Above & Beyond: The Undertakers
- By Gary L. Harris
- Air & Space magazine, January 2001
(Page 2 of 3)
In operations with the military services at the Cape, Nealy worked out a general drill for missile recovery. Before any launch, crash boats and dive crews waited offshore to speed to the impact site should a failure occur. Onshore, two theodolite cameras tracking elevation and azimuth would follow the flight. Tracking radars from the Cape, the FPS-16 radar at nearby Patrick Air Force Base, and downrange radars on the islands also followed the rocket. The offshore boats could also use their own navigation radar to see the splash if a rocket landed in the water at night. To help with sighting the rocket if it fell near shore (as they often did), Nealy and a Coast Guard sailor would stand atop the Cape Canaveral lighthouse, which was only a few thousand feet from the launch pads. Using a small telescope, Nealy could get an additional azimuth fix on the crash site and guide dive boats to it by radio.
This system worked well until the Army suffered the first launch failure of the Jupiter IRBM. The rocket rose from the pad and promptly went off course. The range safety officer detonated the missile but the parts headed for the lighthouse. Nealy told me: “We were standing there transfixed, watching the thing with our mouths agape like idiots—not that we could go anywhere. It blew up between us and Hangar C [300 feet from the lighthouse] and took all the windows out of the hangar. [The blast] hit us in the face like a big feather pillow. After the explosion the Coast Guard guy and I ran around the top of the lighthouse and got in to run down the stairs, only to realize that we had a ton of glass Fresnel lens over our heads.” (Fortunately, the lens stayed intact.)
Days later a Thor missile launch blew up while Nealy was on the lighthouse, sending him and the sailor again searching for scant cover. Nealy opted to return to the relative safety of diving.
Diving in Cape waters is nothing like diving in the clear seas of South Florida. The bottom is covered with an adhesive clay-like soil called Blue Mud. Visibility near shore is often zero and the waters are cold most of the year. Wet suits didn’t exist in those days, and the divers didn’t like wearing the warmer but cumbersome commercial dive rigs. These were fine for underwater construction, but for searching great distances they were an encumbrance. Instead, the Undertakers wore the woolen long-johns supplied for the heavyweight diving suits, which provided insulation for short periods. They used a full-face rubber Desco mask, which was supplied with air from a surface compressor through an umbilical.
So outfitted, and with tennis shoes and weight belt (an Army cartridge belt with lead added), crews could search about a quarter square mile a day for a lost missile. Often test rockets blew up at altitudes of thousands of feet, and, depending on wind and currents, the debris could cover a wide area. Usually the military wanted the engine parts only, and the search area could be narrowed.
But when a search was extended due to the scattering of parts, the divers suffered dreadfully from the cold. They would walk the bottom for a short while, then surface and lay on the diesel engines of the crash boats to get warm. When they had stopped shivering, they again rigged up and went back in the water. These efforts went on 24 hours a day, and the divers sometimes suffered from exposure.
Eventually the Berger Divers expanded operations to the warm, clear waters of the Bahama Banks. In the late 1950s, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency fired 12 Redstone missiles downrange from the Cape into shallow water north of Grand Bahama Island near Mangrove Cay. The Army wanted the Undertakers to locate each missile’s dummy warhead and mark it with a beacon and strobe light so the Redstone’s exact range and accuracy could be determined. A radar-equipped telemetry barge was anchored three miles from the predicted impact point to locate the splash the warhead made as it hit the water. The divers anxiously waited near the barge and, when notified that the vehicle was down, raced to the site.
The waters were so clear that the crew of a Boeing B-17 assigned to the project could spot rocket debris on the seabed. Nealy often accompanied the air crews on these flights, so he could guide his divers to the impact site by radio. One day, in an effort to get a jump on the mission (and make beer call at the officers’ club), the B-17 pilot importuned Nealy to arrive at the impact area before the Cape could give the all-clear.