness.

Old Torpedo

Most Naval officers viewed the role of navy divers limited to mundane work such as practice torpedo retrieval and maintenance, such as propeller cleaning. However, the more forward-thinking among their ranks, understood the military capability of a well-trained, well-maintained diving corp. Naval vessels were becoming more and more like floating cities, capable of sustaining operations for long periods far from friendly ports. Sooner or later, the blue-water force would require men of skill for underwater operation, men who could perform the same skill of work in dark, submerged conditions as their counterparts in drydock.

Stay tuned for more soon!

Taylor Zajonc | Author, Historian & Shipwreck Expert

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