Carl Brashear came from humble beginnings
which gave no hint of the significant course his life would later take.
Carl was the sixth of eight children born to a share cropper in rural
Tonieville, Kentucky on January 19, 1931. Despite the fact that their
home did not have electricity or running water, Brashear remembered
a very happy childhood. The children found entertainment in telling
jokes and playing with their father. Carl’s great uncle was
a preacher and he attributed the family’s endurance through difficult
times to their strong Christian faith.
At the age of 17, Carl had an interest
in joining the Army, but got his first taste of the prejudice rife in
the military at the time at the hands of an abusive recruiter. Not to
be dissuaded, Brashear met with a kind naval recruiter and passed the
entrance exam that very day. Brashear joined the Navy in 1948
and quickly developed a keen interest in diving. African
Americans at this time in history, however, were most often relegated
to mere stewardships; serving meals and cooking. Brashear
was determined, though, and after much coaxing, his Commanding Officer
finally consented to his request to use the diving pool. It’s a sad
testimony to the level of discrimination at the time that Carl’s very
life was threatened and he often found racial slurs pinned to his bunk.
It was at times like these that Carl found inspiration in the words
of his father, “You get back in there, Carl, and you fight!
You do your best!” Carl did just that. Brashear clawed his way
through the naval ranks and finally attained the rank of Chief Petty
Carl's Graduation class 22 Oct 1954
Young Brashear suiting up in the MARK V
In addition to the challenges of overt
discrimination within the Navy, there were other obstacles to overcome.
The diving equipment available in 1948 was heavy and unwieldy compared
to that of today. The Mark V Deep sea helium suit weighed 290
lbs. A diver had to have the stamina of diving 300 feet deep while wearing
those 300 lbs. Carl was sent to a Beach Masters Unit in Florida in 1949
and, after seeing the Mark V Unit in action, was hooked. He qualified
with the Jack Brown Rig and then later with the Mark V in 1953.
Closeup from Salvage School
By 1951 Brashear was a Master at Arms
and serving temporary additional duty at Salvage Diving School.
In 1965 he saw duty on the USS Shakori as Chief Boatswain's mate. He
soon became Leading Diver and Port Duty Chief.
Despite already overcoming so many
obstacles, it was in 1966 that Brashear would face the greatest challenge
of his life. On January 17, 1966 a US Air force B-52 G Bomber
carrying a hydrogen bomb collided with a KC - 135 refueling tanker off
the coast of Palomares Spain. In March, Brashear and his crew were assigned
to retrieve the bomb in 2500 feet of water.
After searching for months along the
coastline with no success, Carl talked to local fishermen who actually
saw the bomb fall. They told him he was too close to the shoreline.
The Navy crafted a bomb that was a replica to see how it would appear
on the sonar screen. After finally locating the bomb, Brashear’s crew
went in and rigged a three legged spider with grappling hooks attached
to each leg. The spider was attached to a submersible ALVIN which would
enable the crew to attach parachute rigging to the bomb. The operation
was well planned and should have found success.
However, at 5:00 a.m. a large swell
caused a change in the ship’s position and in the next few minutes
Carl was in danger of losing his hard fought naval career, as well as
his life. The timing of the swell was horrific. The atomic
weapon slipped from the parachute rigging and sank again. Brashear saw
a pipe break loose from one of the ships, and later reported, “I got
all the sailors out of the way, but I didn't get myself out of the way.”
The pipe flew across the deck and hit him below the knee.
The situation was grim: at sea, with
no doctor or morphine available, and a leg with multiple fractures.
The crew was unable to stop the bleeding with mere pressure to the wound,
so despite the fact that it went against protocol, a corpsman, in a
desperate attempt to save a life, resorted to two tourniquets. Carl,
critically wounded, was transferred to another boat in an attempt to
get him to a helicopter for emergency transport. The helicopter was
not fueled. It was six hours after the accident that Brashear finally
made it to Torrejon Air Force Base. Upon arrival they declared
the lifeless man D.O.A. The examining physician sent him to the morgue.
Fortunately, a physician checked him one more time and found a faint
The bleeding continued and Carl received
18 pints of blood; twice that of the average person. His foot became infected
and gangrene set in before they transferred him to a German hospital.
He was finally transferred to Portsmouth Naval Hospital after two long
months of frustrating failures. Carl reached his limit and requested
that his leg be amputated. His goal was to get back to diving as soon
as possible. He underwent four guillotine surgeries, finally stopping
four inches below the knee. This finally stopped the incessant infection.
Working out for the Twelve Steps
In November of 1966 Carl was fitted
with a prosthetic leg. The Navy was already in the process of
discharging him. Refusing to admit defeat, he snuck out of the hospital
and managed to dive in a deep sea rig. He documented this dive
with photographs and it was these pictures that would help to make his
case before a Navy review board. Although the doctors couldn’t
help but be impressed by his feat, they were not convinced enough to
allow him to return as a Navy diver. True to form, Brashear would not
give up and he would not give in. His relentless persistence finally
moved the doctors to send him to Deep Diving School in Washington D.C.
This would be the most demanding period
of his life. Brashear was required to prove himself with one physical
test after another. As he noted, it was all the years of fighting
discrimination that gave him the inner strength required to meet this
ultimate physical challenge. Wearing his leg prosthesis, as well
as the 290 pound Mark V helium gear, Brashear successfully walked on
land, as well as up 12 steps. If that wasn’t difficult enough for
a new amputee, the training required running with the other dive students
regularly. When he ran, Carl’s scar tissue would break lose
and blood would leak into his artificial leg. He told no one and
would treat himself by soaking his leg and prosthesis in hydrogen peroxide
and betadine, fearing that a trip to the infirmary would give the Navy
ammunition to discharge him. As Carl pointed out, when he lost
his leg he had not yet achieved his goal of Master Diver and that goal
was what fueled him through that painful time.
In March of 1967 the doctors finally
transferred him to Second Class Diving School at Norfolk. He was restored
to full active duty and full diving status in April of 1968; the Navy's
first amputee diver. While working at the Diving School, his favorite
trick was to push the students in the water and make them swim as hard
as they could. They would complain, but in the third week of school
Carl would come out with his prosthesis under his arm. He said
the kids almost had a heart attack, but it certainly gave them a startling
perspective on their own attitude towards the challenges of the course.
It was in 1970 that Carl finally attained
the goal he had striven for through so many trialsome years. He
was named Master Diver, the first African American in Navy history to
Carl retired from the NAVY in 1979
as a Master Diver and a Master Chief Petty Officer. Despite the
fact that he hadn’t graduated from high school upon entering the Navy,
he earned his GED while serving and upon retirement graduated from college
with a degree in Environmental Science. He worked for the government
as an engineering technician as well as an environmental protection
Men of Honor cover
It was a 20 year effort to bring Brashear’s
story to the general public. There were several attempts to tell his
story that never came to fruition. It was in 2000 that the film
Men of Honor finally hit the big screen. It starred Cuba Gooding Jr.
and Robert De Niro. It was directed by George Tillman Jr., with Bill
Cosby serving as Executive Producer. Carl served as advisor to the movie.
Carl Brashear with Cuba Gooding Jr.
In 1999 during the filming, the crew
had to be schooled in the heavy dress of the Mark V. Cuba
took to the water like a professional. Carl was on the set for several
days and Cuba confided in him that he was frightened when the lights
went out after the helmet was lowered over his head. The helmet leaked
a little water and the tender had to tighten it more. Despite those
challenges, Brashear was very pleased with the final product. He felt
the movie was very powerful and sometimes uncomfortably close to reality.
Though Carl proved to be quite successful
in achieving his Navy and diving goals, he admitted that at times his
family life suffered because of his devotion to his work.
He was married and divorced three times and had four sons, one who died
in 1996 of a heart attack. In 2006 Carl Brashear was in failing
health and one of his sons, Philip, was serving as an Army pilot in
Iraq. His family knew Carl’s time was short and requested that Philip
come home immediately. Philip did just that and said it was as if his
father was holding on until he arrived. The children shared a
great weekend together with their father and Carl died the following
Tuesday July 25, 2006 at the age of 75.
Throughout his career, Brashear was
respectfully and affectionately referred to as “Mr. Navy.” He was
further recognized by the Navy on September 18, 2008 when they christened
a 700 foot cargo ship (USNC CARL BRASHEAR T-AKE 7) “The Carl Brashear.”
True to his father’s encouraging
words, Carl Brashear never gave up and always gave his best, whether
the challenges came in the face of prejudice and discrimination or that
of facing life as an amputee. He said his father always had a
positive attitude and made the best of a bad situation. Carl certainly
did that…and more. He is rightfully recognized as the first
African American Navy Diver and to hold the titles of Master Diver and
Master Chief Petty Officer, as well as the first amputee to return to
full active duty as a diver in the U.S. Navy. His determination
and work ethic serve as an inspiration to divers and non-divers alike.
That is what Legends are made of.
(ILD would like to thank the Carl Brashear
family, Madelyn Russell 's article in 2000 Underwater Magazine, and
our special thanks to Philip Brashear for his help in telling his father’s
story with pictures and fond memories.)