If it is difficulty that shows what men are, there should be no doubt about what kind of man Carl Brashear is. The Navy’s first African-American Master Diver, Brashear faced difficulties that would have defeated most people. His spirit and determination resulted not only in his overcoming great odds to become a U.S. Navy diver, but also in his surviving the loss of a leg in an accident on the USS Hoist in 1966 – and more amazingly – in his attaining the rank of Master Diver.
In the fall, Twentieth Century Fox will release The Diver, the story of Brashear’s struggle. Cuba Gooding Jr. stars as Brashear. The film also stars Robert DeNiro as Billy Sunday, a senior officer and Master Diver who is at first another obstacle, but who ultimately helps Brashear overcome his crippling injury, as well as racism, bureaucracy.
Brashear joined the Navy in 1948 at the age of 17. The film follows his acceptance into dive school, his training in the Mark V gear, and the accident that could have ended his career. Brashear’s struggle to convince the Naval Bureau of Medicine and Surgery to allow him to continue diving is an integral part of the story.
Carl Brashear was born in rural Kentucky in 1931. His family moved to Sonora, Ky., when he was only two weeks old. He grew up swimming in creeks and rivers near his home, but there was nothing to indicate that his life would take the twists and turns that eventually resulted in his spending almost 32 years in the U.S. Navy. Becoming not only the Navy’s first African-American Master Diver, but also its first amputee diver. Brashear joined the Navy as a steward. He was sent to a Beach masters unit in Florida, and there he first saw divers in Mark V gear. He was hooked. In 1949 he qualified using the Jack Browne rig, then progressed to the Mark V in 1953.
Gaining official diver status was in itself quite an achievement at the time. Brashear attained the rank of Chief Petty Officer E7 and worked successfully, but relatively uneventfully, until March 26, 1966, when the determination that he had originally called upon to help him become a Navy diver would seem almost feeble in comparison to the tenacity that he would need in order to stay a Navy diver.
On January 17, 1966, a U.S. Air Force B-52G bomber carrying a hydrogen bomb collided with a KC-135 refueling tanker off the coast of Palo mares, Spain. In March, aboard the USS Hoist, Brashear and his crew were taking part in efforts to retrieve the nuclear weapon in 2,500 feet (758m) of water.
Brashear had rigged a three-legged “spider” with grappling hooks on each leg. It was attached to the submersible Alvin, which would use it to attach parachute rigging to the bomb. The apparatus worked beautifully and the bomb was brought to the surface. At 5:00 p.m., a shift in the position of the ship that had pulled alongside the Hoist to receive the bomb caused a chain of events that almost killed Carl Brashear and seemed certainly to have killed his career in the Navy. During efforts to bring the bomb aboard, a swell caused an unexpected movement in the ship’s position. The timing was catastrophic. The atomic weapon slipped from the parachute rigging and sank again, but even worse, a pipe broke loose from one of the ships and became a deadly missile. Brashear saw the pipe break. “I got all my sailors out of the way, but I didn’t get myself out of the way,” he says.
The injuries he suffered were overwhelming, and so sudden that at first, he didn’t know anything was wrong. Only when he tried to put weight on his leg did he realize the extent of the damage. He jokes about it today. “I found that I didn’t have a leg to stand on,” he chuckles. Most of the flesh on his leg was ripped away, leaving his foot attached only by the tendons in the back of his calf. Bones were exposed and the bleeding was profuse. He also suffered head and internal injuries.
The dive boat did not carry a doctor. The corpsman did what he could, but his attempts to stop the bleeding were useless. He finally resorted to the use of two tourniquets – not accepted practice, but the accepted pressure-point method was not working. Brashear credits the corpsman, whose name he does not know, with saving his life that day.
The nearest doctor was on the USS Albany, six miles away. When the Hoist rendezvoused with the Albany, the physician on board called for Brashear to be airlifted by helicopter to a hospital in Spain. He was loaded aboard, but events took another bad turn when the aircraft proved to be too low on fuel to make it to the medical facility. It landed on a dilapidated runway and waited until a small plane arrived to finish the trip with Brashear, who was miraculously still alive. As he describes it, “The helicopter ran out of gas, and I ran out of blood.”
When Brashear finally arrived at the hospital six hours after the accident, he was declared D.O.A (Dead On Arrival). The examining physician ordered that he be sent to the morgue, then decided to check one more time for a heartbeat; he detected a very faint one. “I survived the morgue,” Brashear laughs.
The bleeding continued in the hospital, but after transfusions totaling 18 pints – almost twice the volume of blood ordinarily found in an adult human body – Brashear regained consciousness.
Doctors tried bone and skin grafts to save his leg. Gangrene later set in. Brashear was sent to Wiesbaden, Germany, and then to Portsmouth Naval Hospital in Virginia. Efforts continued to the point that, Brashear had had enough and requested that the leg be amputated.
In four “guillotine” surgeries – removal of layers of the limb until all infection is gone – surgeons removed Carl Brashear’s leg, finally stopping four inches below the knee. Most people would have given up hope of remaining in military service at that point. Not Carl Brashear.
Still attached to the Naval Hospital, he was fitted with a permanent prosthetic limb in November of 1966. In December, he sneaked out of the hospital and managed to dive in a deep-sea rig. He would take pictures that would help him make the case to continue his diving career. (The Navy had already begun the process of having him discharged because of his disability.)
Although the doctors saw photographic proof of his continued ability to function as a diver, they were “in total disbelief,” says Brashear. They were still not convinced that he could do the job. He kept sneaking out, arming himself with more photos, until he finally prevailed.
When the doctors relented and he was ordered to the Deep Sea Diving School in Washington, D.C., Brashear had to prove himself by completing tests that were much more demanding than any he had previously encountered.
Wearing the 290-pound Mark V, he demonstrated his ability to climb ladders and to dive. On the surface, he had to walk at least 12 steps, wearing the 290-pound helium/oxygen rig. He was also required to dive in scuba gear and engage in physical training with other dive school students. That physical training included calisthenics and running.
When Brashear ran, scar tissue would break loose and blood would leak into his artificial leg. To prevent infection, he would remove the prosthesis and soak his leg in warm water laced with hydrogen peroxide or Betadine. He never told his doctors about the problem because, “I hadn’t made Master Diver yet.” That goal kept him going.
In March of 1967, doctors finally Okayed his transfer to Second Class Diving School in Norfolk, VA. In April 1968, he was restored to full active duty and full diving status, the Navy’s first amputee diver.
Carl Brashears Story,
Master Chief Carl Brashear
Master Chief Boatswains Mate Carl Maxie Brashear, USN