Read Part 1
Mundane as early pre-World War 1 diving work could oftentimes be, it was still punctuated by moments of terror and tragedy. All divers recognized the inherent danger of working around wrecks, mooring lines, mines, and live torpedoes—all duties often incorporated into their naval diving careers. Such dangerous activity invited death by uncontrolled descent by loss of buoyancy, freezing, exhaustion, oxygen poisoning, suffocation or drowning. Even the tedious task of retrieving spent torpedoes from shallow-water test ranges could suddenly turn into a life and death struggle against time and the elements.
Torpedoes were typically launched from their flooded tubes with a blast of compressed air, after which their compressed-air, battery or kerosene-fueled engines would engage their propellers, sending them towards their intended target. Should the engine fail on a test range, the torpedo would simply sink into the mud, waiting to be retrieved—or to spontaneously begin its aborted run.
“We were at torpedo practice in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and were having unusually hard luck with torpedoes,” reflected one veteran diver. “They all seemed to run, but kept on going once they started—this one in particular sank in 120 feet of water. I was right on the spot with diving-gear men dressed and down to work. After I sent a man down to survey, he came up on his very own accord and informed me that the torpedo was on it’s way to hell (the mud being very soft), and said that he could only see the tail and that the propellers were still turning over. I immediately signaled launch to procure a shovel, and fortified with that I sent my man down after the torpedo. He worked for over an hour, and when I hauled him deep and the torpedo was still under way. I sent a relief diver down, and was down another half hour when he signaled for a line. I send down, heavily weighted, a 5-inch line, which I previously sent for by another launch, and with this he made fast to the tail of the torpedo.”
The diver reported that he then used the steam engine to crank the spool of line, but the torpedo was so buried that it actually drew the small boat down, to where she was within inches of swamping herself. They transferred the heavy line to a much larger ship, and slowly winched the torpedo. After a few turns, the entire ship swung by the line, as if moored a heavy anchor. Suddenly, the torpedo was pulled clear of the mud, flew up through the water column, blasted out of the surface, leaping ten feet in the air like a metallic porpoise, before settling in the water for retrieval.
… the torpedo was pulled clear of the mud, flew up through the water column, blasted out of the surface, leaping ten feet in the air like a metallic porpoise…
Others were less lucky. “In recovering a Mark V torpedo which failed to start in 30 feet of water, a diver was fastening a light line around the propeller,” a witness wrote. “The engines started. The torpedo came up and went 20 feet out of the water within three feet of the diving launch, then down again tail first, came up clear of the water, fell over, and continued a fairly straight course down torpedo range. Fortunately, the diver’s hose and lifeline were not cut by the torpedo’s propellers. The diver lost two fingers and his hand was otherwise cut up. It was noted that there was not any great flow of blood until the cuffs and snappers around the diver’s wrist were removed.”
To date, the largest and most difficult problem faced by the diver’s corps to date was the sinking of the massive floating drydock USS Dewey in Subig Bay, Philippines. Her arrival in the Philippines constituted the successful implementation of the largest towing operation in history, 12,000 miles across the Atlantic, Mediterranean, Indian and finally Pacific oceans. Displacing 11,000 tons, she was towed in the company of a small fleet. Her arrival in the Philippines gave the United States Navy the ability to drydock and repair even the largest vessels of the Pacific fleet, eliminating the previously-required long voyages to Hawaii and California. Her accidental flooding and sinking imperiled a vital Naval asset, and many divers cut their teeth on the subsequent effort to raise her.
Native divers wouldn’t take on the job, so Navy divers were shipped in from other areas of operations worldwide. They worked for hours at time, 80-90 feet below the surface of the ocean, wearing only helmets in the warm waters of the Philippines. Accidents were frequent, and even involved the leader of the entire salvage operation—when his air supply pump fell overboard during the storm, he was forced to ditch his helmet and free-ascend out of the wreck and through nearly a hundred feet of water to the surface.
…when his air supply pump fell overboard during the storm, he was forced to ditch his helmet and free-ascend out of the wreck and through nearly a hundred feet of water…
Civilian divers of the time were not immune from diving accidents either. “Perhaps the most widely known case of this kind was that of the fatal accident to a diver, in New York State, employed in repair work around the control valve of a pipe leading from a large reservoir,” wrote one Navy diver. “The diver was attempting to guide a large metal ball into the mouth of the pipe when he slipped, lost his balance, and the suction drew one of his legs into the pipe and at the same time the ball rolled into its seat and held him fast for several days… the diver continued to signal for assistance for nearly three days but died from nervous shock and exhaustion before his body was recovered.”
…the diver continued to signal for assistance for nearly three days but died from nervous shock and exhaustion…
The Cassandras of the Navy also knew it was just a matter of time before the diver corps would intersect with the interests of the fledgling submarine force, and that the current training, equipment and personnel were, at the moment, poorly suited for the job. Other countries lost submarines with full complements, and the United States Navy had its share of close calls. Any rescue of recovery of a lost submarine would require not only a proficient diving corps, but also one that was capable of diving well beyond conventional limits. It was a program that did not yet exist.