Above & Beyond: The Undertakers

Above & Beyond: The Undertakers

Florida’s Cape Canaveral had two primary features that promoted its selection as a missile test laboratory in the 1950s. First, its flight range was over the Atlantic Ocean. Second, that ocean contained a string of small islands that could serve as tracking bases when test missiles flew over. But when something went wrong during a missile flight, the ocean floor became the missile’s last resting place.

At the height of cold war rocket testing, the Cape saw the launching of as many as 287 missiles in one year. In one 24-hour period, the U.S. Air Force, Army, and Navy fired eight major missiles. Many of these developmental attempts were failures, as missilemen learned their art through trial and error. The ear-splitting noise and blinding flash of a dying rocket plunging into the ocean in pieces became common occurrences.

When an intercontinental or intermediate-range ballistic missile fell into the ocean, its precious flight data went down with it. The nation’s security depended on rapidly locating and salvaging the test vehicle to determine what went wrong. On call was a small group of commercial divers and underwater recovery specialists, nicknamed the Undertakers. The divers rarely went wanting for work.

The company name was Lou Berger Divers Inc. Though Berger owned the company, Vern Nealy, diving superintendent and manager, was its soul. Cape missilemen once bragged of having rocket fuel in their veins; Nealy’s blood was pure saltwater.

Nealy had worked as a diver on a glass-bottom tourist boat in Miami’s Biscayne Bay. Using an open-bottom copper diving helmet, he would scam the tourists by selling them seashells he claimed to have plucked from the bottom of the bay. But shells do not occur naturally in Biscayne Bay. Nealy hid shells from Florida’s west coast in a bag on the boat’s keel.

In 1954 Berger was awarded the Air Force missile recovery contract for the Cape and missile test ranges. Lou Berger had met Nealy on the tourist boat and asked him to come work at the Cape. Unknown to the Air Force, the duo’s limited scuba and open-bottom helmet diving experience were the sum of their salvage background, but in those days, diving, like rocket engineering, was an art that one learned as he went along.

After hiring a few former Navy demolition divers and several commercial divers, and getting the use of Air Force crash boats, the Undertakers got their first job in October: the recovery of a Snark cruise missile that had fallen in 50 feet of water just off the beach. Launch crews had watched it go into the water, so locating and salvaging the errant Snark proved relatively easy. When divers arrived at the site, bubbles and hydraulic fluid were still oozing up from the remains. The Berger Divers picked up debris and marked the site with buoys. Later, with Nealy doing the rigging, the wreckage was slung and hauled up with a crane. Subsequent efforts to recover other wayward missiles were less straightforward.

In the mid-1950s the frequency of missile launches on the Cape rapidly increased. The Army attempted to perfect its Redstone and Jupiter missiles and the Air Force struggled to get its balky first ICBM, the Atlas, and later the Titan, into operation. The Navy, struggling with its Polaris missile, was not having much more luck.

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.

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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