Friday, August 7, 2009

This Day in Diving History -- USS MONITOR turret recovered.

USS Monitor was the first ironclad warship commissioned by the United States Navy. She is most famous for her participation in the first-ever naval battle between two ironclad warships, the Battle of Hampton Roads on March 9, 1862, during the American Civil War, in which Monitor fought the ironclad CSS Virginia of the Confederate States Navy. After this battle, the design of ships and the nature of naval warfare changed dramatically world-wide. Monitor was innovative in construction technique as well as design. In addition to her iron hull and distinctive rotating turret, Monitor was also fitted with a novel marine screw, whose efficiency and reliability allowed the warship to be one of the first to rely exclusively upon steam propulsion. Monitor was also the first ever semi-submersible ship; all of her features except the turret and pilothouse were underwater. In contrast, Virginia was a conventional wooden vessel covered with iron plates and bearing fixed weapons.

At the Battle of Hampton Roads Virginia attacked the Union blockading squadron in Hampton Roads, Virginia, on March 8, 1862, destroying three ships before withdrawing. That night, Monitor, arrived under tow from Brooklyn. When Virginia returned the next day, March 9, to finish off the rest of the blockaders, Monitor sortied to stop her. The ironclads fought for about four hours, neither one sinking or seriously damaging the other. Tactically, the battle between these two ships was a draw—neither ironclad did significant damage to the other. However, it was a strategic victory for Monitor: Virginia's mission was to break the Union blockade; that mission failed. This happened during a time when Abraham Lincoln was president and the country was in the midst of turmoil.

While the design of the Monitor was a technological breakthrough in warfare, its low freeboard did not lend itself well to heavy seas. In December 1862, Monitor foundered in heavy seas during a storm and sank, taking 16 of 62 crewmen down with her.

Fast forward more than a century. The year is 1973, Richard Nixon is president and the country is in the midst of well – turmoil. During this year, the wreck of the ironclad Monitor was first located on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean about 16 nautical miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina in 240 feet of seawater. Over the course of the next two decades, Navy Divers from around the fleet would recover portions of the ship including the shaft, screw and steam engine. Her most recognizable feature, the 22-foot diameter, nine feet tall, 160-ton round turret remained in the depths however.

On June 26, 2002 the first set of Navy Divers left surface to recover Monitors turret. Recovering a turret of this size at 240 feet is challenge enough. That it was buried beneath 100-plus tons of wreckage in an area known for severe weather made this a monumental undertaking. In order to do this, a 300’x90’ barge was outfitted with one (of the Navy’s remaining three) conventional mixed gas surface supplied systems as well as a saturation diving platform. The sheer depth and bottom time that would be required made the saturation system an absolute necessity. A huge crane with a 500-ton capacity was placed on the barge to lift the turret. To put 500 tons in perspective, it is equal to -- 3 ½ Statues of Liberty, or -- 311 2009 Chevrolet Corvettes, or -- 45,500 cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon. This mission would take 45 days of round the clock diving and would involve 162 Navy Divers from around the fleet that completed all in all almost 300 hours of bottom time and over 200 man days in saturation. In the process divers also recovered the remains of two sailors who went down with the ship.

On August 5, 2002, for the first time in 140 years; the turret of the Monitor rose above the surface of the water, two American sailors were brought home, and legends like Badders, Crilley and Eadie surly smiled up from the abyss. A part of this story that remains for the most part untold is what occurred as the barge was returning to port. In the words of NDCM(MDV) Mariano:
"We manned the rails as we moved up the Chesapeake and as we approached Ft Monroe you could see the banks lined with people cheering and waving flags which definitely pushed our chests out a little further. As we passed Ft Monroe, they fired a 21 gun salute and as we felt the concussion from the first volley, you could see everyone's eyes start to fill up. When we made it pierside there was a band playing and a mob of cheering spectators. Several people gave speeches but I don't think any of us heard them. I think that it finally hit everyone that we had really done it! We were all lucky enough to have been at the right place at the right time...with the right mix of talent! It's the only way it could've happened. As far as the honors, there were several other events that took place that weekend in Aug and numerous articles in newspapers praising Navy Divers. The dedication of the Monitor center several years later was also awesome, but the real honor was knowing that as a Navy Diver, you made history! You were now firmly engraved in the history of our navy, and our country! Who could ask for more?......We literally dove into history!"

Note: To read more about the Monitor recovery; check out "Ironclad: The Epic Battle, Calamitous Loss, and Historic Recovery of the USS Monitor" by Paul Clancy. On a personal note; having read many diving history books, this is one of the best….I would call it required reading for Navy Divers.
Websites: Check out and for even more info.

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