Salvage Diving

1-6.1.1 Pearl Harbor. Navy divers were plunged into the war with the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor. The raid began at 0755 on 7 December 1941; by 0915 that same morning, the first salvage teams were cutting through the hull of the overturned battleship USS Oklahoma to rescue trapped sailors. Teams of divers worked to recover ammunition from the magazines of sunken ships, to be ready in the event of a second attack.

The immense salvage effort that followed at Pearl Harbor was highly successful. Most of the 101 ships in the harbor at the time of the attack sustained damage. The battleships, one of the primary targets of the raid, were hardest hit. Six battleships were sunk and one was heavily damaged. Four were salvaged and returned to the fleet for combat duty; the former battleships USS Arizona and USS Utah could not be salvaged. The USS Oklahoma was righted and refloated but sank en route to a shipyard in the U.S.

Battleships were not the only ships salvaged. Throughout 1942 and part of 1943, Navy divers worked on destroyers, supply ships, and other badly needed vessels, often using makeshift shallow water apparatus inside water and gas-filled compartments. In the Pearl Harbor effort, Navy divers spent 16,000 hours underwater during 4,000 dives. Contract civilian divers contributed another 4,000 diving hours.

1-6.1.2 USS Lafayette. While divers in the Pacific were hard at work at Pearl Harbor, a major challenge was presented to the divers on the East Coast. The interned French passenger liner Normandie (rechristened as the USS Lafayette) caught fire alongside New York City's Pier 88. Losing stability from the tons of water poured on the fire, the ship capsized at her berth.

The ship had to be salvaged to clear the vitally needed pier. The Navy took advantage of this unique training opportunity by instituting a new diving and salvage school at the site. The Naval Training School (Salvage) was established in September 1942 and was transferred to Bayonne, New Jersey in 1946.

1-6.1.3 Other Diving Missions. Salvage operations were not the only missions assigned to Navy divers during the war. Many dives were made to inspect sunken enemy ships and to recover materials such as code books or other intelligence items. One Japanese cruiser yielded not only $500,000 in yen, but also provided valuable information concerning plans for the defense of Japan against the anticipated Allied invasion.

1-6.2 Vietnam Era. Harbor Clearance Unit One (HCU 1) was commissioned 1 February 1966 to provide mobile salvage capability in direct support of combat operations in Vietnam. Homeported at Naval Base Subic Bay, Philippines, HCU 1 was dedicated primarily to restoring seaports and rivers to navigable condition following their loss or diminished use through combat action.

Beginning as a small cadre of personnel, HCU 1 quickly grew in size to over 260 personnel, as combat operations in littoral environment intensified. At its peak, the unit consisted of five Harbor Clearance teams of 20 to 22 personnel each and a varied armada of specialized vessels within the Vietnam combat zone.

As their World War II predecessors before them, the salvors of HCU 1 left an impressive legacy of combat salvage accomplishments. HCU 1 salvaged hundreds of small craft, barges, and downed aircraft; refloated many stranded U.S. Military and merchant vessels; cleared obstructed piers, shipping channels, and bridges; and performed numerous underwater repairs to ships operating in the combat zone.

Throughout the colorful history of HCU 1 and her East Coast sister HCU 2, the vital role salvage forces play in littoral combat operations was clearly demonstrated. Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit One and Two, the modern-day descendants of the Vietnam era Harbor Clearance Units, have a proud and distinguished history of combat salvage operations.

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