The Birth of the Navy Diver, Part 4: The Rules of Diving

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 LogoStillson included an interesting pamphlet into his final report, a pamphlet that covered the rules of diving. Some of the recommendations in the publication have held up to the test of time, some have not, and some were outdated from the moment of their printing.

The pamphlets of the time began with a simple list of fitness requirements, to be ascertained by a medical doctor. These requirements included the.

The Diver must:

“…Be cool-headed, and of a phlegmatic temperament.”

“…Be in good health, have a strong constitution, and the actions of the lungs to be normal.”

“…Not to be short-necked, full-blooded, or with a tendency to nosebleed.”

“…Not to have bloodshot eyes, or a high color on the cheeks, caused by the interlacement of numerous small but distinct blood vessels.”

“…Not to be very pale, nor have lips more blue than red, nor be subject to cold hands or feet.”

“…Not to perspire freely.”

“…Not to be affected with cough, asthma, or catarrh.”

“…Not to be subject to headaches or dizziness, or affected with deafness.”

“…Not to be hard drinkers, nor have suffered frequently with venereal disease, or have had sunstroke or rheumatism.”

“…Not to have been subject to palpitation of the heart or fainting spells.”

“…Not at any time to have spat or coughed up blood.”

Indeed, it was, “Men who have long trunks with well-developed chests and loins generally make good divers.”

It was then that the pamphlet took a decidedly darker turn. Divers were told to expect accidents. “The air supply may be cut off by the pump, the safety valve may be out of order, or the air hose may break, above, or under the water. The supply of air in the suit will only last four or five minutes. If the diver cannot come up alone, pull him up by the life line, if this is broken or foul, use the air hose. Rapidity of action is imperative.”

Stillson would have likely disagreed with the following advice, a somewhat haphazard reaction to a catastrophic accident: “By throwing himself on his back the diver may cause the air to go into the legs and upper part of the suit, and by this means may help himself in coming to the surface. If the knife is handy, he can cut off the front weight; this will throw him onto his back and effect the same process.”

If an unresponsive diver was hauled up, the pamphlet advised that he be lifted helmet-first onto the launch, the suit cut off, and a doctor ordered. “Do not stand the diver on the head,” it reads, but the diver should be placed face down, his mouth cleared, clothes loosened, and tickled with a feather. His chest and face were to be rubbed by hand, and cold water sprinkled on him. If he still wasn’t breathing, he should be turned on his back, tongue pulled forward by hand, and his arms moved up and down. As modern CPR methods have a 40% chance of working (or less), it was likely that this method of stimulating breathing rarely worked. The effort, the document somberly read, should continue for as long as any chance of life was possible, and only to cease if death was confirmed by lividity or rigor mortis.

Optimistically, the pamphlet continues with instructions if breathing is resumed. “Lay him on his back,” it reads. “Chafe his limbs and body to induce warmth and circulation of the blood. Place hot-water bottles around the lower part of his body and cover him up warmly. As soon as he can swallow give him time to time a little lukewarm water with wine or brandy or coffee or tea… if a doctor or apothecary is present, let him bleed the patient.”


These rules often did not cover the dangerous and absurdist situations the early navy divers found themselves in. One diver wrote to Stillson about one of the more esoteric lessons he’d learned over his long career, suggesting “that during meal hours the diving party not be allowed to throw scraps overboard after meals.” The practice apparently attracted groups of large fish, in one case startling a working diver, who mistook one of the larger specimens for a torpedo. The excited diver surfaced and demanded to be given a knife, so that he could take the massive fish on in combat. Needless to say, he was ordered to discontinue diving for the rest of the day.

Taylor Zajonc | Author, Historian & Shipwreck Expert

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