Angels in Lead Boots

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong

One night when we were sitting around in the After Battery somewhere between the last reel of Cheaper By The Dozen and the arrival of mid rats. Some lower-order citizen in raggedy dungarees and a four-week old beard looks over at the chief and asked,

“Hey Dutch, you believe in angels?”

“Sure, horsefly. Not the kind with wings… The kind who wears rubberized, canvas suits and bronze helmets… Descend from above to save you… Navy Divers. When you hear those magnificent bastards clomping around on your walking deck, you can go back to issuing liberty cards.”

Nobody respects and honors Navy Divers more than the lads who ride underwater ordinance platforms. Any man stupid enough to speak ill of a hardhat diver in the presence of a smoke boat sailor could count on the next twenty to thirty seconds of his future being filled with activity specifically designed to place his dental work flush up against his spinal column.

There’s a line in an old vaudeville song called the Darktown Strutters Ball. It goes,

“Be down to getcha in a taxi, baby…”

…Or something close to that. They should paint that on the side of every ASR. That’s what they do for a living… They come and get you. If you can reach bottom with watertight integrity, they will come get you. You can make book on that.

If you are beyond the ‘Continental shelf’, you will end up wearing your pressure hull as a pea coat and spending eternity with your crew… Either way, God and the United States Navy have removed all doubt about the ultimate outcome.

Our ‘rescue vessel’ was the USS Kittiwake. She was always tied up aft of whatever nest we happened to be in. There was something very comforting about her being there.

They used to do something with those big ugly looking diving suits… I think the proper name was ‘deep-diving dress’. God did not provide me the size testicles it would take to use ‘Navy Salvage Diver’ and the word ‘dress’ in the same sentence. They would hang those deep-diving suits up and perform some kind of maintenance on them.

Looking at them gave a kid riding submarines a good feeling… They were a silent symbol of a navy that gave a damn about her undersea bluejackets. If you could be gotten, men who wore those canvas suits would come get you. You knew that and it made you feel good about the outfit you belonged to.

That was a confidence the poor bastards who rode Russian boats never had… Or if they did, it was an ill-placed confidence, as became all too evident with the Manny, Moe and Curley ineptitude shown in their repeated attempts to bring up the lads of the Kursk.

If those idiots had placed a 911 call for U.S. Navy Divers, I have no doubt that a few more Russian boat sailors would be tossing down vodka with an arm full of Olga and Natasha tonight. The poor sonuvabitches ran out of air while a clown act tap-danced all over their superstructure. What a way to turn in your gear… Sitting in darkness, listening to idiots trying to ‘get it right’.

Salvage divers hold a very special place in our hearts… As well they should. There are boat sailors alive today who got the opportunity to grow old, compliments of Navy Divers. Forget that and you become at best, an ungrateful sonuvabitch.

The ones I had the honor of meeting were big burley rascals, with hands the size of a picnic ham and fingers like half smokes. I never shook hands with the Jolly Green Giant but it has to be like shaking hands with a diver.

The rascals splice steel cable. I was a leading seaman… I know how to splice 3 and 5 lay hemp line… But gahdam steel cable? You’ve got to be out of your mind! That is how they get those oak bark fingers. You spend your career getting wire cuts all over your fingers and God compensates you for your trouble with hands like a junkyard crane bucket.

Fine brave unselfish bastards… God’s weirdest emissaries, who descend from above in bronze helmets with lead belts and heavy boots to save mother’s sons who make their living riding this nations submarines.

I work with a gentleman named Bill Duvall. I have known Bill for many years of professional association. He is an executive engineer with the federal government.

The other day, I learned that Bill Duvall was once Lt. Garner W. Duvall, a rated Navy Diver and OPS officer on the salvage ship, USS Cree. Bill Duvall, a Navy Diver.

This means I am obligated to buy this old saltwater ‘breathe through a hose’ bronze helmet soul-saver, cold beer and listen to his sea stories. E-3s learned early that if you failed to buy a hardhat diver his first beer, you ran the risk that the bastard would splice your toes together and hang you upside down in his paint locker.

But the best thing about learning that Bill was a diver is that it lets me say a long overdue ‘thank you’ to men who took incredible risk on our behalf… And Bill is the kind of man you expect a diver to be… A big smiling rascal with those vice grip mitts and an I-beam spine built to haul a couple of hundred pounds of working gear.

God bless all deep-depth divers…. wherever in the hell you are.