Year of the Military Diver

Children try on Kirby Morgan 37 diving helmets during the public visitation day at the NDSTC.

The first submarine rescue in U.S. history occurred in 1939, when a team of Navy divers used the McCann Rescue Chamber to bring back the 33 survivors from the sunken submarine USS Squalus. Several years later, Navy divers helped to raise nearly every ship sunk in the attack on Pearl Harbor (except the USS Arizona and USS Utah) to be repaired and dispatched to engage the Japanese fleet. Continuing this brave tradition, military divers have helped to recover victims, black boxes and bits of wreckage to piece together an accident or crime scene in many significant events of the past several decades, such as the crash of TWA Flight 800, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, the I-35 bridge collapse in Minnesota and the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster.

This year, the "Year of the Military Diver," marks several important anniversaries for the U.S. Navy, including the 100th anniversary of the Mark V diving helmet, the 35th anniversary of the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center and the 40th anniversary of women in U.S. Navy diving.
The Mark V Turns 100
There is perhaps no symbol more evocative of U.S. Navy diving than the Mark V dive helmet, a workhorse of Navy deep-sea diving and an emblem of the divers' courage, perseverance and professionalism.

At the turn of the last century, the U.S. Navy did not have standardized diving equipment or procedures. In 1915 Navy gunner G.D. Stillson produced the "Report on Deep Diving Tests," which evaluated policies and techniques and included drawings for a helmet that would become the Mark V. The Morse Diving Equipment Co. manufactured the first prototype of the helmet in 1916, and production of the Mark V began in 1917.

Navy divers in 1956 dive with Mark V dive systems in Panama City.

The Mark V rig's incorporation of a weight belt signaled a departure from earlier diving dress, which relied on a weighted breastplate to achieve neutral or negative buoyancy. A weight belt lowered the diver's center of gravity, making the Mark V rig more stable on the bottom. The durable rubberized canvas suit worn with the Mark V helmet offered divers protection from cold, contaminated water and other environmental hazards. Wrist cuffs and a rubber neck seal kept out water, and divers stayed warm using wool undergarments layered beneath the suit. The complete setup, including heavy boots, weighed up to 300 pounds. The U.S. Navy used the Mark V until the early 1980s and then switched to the fiberglass Mark 12.
40th Anniversary of Women in U.S. Navy Diving
Over the past four decades many women have served as U.S. Navy divers, although they currently comprise less than 1 percent of the military divers trained each year. All Navy divers regardless of gender go through the same exhaustive training, meet the same high standards and receive pay, rank and promotions based solely on merit.

The path women forged 40 years ago was not easy. Donna Tobias applied to be a Navy diver in 1974; she dived in more than 200 pounds of gear, often in dark, cold or turbulent water. "If you uttered the words, ‘I quit,' you could never take them back," she said, but she was relentless. "I didn't want them asking less of a woman — ever, for anything." In 1975 Tobias became the first woman to graduate from the Navy Deep Sea Diving School, going on to work on Navy search and salvage operations. She also served as a submarine escape instructor, a hyperbaric chamber operator and a scuba instructor.

Many more pioneers followed. Master Chief Petty Officer Mary Bonnin became the first female Master Diver in 1990, and in 1992 Capt. Marie Knafelc, M.D., Ph.D., became the highest-ranking medical officer at the Navy Experimental Diving Unit. In 2010 Martha Herb, one of the first female officers to graduate from the Navy School of Diving and Salvage, became the first female diving officer to hold the rank of rear admiral. Rear Adm. Bette Bolivar, the second female diver to become a flag officer, continues to serve on active duty today. Capt. Bobbie Scholley, a U.S. Navy Diving Salvage Officer since 1983, was the first female U.S. Navy Supervisor of Diving.

Several of these diving pioneers gathered in Panama City, Fla., in May for the weeklong "Year of the Military Diver" celebration. Scholley spoke enthusiastically about the event: "It was amazing to bring together women divers from the past with the women divers who are out there right now doing a phenomenal job and carrying on the progress we initiated."

Many of these divers are members of the Women Divers Hall of Fame, an international nonprofit organization founded in 2000 (see
35th Anniversary of the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center
Marking its 35th anniversary at its present location in Panama City, the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center (NDSTC) trains divers from all services as well as the Department of Homeland Security, other government agencies and allied nations. The NDSTC trains more than 1,200 students in various diving operations and dive medicine each year.

Navy divers

A boy sizes up a statue of a Navy diver during a public visitation day
at the NDSTC in May 2015.
work in harsh environments and at extreme depths, so their training is rigorous. Besides the physical training — which includes thousands of yards of swimming, running through sand dunes and performing endless calisthenics — the dive students learn from a robust academic and technical aptitude curriculum that includes diving physics and medicine.

Students also undergo pool confidence training in which instructors simulate a personal attack, removing the divers' equipment and turning off their air supply while spinning and dragging them around the pool. Instructors also impose underwater scenarios that test the student's problem-solving skills and the ability to remain calm under pressure. Additionally, all students must pass a test in which they swim 1,000 yards in open water on their backs in a straight line with their arms folded on their chest while kicking with fins — in less than 22 minutes.

Depending on the specific training course, the remaining few weeks or months of training include use of underwater tools, underwater welding, torch cutting, underwater demolitions or special insertion techniques.

"Regardless of whether these students undertake the basic five-week scuba course or the five-month Second Class Diver course, they are transformed into ‘warriors of the deep,'" said Cmdr. Hung Cao, commanding officer of the NDSTC. "They train this way because the sea is unforgiving. The ocean doesn't care who you are, where you come from, your gender or the color of your skin. It only cares that you are prepared."

The dropout rate of trainees is between 20 and 30 percent, and those who pass are considered to be among the most elite military divers in the world.
Explore More
Watch a report about the Year of the Military Public Visitation Day at the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center.

Discover the challenges of Pool Week at the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center.

© Alert Diver — Q3 Summer 2015