Newport and Navy Diving

Mention Newport to most people and their first thoughts will be of mansions, yachting and colonial homes. Others will recall their time served at the Naval War College or at one of the many schools at Naval Station Newport, earning it the title of “Campus of the Navy.” Many others will fondly recall being stationed with the countless destroyer squadrons that made Newport their homeport.

Few if any, however, would be familiar with Newport and the birth of US Navy diving, a proud tradition which continues today. This story begins shortly after the Civil War, a conflict which showed the potential of torpedoes in naval combat. Even though the spar torpedoes used in that conflict required getting up close and personal with the enemy, in England Robert Whitehead during the same period was beginning to experiment with a weapon which would revolutionize naval warfare. He made the leap from designing ship power plants to torpedoes and his success helped spur the US Navy to open the Naval Torpedo Station on Goat Island on July 29, 1869.

Whitehead’s torpedo gained great fame around the world in the 1860’s and not surprisingly the US Navy took notice. In 1869 William Radford, in command of U.S.S. Franklin during a port visit to Trieste, Italy, took a side trip to nearby Fiume, home of the Whitehead factory. This gave Radford the chance to see and closely examine the famous automobile torpedo, but the American contingent felt the $20,000 British pound cost was exorbitant. Despite this, Radford was duly impressed with the innovative technology and sent a report extoling its virtues to Admiral David Porter at Navy headquarters in Washington. Porter was sold on the weapon as well and forwarded the report to the brand-new torpedo station in Newport and requested that they: “examine carefully into this subject and ascertain if torpedoes of this plan cannot be gotten us.”

Just two years later in 1871, Lieutenant Commander Matthews, commanding officer of the station, began developing the fish torpedo. This weapon, although discontinued in 1874 with the departure of Matthews, inspired Lieutenant John Howell, USN to design a flywheel powered version. Howell was awarded a patent in 1871 for this propulsion system and in 1884 the Howell was the first automobile torpedo adopted by the US Navy. He was a junior officer at the battle of Mobile Bay where Admiral Farragut uttered his famous command “Damn the torpedoes! Four Bells! Captain Dayton go ahead! Jouett full speed!” The Union monitor Tecumseh had just been sunk by a mine which caused hesitation among the other Union vessels leading Farragut to shout out the order. Although not a torpedo as we know them, the fact that a submerged weapon could sink a ship added fuel to the fire of naval warfare development which continues today. The other demonstration of underwater combat that set the stage for the immediate post-Civil War years was the sinking of USS Housatonic by a spar torpedo deployed by the CSS Hunley on February 17, 1864. This incident had an enormous impact on both torpedo and submarine development as well as navy diving. All three technologies came to rely on divers to perform numerous tasks which previous generations of undersea explorers never envisioned.

Fish and Howell torpedoes on exhibit at NWC Museum

The wakeless run of the Howell in combat was advantageous but when they began sinking during test runs the lack of any surface clues to location quickly became a problem. The solution, of course, was to send a diver to locate the weapon, a task beyond the Gunners Mates who were often assigned as ship’s divers to handle more mundane duties. NTS initially hired local commercial divers but as the pace of production and testing quickly accelerated the cost became prohibitive.

The Navy decided to train their own divers for recovery operations and in 1882 the first USN dive school was opened on Goat Island. The first instructor was Chief Gunners Mate Jacob Anderson, a well-liked teacher whose legacy is carried on with the affectionate name “Jake” still used for a complete hard hat dive outfit. His first courses were only 2 weeks in length and trained Gunners' Mates to dive just to sixty feet to recover exercise torpedoes, more than enough depth for the shallow waters near Goat Island.

Young officers learning to dive at the Torpedo Station, Newport, R.I., summer of 1900, under the instruction of Caleb West, Master Diver.
Courtesy of Naval Historical Collection

Just as torpedoes were becoming more sophisticated and deadly, so was their principal delivery vehicle, the submarine. As these new vessels evolved, they ventured farther and deeper, pushing the envelope of existing technology. Not surprisingly, this resulted in the loss of several of them with catastrophic results and multiple fatalities. Divers trained in Newport figured prominently in the rescue attempts of these vessels and sadly in the recovery of their crews. As the pace of dive instruction picked up, it was deemed necessary in 1915 to build a tank to allow year-round training even when Newport harbor was covered in ice. On May 8, 1917 Frederick E. Reif, plumber and pipefitter, drowned in the tank while receiving dive training, the cause was believed to be a problem with his Mk. 5 dive helmet.By 1905 it was time for written instructions and the NTS published: “Manual for divers-Handbook for Seaman gunners”. At 44 pages this publication covered the basics of a nascent but rapidly evolving science. It spelled out “requirements for divers” and it listed conditions which disqualified candidates: palpitations of the heart and fainting spells and those affected with cough, asthma, or sinus problems. The manual also suggests that men who have long trunks with well-developed chests and loins generally make good divers, and recommends they not “be hard drinkers, nor have suffered frequently from venereal disease. Personality should be “cool-headed, calm and of a phlegmatic temperament. As a diver myself it is amazing that these traits were recognized so early on as being desirable.

The shallow waters surrounding Goat Island did not allow divers to experience the depths they would soon be expected to perform in. To remedy this an experimental diving station was established at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1912 where the next generation of Navy divers learned to make the quantum leap from 60-foot dives to 300 feet. In 1914 Gunner George D. Stillson and Navy surgeon George R.W. French teamed up to conduct some of the first dives made into the open ocean in depths far more than previously had been done. These dives were made from the USS Walke DD-34, a Paulding class destroyer specially outfitted for the task and at A. Schrader’s Sons Inc. in Brooklyn, one of the leading dive equipment manufacturers of the time. Schrader’s facility included a “high-pressure diving tank” in the words of Stillson which allowed divers to experience several atmospheres of pressure in the safety of a controlled environment.

Of course, a tank cannot duplicate the real world of open water with currents and poor visibility that often plagues divers. That was solved beginning on October 22, 1914 with Stillson, French and four other divers propelled Navy diving into a realm where virtually no person had ever gone.

These dives were in stages for over two weeks starting at 84 feet, then to 90 on to 137 followed by 171. This experimentation was as much about testing the divers as it was the equipment, both passed with flying colors. The 171-foot dive was not enough for Stillson and his crew so the Walke searched for a deeper spot and found one at the eastern end of Long Island known as the Race for how water races in and out of the Sound.

It was here on November 3, 1914 that Chief Gunners Mate S.J, Drellishak made it to the bottom in a 7-minute descent, 5-minute bottom time and a 1 hour 20-minute ascent. Even at this early date decompression sickness or the bends was well known, having first been seen on a large scale while building the Brooklyn Bridge in 1873. The slow ascent allows nitrogen bubbles to escape safely from the diver’s bloodstream, helping to prevent this sometimes-fatal affliction. In less than a year this experimental dive would be replaced with an all too real mission which tested the mettle of many newly minted navy divers.  

On March 25, 1915, the US submarine F-4 (SS-23) left Honolulu on a training mission and was lost at sea shortly afterwards just 1.5 miles from the harbor. The next day an oil slick and air bubbles showed her location and some of the same record setting divers were quickly dispatched to Hawaii. She was located at a depth of 305 feet and was the first commissioned US submarine to be lost at sea, all 21 of her crew perished. As with the depth setting dives just a few months prior off Long Island, the recovery of F-4 was a groundbreaking effort that required a series of dives to lift her off the bottom and move her in stages to shallow water. This dangerous and time-consuming project saw the F-4 recovered and then buried in a trench in Pearl Harbor where she remains to this day.

In the 1920’s our submarine force continued to grow, unfortunately this growth was accompanied by more disasters. Two Newport trained divers figured prominently in their recovery efforts and one of them saved the life of the other. These divers, now legends in the annals of Navy diving were Tom Eadie class of 1909 and Fred Michels class of 1917, it is probable that Eadie was the instructor who taught Michels. These two, along with others, were thrown into the dangerous world of submarine recovery on two separate tragedies, both in New England waters.

Eadie, Carr and Michels on USS Falcon

The first occurred on September 25, 1925 when S-51 was making her way on the surface about 14 miles east of Block Island when she was struck by the steamship City of Rome about 10:24 p.m. She flooded quickly and sank in 132 feet of water with only 3 of her crew surviving, managing to escape through the conning tower hatch. Divers were dispatched from the torpedo station in Newport and reached the wreck the next day, Eadie and Michels were soon to get their trial by fire just a few miles from their Newport home and base. The first diver to reach the sub hammered along the hull but got no response, concluding correctly that all those inside were dead. Initially a private salvage firm with derricks and divers attempted to raise the sub but was unsuccessful and the Navy took over the recovery operation.

Talking by telephone with the divers at work on the S-51

The torch was then passed to the commander of the submarine base in New London CT. Captain Earnest J. King, he would later become CNO during WW II. King was tasked with the difficult job of raising the S-51, the rescue mission became a recovery. Using tools and techniques perfected on the F-4 salvage, the large crew of divers managed to raise her damaged hull using large pontoons, a technique employed on many subsequent projects. She finally broke the surface on June 5, 1926, she was sold to the Borough Metal Company of Brooklyn for $3,320. The use of a telephone link to the diver’s helmet and a decompression chamber doubtless saved lives and became standard practice throughout the US Navy. Eadie and Michels were both awarded the Navy Cross for this dangerous operation and would be reunited on another submarine rescue turned recovery just over two years later.

This next operation is a sad tale worthy of a Hollywood movie and caught the world’s attention. On December 17, 1927 USS S-4, an eight-year-old S-class sub was engaged in speed and handling tests near Provincetown, Mass at the tip of Cape Cod. At the same time, the Coast Guard destroyer Paulding, DD 22 (CG-17) was on patrol in the same area making way at about 18 knots searching for rumrunners. At 15:37, S-4 began to surface, the officer on deck aboard Paulding spotted the wake of her periscope on her bow. He immediately ordered: “Hard astern and Full right rudder” but it was too late, Paulding rammed into S-4 punching two holes in her, one in a ballast tank and another in her pressure hull. As freezing water rushed into S-4, she began to sink, and Paulding’s crew noted their position and deployed one of her lifeboats which only spotted an oil slick which they promptly marked with a buoy.

S-4 settled on the bottom 110 feet down, her crew tried to stuff clothing into the 2-foot-long battery compartment gash to no avail. The crew members there evacuated that space and joined the others in the control room. Eventually chlorine gas formed from seawater mixing with the acid in the main batteries and forced crew members into the aft engine and motor rooms saving them for a while. But abandoning the control room meant they could not blow air into their ballast tanks, leaving them dependent on help from above.

By 0800 the next day, the USS Falcon arrived in Provincetown to meet ten Navy divers who were rushed there by motor vehicle from Newport. The first dive was made by Eadie who located the sub within 5 minutes and began tapping on the hull, he received 6 tapped replies from the torpedo loading hatch area indicating the number of those alive in that space. He continued tapping aft and was met with silence from the engine and motor rooms, the 34 crew members there perished overnight.

The six survivors became the focus of a desperate rescue effort which almost cost the life of diver Fred Michels who became entangled in the mangled sub when he brought a hose down in an attempt to pump fresh air into her. Despite his total exhaustion from his first dive, Tom Eadie was sent down to free his Newport dive friend and in a heroic effort managed to get his air hose untangled and both barely made it back to the surface.

With the weather rapidly worsening the Falcon had to depart for Boston but the submarine S-8 arrived on the scene and began to send morse code to S-4 using her oscillator. S-4 survivors reported that the air was very bad inside and asked how long will you be? Lt. Fitch was relayed a message via the Navy Department: “Lieutenant Fitch: your wife and mother constantly praying for you”.   Over 63 hours (about 2 and a half days) after her sinking his response was: three short taps meaning “I understand” It was the last communication received from her.

When the weather finally permitted, a diver managed to attach an air hose to the sub but his tapping was met with silence. On the surface the compressor was reversed, and an air sample was drawn from inside the sub, it showed a 7% carbon dioxide level, too high for long term exposure. On December 23, the Navy reported that all those aboard S-4 were presumed dead.

On March 17, 1928 the S-4 was raised by divers using pontoons in an operation similar to the S-51 recovery. The scene inside the sub revealed the last desperate days and hours of her crew with the aft spaces nearly dry, it was the air not seawater which killed them. One of the enlisted men, George Pelmar left a note on cardboard with a crayon with the address in Omaha where he wanted his body delivered for burial. Personal effects of all 40 officers and crew were placed on tables at the Boston Navy Yard including the ceremonial swords of her officers.

Divers who worked on S-4

For his heroic efforts on S-4, Eadie was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Calvin Coolidge and Fred Michels was awarded his second Navy Cross. These two are perhaps the most famous of the Newport dive school graduates, their names are synonymous with the cool headed and calm demeanor mentioned in the 1905 Divers Manual. Both all-star divers are buried in Newport and some of their offspring followed the path to the underwater world.Despite this tragic end, the loss of S-4 was not totally in vain, she was repaired, recommissioned, and used to conduct tests for submarine rescue. These included the McCann rescue chamber and the emergency breathing device the Momsen lung. These two devices were tested in the Florida Keys at a depth of 300 feet and divers were able to safely escape from the S-4, unfortunately too late for her original crew. The rescue chamber was used in 1939 on the USS Squalus, sunk in 243 feet of water off New Hampshire, 33 managed to escape proving the value of the invention.

Although the dive school left Newport in 1927 for Washington, D.C., diving continues in Newport today at the Naval Underwater Warfare Center, the Navy’s premier center for undersea technology. Fred Michel’s grandson, Mike Peirson became a US Navy diver himself and now works for the Engineering and Diving Support Unit there as a civilian diver.

Tom Eadie’s nephew, Stewart Robinson, became a commercial diver and was part of the crew that built the Newport Bridge, in the shadow of Goat Island where his uncle taught diving from 1913 to 1920.

Today’s divers be they military, commercial, or recreational stand on the shoulders of giants such as Eadie and Michels who dared the deep, paving the way for future generations of underwater explorers and warriors.

Bob Cembrola

Exhibits Manager

Naval War College Museum


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