Above & Beyond: The Undertakers
- By Gary L. Harris
- Air & Space magazine, January 2001
Florida’s Cape Canaveral had two primary features that promoted its selection as a missile test laboratory in the 1950s. First, its flight range was over the Atlantic Ocean. Second, that ocean contained a string of small islands that could serve as tracking bases when test missiles flew over. But when something went wrong during a missile flight, the ocean floor became the missile’s last resting place.
At the height of cold war rocket testing, the Cape saw the launching of as many as 287 missiles in one year. In one 24-hour period, the U.S. Air Force, Army, and Navy fired eight major missiles. Many of these developmental attempts were failures, as missilemen learned their art through trial and error. The ear-splitting noise and blinding flash of a dying rocket plunging into the ocean in pieces became common occurrences.
When an intercontinental or intermediate-range ballistic missile fell into the ocean, its precious flight data went down with it. The nation’s security depended on rapidly locating and salvaging the test vehicle to determine what went wrong. On call was a small group of commercial divers and underwater recovery specialists, nicknamed the Undertakers. The divers rarely went wanting for work.
The company name was Lou Berger Divers Inc. Though Berger owned the company, Vern Nealy, diving superintendent and manager, was its soul. Cape missilemen once bragged of having rocket fuel in their veins; Nealy’s blood was pure saltwater.
Nealy had worked as a diver on a glass-bottom tourist boat in Miami’s Biscayne Bay. Using an open-bottom copper diving helmet, he would scam the tourists by selling them seashells he claimed to have plucked from the bottom of the bay. But shells do not occur naturally in Biscayne Bay. Nealy hid shells from Florida’s west coast in a bag on the boat’s keel.
In 1954 Berger was awarded the Air Force missile recovery contract for the Cape and missile test ranges. Lou Berger had met Nealy on the tourist boat and asked him to come work at the Cape. Unknown to the Air Force, the duo’s limited scuba and open-bottom helmet diving experience were the sum of their salvage background, but in those days, diving, like rocket engineering, was an art that one learned as he went along.
After hiring a few former Navy demolition divers and several commercial divers, and getting the use of Air Force crash boats, the Undertakers got their first job in October: the recovery of a Snark cruise missile that had fallen in 50 feet of water just off the beach. Launch crews had watched it go into the water, so locating and salvaging the errant Snark proved relatively easy. When divers arrived at the site, bubbles and hydraulic fluid were still oozing up from the remains. The Berger Divers picked up debris and marked the site with buoys. Later, with Nealy doing the rigging, the wreckage was slung and hauled up with a crane. Subsequent efforts to recover other wayward missiles were less straightforward.
In the mid-1950s the frequency of missile launches on the Cape rapidly increased. The Army attempted to perfect its Redstone and Jupiter missiles and the Air Force struggled to get its balky first ICBM, the Atlas, and later the Titan, into operation. The Navy, struggling with its Polaris missile, was not having much more luck.