Friday, November 20, 2009

** This Day in Diving History -- November 21, 1891 -- Edward Ellsberg born **

"It never pays to quit until you're dead."......Edward Ellsberg

Ned Ellsberg was born on November 21, 1891 in Colorado and decided at a young age that he wanted to become a Naval Officer. He was not a large man physically; in fact he barely met the height and weight requirements for admission to the Naval Academy. He even went as far as changing his name, Ned, to Edward as he thought it would be more befitting a naval officer. Despite his diminutiveness, he won two medals in fencing, wrote two prize essays, and won top honors in seamanship and navigation. Although he was the top student in ordinance, two gunnery awards went to rival classmates, the predominant theory being that those prizes were diverted deliberately, lest Ellsberg run off with every honor for the Class of 1914. Ellsberg would graduate from Annapolis in 1914, at the head of his class academically but low in "military efficiency".

Following his initial assignment aboard the battleship Texas, he was reassigned to the Brooklyn Navy Yard during WWI. There he would excel in the field of engineering and although highly encouraged to remain a line officer, decided to transfer into Naval Engineering and Construction. His first two commands serving in his new role would be at the Boston and New York Navy Yards. Here he would prove to be an active, take-charge officer who did not avoid confrontation or controversy when he knew he was right.

Ellsberg's first public success and introduction to Navy Salvage would occur in September 1925 when the submarine USS S-51 (SS 162) sank after being struck by the steamer City of Rome, losing all but three of her sailors. At the time, the Navy had little to no deep-water salvage capability and few Navy Divers. Despite this, Ellsberg convinced Navy leadership that he could raise the S-51 with existing personnel and equipment. After great public outcry, the Navy began to realize that it needed to have the capability to salvage its own; vice relying solely on contractors. The successful salvage of S-51 would take 10 months during which Ellsberg and the salvage team battled against inadequate resources, a shortage of experienced deep-sea divers, primitive equipment, and uncooperative weather. In the process they would develop such salvage items as pontoons, underwater cutting torches and jetting nozzles. Ellsberg would even start an on site school to train more divers, including himself, thereby becoming the first Construction Corps officer to qualify as a Deep-Sea Diver. In the words of Ellsberg:

"If I was going to control the diving operation on the bottom of the sea, the bottom of the sea was where I belonged."

This job would be the basis for his first book, On the Bottom, about the salvage of the S-51. It made him a popular public figure. This was unpopular with the Navy however who stated that he received too much public attention and was too outspoken. In 1926, he was denied a meritorious promotion and was told that he would have to wait another eight years for reconsideration. A frustrated Ellsberg gave his resignation and started work for the Tide Water Oil Company.

Ellsberg had hardly settled in his civilian job when in December 1927 the submarine S-4 was rammed off Cape Cod. Immediately, he was brought back into the Navy and rushed to the scene. The nation was horrified as six trapped men tapped their final messages on the steel hull, while Navy rescue ships tossed helplessly, prevented by storms from sending divers down. The Navy had shown once again that it had no means of rescue for downed submariners. S-4 was salvaged and brought to dry dock six months after she sank. The boat was then stripped and towed to Key West to be used as a platform to examine possibilities for submarine rescue and to practice salvage techniques. This platform would prove key in the development of the McCann Rescue Chamber and Momsen Lung. Ellsberg continued to warn that complacency and political penny-pinching were making further submarine disasters inevitable. He wrote a detailed report that served as a bible for future submarine salvage operations and revealed that the Navy's Salvage organization was simply inadequate. Again, him speaking with such candor was unpopular with Navy leadership.

In 1942 Ellsberg was sent to Massawa, Ethiopia, with the responsibility for clearing the port and returning the dry-dock and ship repair facilities to service. Massawa was a critically important regional repair facility for Allied Forces in the European theater during WWII. When compared to the conditions of the S-51 salvage, the situation in Massawa was almost beyond belief. The Italians had sabotaged/destroyed facilities and sunk ships as they exited the port prior to Allied capture. One of Massawa's key dry docks had been declared totally unsalvageable - Ellsberg had her afloat only nine days after his arrival. In eight months his crew would re-float four cargo ships, another dry dock, and a floating crane; refurbished more than 80 supply ships; and repaired three British cruisers. The press hailed his achievements as "the Miracle of Massawa."

Ellsberg went without a break from Massawa to become General Eisenhower's salvage officer for North Africa. He was tasked with clearing the blocked and sabotaged port of Oran, Algeria. Here he encountered many of the same problems of supply, equipment and personnel that he had experienced in Massawa. Ellsberg's team worked frenetically clearing harbors and salvaging torpedoed ships. His successes was again great but the physical strain was too much for a man in his fifties. Ellsberg was hospitalized and sent home in February 1943 after being diagnosed with incipient heart failure - it would take more than heart failure to stop him however.

In 1944 he was again sent to Europe and was instrumental in preparing the artificial (Mulberry) harbors that helped make the Normandy landings a success. Sent to England to advise on preparations for the D-Day landings, he found that planners had not realized the scale of the problem or the resources required for deploying and setting up a mobile harbor in a wartime environment. He guided planners in recognizing and addressing what was needed to pump out and refloat over a hundred caissons in a matter of a few days -- without which the whole artificial port concept would have been a failure. Ellsberg rode one of the caissons to Normandy and helped unsnarl wrecked landing craft and vehicles on the beach in the wake of D-Day. When a storm two weeks later temporarily crippled the flow of supplies, he was called back to once again assess the damage at Omaha Beach. Ordered home in September 1944, he reported to Cleveland, Ohio, as Supervisor of Shipbuilding for the Lake Erie area. Fatigue had once again caught up with him, and ship construction was winding down, so Ellsberg asked to be relieved from active duty. On 3 April 1945 he returned to civilian life - permanently this time. He passed away in 1983 (age 91), having brought Navy Salvage leaps and bounds both in the minds of the Navy and civilians alike and attained the rank of rear admiral in doing so.

Although he achieved high rank and had scores of medals on his chest; when asked about his biggest military reward he would recall a comment he received from Deep-Sea Diver Francis Smith. At the end of the S-51 operation, Smith grabbed Ellsberg's hand and stated simply: "There isn't one of that bunch of divers, Mr. Ellsberg, who wouldn't go to hell for you!"

Of all Ellsberg's talents and contributions to Navy Diving, one of his biggest was that of author. In the late 1920s Ellsberg began a long and distinguished career as a writer that showcased Diving and Salvage. His first book was titled "On the Bottom" (published in 1929); an account of the salvage of S-51, it became a best-seller. A subsequent book, Pigboats, published in 1931, was made into the movie Hell Below by MGM studios. He would become one of the most prolific authors ever to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy, his 17 books included several award winners. His stories appeared in popular magazines throughout the 1930s and 1940s, introducing many a young reader to the adventures of the deep.


Reading: To many books/articles to list on this email. My personal favorite is "On the Bottom" but you can't go wrong with any of them. To see a list of all his books and publications, see


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