Above & Beyond: The Undertakers

Above & Beyond: The Undertakers

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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.

They had just left Mangrove Cay, 10 miles from ground zero, when the Cape notified them that the first Redstone had left the pad. Knowing how long it took the rocket to reach the predicted impact area, the air crew started timing the flight. Flying straight into the impact zone, the B-17 crew, with Nealy on board, passed the telemetry barge and dive boats too early.

Realizing too late that he was inside the three-mile predicted impact area, Nealy, the hair on the back of his neck rising, was about to ask the B-17 pilot to turn around when the Redstone’s reentry shock wave shook the aircraft. Less than a mile in front of the B-17, the warhead’s massive impact splash blossomed up from the ocean. The pilot veered hard to the right; nevertheless, water droplets struck the airplane’s port windows.

Vern Nealy now lives in quiet retirement not far from Biscayne Bay. As I listened to him reminisce, I came to doubt that the modest diver or his Undertakers would lay much claim to having helped launch the Space Age or win the cold war. But they did both.

—Gary L. Harris

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