“It Was Just a Longer Day at the Office”: An Oral History with Don Walsh



The Project Nekton team, from left to right: Larry Shumaker, Don Walsh, Andy Rechnitzer, and Jacques Piccard.

On 23 January 1960, while aboard the bathyscaphe Trieste, Navy Lt. Don Walsh and Swiss engineer Jacques Piccard descended to the deepest depths of the world ocean in the Challenger Deep, several hundred miles from the Pacific island of Guam. An important watershed event in the history of the then nearly 14-year-old Office of Naval Research (ONR), Trieste’s record-setting dive of more than 35,800 feet epitomized the organization’s approach of fostering the creation of cutting-edge technology while also making advancements in science.

The project was several years in the making. Trieste was designed by Piccard’s father, Auguste, in the early 1950s to continue the Piccard family’s experiments in deep diving after many years of record-breaking work with high-altitude balloons. After meeting with Jacques Piccard in 1955, a scientist associated with ONR’s London office, Robert Dietz, took an interest in the Trieste and later arranged for the purchase of the deep-diving craft for the US Navy in 1958. Originally designed for the relatively modest depths of the Mediterranean, a special crew sphere was constructed for Trieste by Krupp Steel Works in Germany, which would allow the craft to dive much deeper in the descents planned for it in the Pacific with the Navy. Codenamed Project Nekton, the dives at the end of 1959 and early 1960 that culminated at the Challenger Deep were meant to test the viability of using manned craft at extreme depths to study marine life, the propagation of sound, and other scientific questions.

Presented below is a partial transcript of the more than six-hour oral history of Don Walsh conducted by ONR historian Colin Babb in November 2014. This excerpt recounts Walsh’s famous dive more than 55 years ago. It begins with Navy leaders attempting to keep the news of the impending deep dive from the public until success had been achieved. In addition to Walsh and Piccard, the team also included Walsh’s assistant, Lt. Lawrence Shumaker, and Dr. Andreas “Andy” Rechnitzer, a scientist with the Navy Electronics Laboratory in San Diego, the Trieste’s home base.

Don Walsh: We went out in January [1960] then, our next dive was off of Guam to a depth of 24,000 feet. Everything seemed to be working well. So then after that why don’t we go out and do the deepest dive? But the story was too good not to tell around the old water cooler back at the lab, because the civilians were rotating in and out—you couldn’t expect them to stay out there for seven months. So they would come out for two or three months, then go home and be replaced by […] from the lab. And it was just a really great story—you know brag on and on. So nobody ratted us out, but eventually the story got up to topside from the waterfront to the topside, the main office. And of course there was a lot constantly, ‘why weren’t we told this.…?’ But they didn’t say anything. But the day of the deep dive we get a radio message from the Navy lab, saying ‘project canceled, come home.’ We’re at sea, I’m on board the Trieste with Piccard, we’re just getting ready to start the dive. The radioman brings this message to Andy Rechnitzer, and he’s sitting there with [Chief] Jon Michel, and he puts it in his pocket, and he says, ‘Jon, let’s go have a cup of coffee.’ So they went to the wardroom, and drank some coffee, and they’ve reported that the sub has begun the dive. And he said, ‘Well, I guess we better go up and return the message.’ So he said, ‘Unable to comply, Trieste passing 10,000 feet.’ What happened is they had found out about this and they lost their nerve. But it was too late, because Andy sequestered the radio message in his pocket for a while.

Colin Babb: Right, well talking about Nelson’s eye [at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801], that is exactly….

DW: The same thing. But you know we got back after the deep dive, back to San Diego, we couldn’t find anybody that said we told you not to do this. Because we were going to do a second dive, and Bob Dietz would be going. The first dive would be myself and Andy, and then it turns out that Piccard had a contract with ONR, which we had not seen, which guaranteed him the right to be on board the Trieste for any dive that was unusual. Well every dive in a bathyscaphe is unusual, what are you talking about? There’s no routine.

CB: Well, he intended it that way, he wanted to be on it.

DW: I know, but it would’ve been nice if we’d known about it. Now the lab claimed that they didn’t even know about this, our lab. Remember, the Naval Electronics Laboratory in San Diego would say it belonged to the Bureau of Ships, BuShips, it was not an ONR lab. ONR only has one lab, that’s the NRL. But all our funding flowed through NEL to where we were.

CB: Right. Now is NEL the predecessor of what is now SPAWAR, or was it something…

DW: Yeah, it became the Naval Undersea Center, Naval something-else center, and then it was folded into SPAWAR San Diego. Anyway, so we were going to do the first dive with Andy and myself; I pilot, Andy would be the science on board. Second dive we would have Bob Dietz and probably Larry Shumaker. But that didn’t work. First of all we found out you can’t recycle the bathyscaphe at sea, it was just too rough, because you have to put more ballast shot in and a little bit of gas to make up for what it’s lost during the dive. And your air-scrubber canisters, CO2 absorbent and all of that, and charging the batteries, all takes time and a fairly stable situation. We had gone back into port, done all that, come back out. When we got back into port…well, before we even got back into port we were ordered to come to Washington to brief people on what we had done. Because now it’s a pretty big deal. For a brief period of time it’s very newsworthy and all of that. So clearly we had to go back and explain to our masters what we did, testified at hearings at the House and the Senate, and a whole lot of admirals, and one very relieved Arleigh Burke. Because he’d rolled the dice with us, just like ONR rolled the dice with us. He figured, well these guys are yelling…but they could probably do it. And we did it. And so he was pretty happy about that. In fact ten years later we had a tenth anniversary luncheon celebrating the deep dive at the Navy Yard, Washington Navy Yard, in the officers’ club. And he had since retired, of course, and I sat next to him at lunch. And I said, ‘Admiral, remember what you told me in your office about Shumaker? (‘I’m going to have his balls if you don’t come up’) And he looked at me and said, ‘I didn’t say that.’ I said, ‘Admiral, when a four-star admiral tells a lieutenant something like that, it is tattooed on my brain.’ He smiled and he said, ‘I guess I did.’ He was a great man.

Anyway, one day when they sent a Navy car, CHINFO was kind of running all this stuff and sent a Navy car around to take us to another place, another briefing, rewind the tape, hit the on switch, ‘Well congressman, this is what….’ We stopped at the White House. Well I thought that’s pretty nice. So we went in, they put us in some room, door opens, here comes President Eisenhower. We were all given medals, the four of us—Larry, myself, Andy, and Jacques—by the President of the United States. That was kind of an interesting day. A better day than average. That’s a long drive from Guam in the days of propeller airplanes to Washington, DC. A long drive. But we had our own airplane from Guam to San Diego, this kind of private DC-6. And that helped me a bit in my naval career, because I was not a nuke submariner. That had been decided when I was still on the Rasher [SSR 269] in ‘56 to ‘58, that I was not of the intellectual attainment and quality to be in the nuclear power program, the varsity team, because of my class standing at Annapolis. So I was a very disposable diesel submariner at that point because the future was clear: they’re putting nukes into the fleet as fast as they could, people like me had a limited shelf life. ‘Use before…’ like they say on a meat package. So I knew I was not going to get a very good assignment my next job in the Navy, except for the fact that I’m the only lieutenant in the Navy that’s wearing the Legion of Merit which the President of the United States had personally put on my chest. So I had a blot of my copy book, and so that opened a lot of doors metaphorically for me for the future. Anyway, that was just a footnote to this.

While we were in DC, the Navy decided, BuShips decided that we’d be restricted to 20,000 feet, that we couldn’t dive any deeper anymore. So there goes our second dive. We’re going to go back out to Guam and resume our operations, and Bob and Larry would do this. Now Larry and Andy had made a dive to 20,000 feet on the second part of our expedition, because that would have been, oh, like March or April through late summer of ‘60, and then we packed everything up and came home to San Diego. That’s too bad, because Bob Dietz really deserved, I don’t think he ever got any kind of substantial dive. He did in Capri earlier in ‘57, but Bob never got a…he was a key man, a key player. And one of the great marine geologists. He was the kind of guy that would develop a theory of something, and he’d get poo-pooed by everybody in the community, and sometimes he was right. He was a pathfinder. That’s a shame, he deserved better.

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CB: How did you…there was some issue of who would go on that first, the record-setting dive.

DW: On deciding the crewing for the deepest dive, it was clear to us that Piccard was going to make the dive, because he had contractual agreement with ONR, which we didn’t know about. So who’s the other person going to be? Well I wanted to step aside because Andy Rechnitzer was a commander in the naval reserve, and he’s a marine scientist, he’s an oceanographer. So you get both a Navy guy, put him on active duty, you got a Navy guy and you get a scientist on board. And I’m a new boy, I’ve only been on the project at that time well, just about a year, 12 months. I don’t have any standing, like I had been with this project…. Bob Dietz had a better call on that other seat than I did. And certainly Andy met all the requirements: naval officer, scientist. But we got an email from the CNO…not email, radio message…that said Walsh will be, will make the dive. I think that’s right from Burke, I never asked him about it.

CB: He obviously knew you, because you came in his office and talked to about it, so I guess he had you envisioned?

DW: I don’t know the reason because I was least qualified of several people. And it wouldn’t have bothered me at all, I mean I had a hell of an adventure and something I could talk about the camp fire for the rest of my life. I didn’t have any knowledge of all that other stuff out there. It was what was right, was Andy make it. And he was of course profoundly disappointed. He had a major role putting this whole program together, bring it to San Diego, structure the program, recruiting me in basically through my commodore. He had standing. As it happened we didn’t have an oceanographer on the first dive, but I’ve told people that Piccard and myself were really test pilots of an experimental device. It’s like when Boeing rolls a new airplane out of their factory, they don’t send it right over to the airline terminal and load passengers for St. Louis. You test it. That was the whole idea. The whole idea of the dive series at Guam was to test the program, the platform, and find out what it could do and how reliable it was, how safe it was, and really learn all about it before we start putting a scientist in there. Because they don’t want adventure, they want data. You’re not wearing the little red hat, you get to the bottom, and you drink champagne and say we’ve overcome suspicion or whatever. They don’t like that, they don’t want adventure. It’s just another tool—you put a guy in there who knows it’s reliable, it’ll perform, it’s safe, and that’s what we were doing. Doing all that testing, fixing what wasn’t too good and so on, over a period of seven months. Increasingly deeper test dives; we started in the harbor at Guam with a hundred feet, and by the end of November we were at 16,000 feet. By January we were at 35,814 feet, at maximum depth. So we put it to the full depth test, so we were test pilots, not scientists. So I’m not apologetic about that, we were just trying to, as an engineer and submarine officer, and Jacques who grew up and helped build the thing, we were probably the best people qualified to look at it from an operational engineering point of view. But still wrong that Andy didn’t make the dive. He was technically competent, no question about that. But that’s the way it happens, I don’t know why. It’s too late now to find out what went wrong. Andy’s dead, Arleigh Burke’s dead, they’re all gone, Larry’s dead, Jacques’ dead—I’m the only survivor.

CB: So take me through that record-setting dive, your experience of doing that.

DW: Well I’m going something that may seem a bit […] and that is, it was just a longer day at the office. Because as I’ve said, we for seven months made increasingly deeper test dives. It’s like flying an airplane: whether you’re going just around the pattern shooting landings or going across country, your manipulations in preflighting and after the flight, putting it away, shutting everything down, so you’ve got check-off lists and all of it. Exactly the same. The only difference between those two points is the length of the flight, which converts to time. In our case it’s the depth of the water, which converts to time. But whether we dove a hundred feet in Guam harbor, the pre-dive procedures and post-dive procedures were the same, exactly the same. So that’s what I mean a longer day at the office. The distance between those two points was water depth. A hundred feet, it’s very quick. Thirty-six thousand feet, nine hours. It took us five hours and some change to get down, we spent a half-hour on the bottom, and the rest of the time coming up. And that was it. We did not see anything at the bottom once we landed because the bottom sediment stirred up, and it was like somebody painted our viewport white. So it always happened, all the dives we ever made. That happens, you expect it, you land, a little cloud of sediment comes up. By the time you call topside, tell them where you are, what you’re doing, and get the cameras out, set ‘em up to start taking pictures—we had still and movie cameras—the cloud drifts away and you’re ready to go to work. This dive it didn’t, it just persisted, and there was no apparent change in the density of the cloud. If we saw a trend, we might have stayed down a little bit longer to be able to see. So we never saw the seafloor once we were on it. As we approached the seafloor, we could see it coming up, and we did see about a foot-long flatfish, like a halibut or sole, small. But that told us quite a bit, just that one glimpse, because that’s a bottom-dwelling form, two eyes on one side. And if there’s one, there’s more. And that tells you also there’s sufficient oxygen and food at that depth because they’re bottom dwelling. So that’s something coming down just sitting there. And finally, it’s a fairly high-order marine vertebrate. As life in the sea goes, it’s fairly high order in the evolutionary chain. Because we saw all sorts of invertebrates, shrimps, jellyfish, that kind of thing, all expected—everybody….

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CB: On the bottom or on the way down?

DW: On the way down, you just go through these things. And they’ve been found before. What was the name of the…a Danish expedition, Galathea expedition in the 1950s. They trawled down to about 25,000 feet, pretty deep. And they brought up all these invertebrates in the nets and all that. They were expected and nothing new. If we had been real marine biologists, captured stuff, looked at them, we probably passed through all kinds of species that had never been seen. So we have to use the generic “invertebrates,” worms, jellies, things like that.

CB: Now subsequently there’s been some question about whether that fish that you saw, that there were fish there.

DW: Oh, right from the beginning, yeah: we weren’t ichthyologists, we weren’t scientists, we didn’t know what we were seeing.

CB: But it was something that was moving?

DW: No, it was just sitting there.

CB: It was just sitting there.

DW: But, you know, that’s the nature of science. I didn’t see any of those ichthyologists over my shoulder. And they may be right; maybe we were looking at a sea cucumber rather than a flat fish. You know before Jim Cameron made his deep dive I was on his expedition in March of 2012, he very graciously invited me to join the expedition. So I was there when he made his deep dive, and I was the last person to talk to him when he shut the hatch on his sub, and I said, ‘Have fun, and find that damn fish.’ And I was the first person to talk to him when he came back up, and he didn’t see anything. He had his hands full and had some technical problems. But that was nice, 50-plus years later, to see somebody else do it. It was kind of neat.

But back to the day of the dive, that was pretty much it. The reason that we kind of allocated nine hours, this is wintertime so the days are a bit shorter, even though we were closer to the equator. So we had to unhook, once the…. We had two vessels: we had the tug, an auxiliary tug called the Wandank [ATA 204], which lived at Guam, part of the few ships that actually reported to ComNavForce Marianas; and our mother ship was a DE, a destroyer escort [USS Lewis (DE 535)], which was faster. And so when our tug was coming out at five knots, we went out on the destroyer escort at a good rate of speed, 15-20 knots, and tried to locate the Challenger Deep. Because we didn’t have a precision depth recorder, we had no way…. The fathometer of the ship, of course, could measure the seafloor 100-200 feet below the keel of the ship and that was it. That wasn’t good enough for our needs. The oceanographic ships that had been out there, the Challenger in 1950, the Soviet research ship Vityaz, and a Scripps ship (I don’t know which one it was), they all had these precision depth recorders that could actually could get something, not very good—approximate. All three of them agreed that this was the deepest place in the world ocean, and this was sort of ’50 to maybe’53, in that time frame. So the Soviets, the Brits, and Americans all agree, that’s the deepest place. But how do we find it? Because our navigation wasn’t all that good. We were on a, we used LORAN in those days—they didn’t have GPS. And in LORAN there’s something called the baseline, and that’s with respect to the transmissions of the signals from the LORAN station. When you get on the baseline, your navigation’s not very accurate, you have to get off of that. We were sitting right on a baseline, so we couldn’t get very good, except really approximate. So what did we do? Andy figured out, Andy Rechnitzer figured out, well look that transducer for that fathometer could probably hear a return echo from the seafloor if you put enough energy in the water. It’s not a function of that transducer’s design specifically, it’s that the fathometer can’t put out enough energy to bounce off the seafloor. So he ordered up a whole bunch of one-pound blocks of TNT. We actually had a harbor tug come out 200 miles and deliver this TNT to us. I think we even had a resupply. And so we’d just poke a hole in the top of these things and put in the detonator, light a match, and throw them in the water, and when it went off you started your stopwatch and then listen for the return echo. Seven seconds was not as deep as 12 seconds. That’s how we mapped it. It was all relative to time, and not to depth. We had no idea what the accurate depth was except what those earlier expeditions had found. But we finally mapped out something, I think it was about a mile wide and seven miles long on the bottom of the Challenger Deep, the Mariana Trench, and so when the tug came out we said put it there and launch it. So you’ve got this tug with a one-inch cable towing wire and what we call a pelican hook that was hooked to a little towing bridle on the Trieste. The only way to unhook that is with hands, so someone’s got to get down in there and take this apart with this thousand-ton tug boat on one end and the Trieste on the other—and that can be pretty hazardous.

CB: So this had to be a diver, in other words?

DW: No, no, we were all divers….

CB: I mean you had to have somebody in the water.

DW: Somebody in the water. There’s Larry Shumaker hanging over the front of this thing and unhooking it. So you want to take your time and do it full daylight, didn’t want somebody to lose a hand just because we were in a hurry. So we kind of scheduled the day length of daylight and how long it took to unhook the tow and ‘preflight’ the Trieste for the dive, and after it came back up to hook up the tow again. The sea state was pretty heavy, it was like six when we came back up. It was tough, and we had to take the bridle in the front of the Trieste and the towing wire on the tugboat and hook them together at the end of the day. Again, you want lots of daylight. So that kind of determined how long we could actually be diving and have a safe cushion on each end of the day. That was it. They towed it back to Guam, and the principals, Larry, Andy, Jacques, and myself rode the destroyer escort back into Guam at high speed. A plane was waiting for us and flew us east, then Hawaii. Of course SubPac greeted us, and then on to DC. Well we were at the Navy lab—that’s where we couldn’t find anybody who told us not to make the dive.

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