Two Navy ships named for the “Show Me” state were victims of unfortunate circumstances over a
century apart. Late on Aug. 26, 1843, the first USS
Missouri, a side-wheel steam frigate, anchored off the
British naval base at Gibraltar, was set ablaze after
spilled turpentine ignited. The inferno reached the
powder magazine early the next morning and the subsequent explosion doomed the warship.
The third USS Missouri, the famed battleship that
hosted the surrender ceremony ending World War II,
ran aground while departing from Hampton Roads, Va.,
on Jan. 17, 1950, thanks to a gross navigation error.
In the case of the first Missouri, British attempts to
salvage the wreck led Gibraltar’s governor to exclaim
to Bostonian John Gowen that the ship had defeated
the world’s best engineers.
Gowen responded: “May I enquire of your Excellency
if any of these engineers were Yankees?” Gowen’s success
with Missouri led to a follow-on project — the clearance of
Sevastopol of some 90 wrecks following the Crimean War.
Stuck fast in the shoal off Old Point Comfort, the
third Missouri saw Navy salvage experts employing a
variety of methods to lighten and raise it. After two
weeks, Navy tugs were able to free the battleship.
The plights of the two Missouris provide historic
insights into diving and salvage operations that deserve
a broader public awareness. With a convergence of sev-
eral anniversary years related to the history of military
diving, it seemed logical for 2015 to be declared “The
Year of the Military Diver.”
Perhaps the most significant of the anniversaries is the
centennial of the iconic Mark V diving helmet. In 1915
Gunner George D. Stillson produced a report on deep div-
ing tests that contained drawings for the precursor of the
Mark V. Nicknamed the “Copper Collar” and recognizable
for having four round windows on the front, sides and top
of the helmet, the Mark V was used in U.S. Navy service
until 1984, remains in service with allied services such as
South Korea and still is manufactured for commercial use.
This year also marks the 70th anniversary of Naval
Support Activity Panama City, Fla., and the Naval Surface
Warfare Center Panama City Division as well as the 40th
anniversary of the move of the Navy Experimental Diving
Unit from the Washington Navy Yard to Panama City. It’s
also the 35th anniversary of the Naval Diving and Salvage
Training Center, which is the largest facility of its type in
the world. At present, some 1,200 servicemen and women
from all five services train at the facility per annum.
Graduates would build on an impressive legacy. Chief
Gunner’s Mate Thomas Eadie earned a Medal of Honor
following his efforts to free a fellow diver involved in the
failed attempt to rescue 40 Sailors trapped in the sunken
USS S- 4 in December 1927. A dozen years later, Chief
Boatswain’s Mate Orson L. Crandell, Chief Metalsmith
James H. McDonald, and Torpedoman 1st Class John
Mihalowski received Medals of Honor for their success-
ful efforts in using an experimental rig to extract all 33
trapped Sailors in USS Squalus.
Navy divers played an essential role in salvaging the
battleships Oklahoma, West Virginia, Maryland, California
and Tennessee from the mud of Pearl Harbor, as well as
Nevada, which had beached following an attempt to
escape. Except for Oklahoma, which was damaged
beyond economical repair, the salvaged ships gave good
account during the rest of the war.
Navy divers would continue to serve with distinction as
the Korean and Vietnam conflicts created challenging sal-
vage opportunities. During the 1960s, Navy divers took on
a mission of the highest national importance following the
January 1966 collision of a B-52G Stratofortress and a KC-
135 Stratotanker, which resulted in the loss of a nuclear
bomb off the coast of Palomares, Spain. Navy divers would
recover the bomb, but not without cost.
During recovery operation on USS Hoist, a snapped
line severely injured the first African American who
had graduated from the Navy’s Diving and Salvage
School a dozen years before. Despite an amputated leg,
Chief Petty Officer Carl Brashear returned to duty and
earned certification in 1970 as a Master Diver.
More recent operations include the recovery of
remains and debris following the explosion of Space
Shuttle Challenger in 1986 and TWA Flight 800 in 1996.
Not all missions are at sea. In 2002, Navy recompression
chambers supported the rescue of nine trapped miners
from a collapsed shaft in Somerset, Penn. ;
For additional diving and salvage history as well as updates on
Year of the Military Diver events, visit the NDSTC website:
Dr. David F. Winkler is a historian with the Naval Historical
Marking the Year of the Military Diver
By DAVID F. WINKLER
WWW.SEAPOWERMAGAZINE.ORG 78 SEAPOWER / APRIL 2015