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In 1972, at the time that Brazil bought my old diesel-powered submarine out from under me, I still owed the U.S. Navy another year of active duty. I spent three more months in charge of a team of eighteen crew members who were teaching the Brazilians how to operate aboard our old boat . I then took a month of well-earned leave. Then for the last eight months of my four-year obligation I was transferred from Key West, Florida to San Diego, California, where I was assigned to the research bathyscaph Trieste II (DSV-1). There were some minor incidents worth mentioning about that unique duty assignment, and there were a few not so minor.

1. (Minor)

The President's Commission on Oceans and Atmosphere came to see Trieste on a fact-finding tour. At the end of the day, one member of the commission, a former Commander in the U.S. Navy during WWII, wanted to go a half-block away to the Officers Club. A few of us went, and we sat at the bar and had a drink with Arthur Godfrey.

2. (Minor)

Whenever Trieste went deep, which was whenever it submerged, the crew tied a cage to the deck of the 'scaph with whatever wire was handy. The cage contained styrofoam cups. The first time it happened when I was aboard, they just handed me a styrofoam cup and said, "Write something on it." So, not knowing what was going on, I wrote a sestet from Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It turns out that an eight-ounce styrofoam cup, once subjected to sea pressure at a depth of 6,000 feet or so, shrank. After that it could hold perhaps an ounce, perhaps half that much. It was not quite exactly the same shape as before, but similar. And smaller. It was a nice, though fragile, souvenir.

The Styrofoam of the Deep

3. (Scary)

One time the floating drydock that was our mother ship was itself taken away for repairs, and we were suddenly asked to go inspect a fresh artifact on the ocean bottom. Since we lacked all the support systems from the support ship, we had to make it up as we were going along. A crane lifted the bathyscaph from the pier and lowered it into the water. We pumped aviation gasoline into the buoyancy chamber. We loaded iron shot into the ballast hopper by hand. An ocean-going tug slowly towed the rig out to sea. Everything worked out okay.

But then we got back to port, and it was time to pump 80,000 gallons of aviation gasoline out of the 'scaph and back into the fuel farm. But we needed a blanket of nitrogen to inert the 'scaph as we pumped out the avgas, and our nitrogen was aboard the absent floating drydock. So we called a commercial industrial gas firm to provide us with the nitrogen. When the truck arrived, I was the only officer present, so I was busy making all the arrangements, when I noticed that the truck was labeled, in giant letters, LIQUID OXYGEN. This did not seem like a good idea to me. So I challenged the delivery driver. He pulled out the packing slip and pointed out that the truck had been filled with liquid nitrogen, despite what it said in giant letters on the side. I was skeptical. So he walked over to our coffee mess, picked up a styrofoam cup, opened a spigot on the side of the truck, and drew off a cupful of liquid something. He struck a match and held the lighted match over the cup. The match was quickly extinguished. That was pretty impressive, so I let him use the "nitrogen" to inert the 'scaph. The rest of the operation was uneventful.

A few years later I was working for Sperry Rand, and we got a contract to install some process control systems at a Shell Oil refinery. The lab there had liquid gases in quantity. I told the lab guys my story. They looked at me funny, and then one of them took a styrofoam cup, went over to the liquid oxygen tap, and drew off a cupful of liquid oxygen. He struck a match and held it over the top of the liquid oxygen. The match went out. He explained that it was due to the condensation of the humidity from the air over the extremely cold surface of the oxygen. So I still don't know for sure whether I used oxygen or nitrogen to "inert" the gasoline tanks on the bathyscaph.

4. (Minor)

Auguste Piccard built the Trieste, later known as the Trieste I, for academic research purposes. The U.S. Navy bought the Trieste I, then ordered a newer version built to their own specifications. The Italian-French-Swiss heritage of the Trieste was carefully camouflaged, but they forgot to change the part where one piece of equipment was lubricated by "pushing an olive through the tube".

5. (Doubly Scary)

The stuff that you do, you just don't think about it at the time, and you don't even remember most of it. I'm thinking of the time we almost sent a Submiss/Subsunk message.

These messages were created in the 1960s, perhaps after the Thresher was lost, or more likely after Scorpion went down. But there was a special format and process and mechanism for this kind of message, because of the problems that had happened in letting the President know about the situation. In the case of a combat submarine, there was a standard in the number of hours after a communication was due, before the President was notified. For the DSVs and DSRVs such as the Trieste, the Submiss/Subsunk time frame was minutes, not hours.

Since I was selected to be the officer who remained on the surface, I used the underwater telephone to communicate with my counterparts aboard the 'scaph during the dive. The "underwater telephone" used for that purpose is a sonar system, very low-fidelity, for talking with submerged folks, or rather, for talking with folks in submerged vehicles. There was a noticeable delay in carrying on a conversation with someone who was 6,000 feet away, even with the rapid speed of sound in water. Our researchers on the ocean bottom on this day were acting like researchers, and not like submariners, and they got interested in something they were working on, and the underwater telephone became a nuisance, so they turned off the UWT. After ten minutes, we were required to call the White House.

So I got on a voice radio circuit from our ocean-going tugboat to NavCommSta San Diego, and I told them to open an unencrypted, unclassified, FLASH priority voice channel to the White House. The Commanding Officer of the fleet tug began reading from the laminated card on which I had written the exact time, latitude, longitude, and water depth. He was almost finished with the message when the UWT sprang to life with the researchers exclaiming about something amazing that they had seen. The tug skipper simply concluded his dictation with, "Cancel this message. Cancel this message."

In the hot washup of the incident, we were told that a Marine Colonel had left the EOB and had walked over to the basement of the White House to position himself to deliver our message. Then I guess he just walked back.

6. (Dumb)

Trieste used iron BBs for negative buoyancy, and avgas (aviation gasoline) for positive buoyancy. During a dive the Trieste dribbled off iron shot or avgas as necessary, to maintain neutral buoyancy. I was the hull officer, and I ordered the iron BBs by the barrel from the original source in Italy. One time I got a delivery of American iron BBs instead of the Italian iron BBs that I had ordered. The Bureau of Supplies and Accounts was apparently on a "Buy American" kick. I opened the 55-gallon drum and inspected the American iron BBs, and I was worried about their quality and consistency, and about the amount of slag in the barrel.

The BBs were carried in a hopper in the middle of the bathyscaph. The hopper funneled down to a drain pipe that had a coil of wire in it. The iron BBs were held in place by a magnetic field generated by that coil of wire. In order to ascend, the bathyscaph pilot turned off the current to the coil of wire, and the iron BBs dribbled out the bottom. When the current was restored, the BBs stopped flowing. Big chunks of slag would have been a big problem.

The Good Stuff

I wrote a letter of concern, and sent it up through the chain of command. I asked whether these American iron BBs complied with the technical requirements, since I couldn't find a specification for the BBs. The letter went up the chain to the Officer in Charge of the Trieste (we didn't have a Commanding Officer) to the "Commodore" of Submarine Development Group One, to Commander Submarine Flotilla One, to Commander, Submarine Forces, U.S. Pacific Fleet, to the Commandant of the Naval Ships Systems Command, to the Commandant of Mare Island Naval Shipyard, then back to the Officer in Charge of Trieste. The last forwarding letter said that the expertise with making this decision was with the Hull Officer of Trieste, and that was me.

I rejected the American BBs, four months after I had asked for an expert opinion.

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