Friday, February 25, 2011

Book Review: Descent into Darkness Pearl Harbor, 1941 (The True Story of a Navy Diver)

August 21, 2010

The standard narrative of World War II in the Pacific long engraved on the American psyche moves from the devastation at Pearl Harbor to the dark days of Bataan and first good news of the Doolittle raid.  From there, the tactical defeat but strategic victory at the Coral Sea, the stunning turning point of Midway, the Marines' savage struggle for Guadalcanal, fighting in the jungles of New Guinea, and the bloody island-hopping campaign.

But while all this was happening, Pearl Harbor was a beehive of activity, and not just with the comings and goings of Navy ships and in-transit personnel.  Every day, civilian and Navy "hardhat" divers like Edward Raymer donned almost 100lb of bulky diving gear and descended into the blackness of the oil-covered waters of Pearl to undertake the important and hazardous task of salvaging what they could of the once-proud battleships sunk and damaged in the attack and refloating as many of them as possible so they could be repaired and sent to the fight that had been over for them almost as soon as it had begun.  In Descent into Darkness Pearl Harbor, 1941 (The True Story of a Navy Diver), retired US Navy Commander Edward C. Raymer (formerly an enlisted sailor and the first person to dive on the sunken U.S.S. Arizona) weaves a fascinating tale of a relatively unknown but important part of the war in the Pacific – the attempt to undo as much as possible the damage from the Japanese sneak attack on the Pacific Fleet.  In so doing, he brings to life a motley cast of ordinary but brave, dedicated and hardworking sailors who are a microcosm of the Greatest Generation who triumphed in World War II, and who, like the combat sailors, sometimes gave their lives in doing so.

The nature of the divers' work dictated that it be done alone and unsupervised.  The kind of officers that would normally try to micromanage things were only too happy to leave the terrifying work up to the enlisted divers once they experienced it themselves.  This work involved painstakingly moving through fully fueled and armed battleships that were ripped apart and strewn with wreckage and debris.  It was up to the individual divers to overcome countless problems and hazards that had never been encountered in peacetime salvage diving, whether it was jagged steel, the removal of 2,000lb high explosive shells from magazines or the deadly buildup of explosive gases.  And because the work was inside sunken ships in water covered and saturated in fuel oil and debris, it was all done in pitch darkness and had to be accomplished with the help of radioed directions from ship's plans and done completely by feel – a feel that was finely honed in the months and years they toiled in the inky blackness.  The cadre of divers were true pioneers who invented solutions and procedures that became adopted as standard later on.  And from the Publisher's Weekly review, "Raymer's memoir is useful above all as a case study of the hands-on, un-bureaucratized approach to problem-solving that the U.S. brought to WWII from the beginning."

Raymer hilariously relates off-duty antics as the divers ingeniously circumvented prohibition (of liquor) in order outmaneuver an entire island of soldiers, sailors and Marines to secure female companionship for a series of covert beach parties.  But he also sensitively treats the difficult subject of encountering the bodies of sailors still entombed in the ships.  Phobias – fears of the dark, confinement, drowning and being buried alive all came into play as every day brought new challenges to be overcome.  (Even arachnophobia was a problem in an incident that will either terrify or amuse, depending on one's feelings towards spiders).

Raymer and a fellow diver spent a hardly peaceful interlude in the jungles of Guadalcanal and the waters of "The Slot" between the Solomon Islands.  Dodging the nightly "Tokyo Express" of marauding Japanese cruisers and destroyers, the sailors worked to repair ships and resupply the Marines on the island, for whom they gained a profound respect after observing and sharing in some of their hardships.  A high point was doing underwater repair work in crystal clear sunlit waters – something they had not yet experienced in the war.  The low point was the torpedoing and sinking of their home away from home, the repair ship U.S.S. Seminole.

After a 30-day survivors leave in San Francisco, Raymer returned to his brother divers and continued the work at Pearl Harbor on the USS Arizona, Utah, West Virginia, California and Oklahoma. He served as a liaison to news reporters and even a tour guide of the Oklahoma to none other than First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.  Some of the battlewagons were beyond saving – the Utah was scuttled and the Arizona remained at the bottom of the harbor, becoming a sacred monument and a tomb for more than a thousand sailors.  Others lived to fight again, like the lightly damaged Tennessee and the West Virginia, which was present at the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945, where the long, costly and bloody war was finally brought to a close.

If you're interested in history, curious about the "rest of" the Pearl Harbor story, love the salty vocabulary and tales of the Navy, are curious about working diving in canvas suits, weighted shoes and copper helmets in the days before SCUBA, wonder what it was like when important work wasn't weighed down with a web of nonsensical rules and regulations, or just want a good read, Descent Into Darkness is highly recommended.

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