Descent Into Darkness Book Review

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Descent Into Darkness – Pearl Harbor, 1941, A Navy Diver’s Memoir

Hardcover in dustjacket, 214 pages, illustrated

Published by Presidio Press June 1996

ISBN-10: 0891415890

ISBN-13: 978-0891415893

Dimensions 6 x 1 x 9 inches

Ed Raymer was a Metalsmith First Class and a trained diver.  On the first day of America’s entry into the Second World War he and eight other divers boarded a plane in San Diego.  Once airborne, they learned their destination was to be Pearl Harbor.  Their assignment would be to dive into the battleships sunk there and assist in their salvage.  This is his story.

While underwater welding and cutting were known skills, many of the problems encountered at Pearl Harbor were new.  The divers improvised many techniques as the need arose, such as hydraulically stabilized eductors for burrowing through the mud under the hulls of sunken ships to inspect for cracks or using kapok to plug leaks while the ships were being dewatered.  Their job was to assist in salvage of equipment and to prepare the ships for being refloated and repaired, if possible.

The work was inherently dangerous.  The divers had to work in the dark, as oil and silt rendered lighting useless.  A typical dive required the diver to navigate through the passages and compartments of sunken ship, underwater and blind.  Hatches could jam, damaged equipment might shift, air lines had the chance to snag or be cut.  The ship might be capsized, like the Oklahoma or Utah, or shattered like the Arizona.  The tasks ranged included removing unexploded Japanese bombs or cutting into magazines to salvage projectiles.  Underwater explosions could occur when a cutting torch ignited gas trapped in the ship.  Some compartments contained the bodies of sailors which had to be recovered.

Raymer also describes the divers’ efforts to blow off steam in a Honolulu under martial law and the threat of war.  Liberty was limited, alcohol was prohibited, and women were greatly outnumbered by the servicemen on their way to war.

An interesting break in the narrative occurs when Raymer volunteered to serve on a salvage detachment aboard the fleet tug USS Seminole (ATF  65).  Seminole departed for the war zone in the Solomon Islands at the end of August 1942.  Raymer was aboard when Seminole was sunk by gunfire from Japanese destroyers in October.  There the narrative becomes somewhat surreal, as the survivors were put ashore on Guadalcanal.  Outside of a formal command structure and supply chain, the divers operated small boats ferrying personnel and supplies to the island and completing other odd jobs.  Raymer describes filling in for crewmen on PT boat patrols, helping repair the USS McFarland (DD-237), and rescuing survivors from the Battle of Guadalcanal.  He assisted in making temporary repairs to the Heavy Cruiser USS Portland (CA-33).  While aboard he collapsed from malaria and went along with Portland while she was repaired in Sydney.  The narrative closes with Raymer’s return to the Salvage Unit at Pearl Harbor in April 1943 and the efforts to right the USS Oklahoma (BB-37).

This is an interesting first-person narrative of a side of the war not usually seen.  Raymer writes honestly and openly, and includes several fascinating insights and anecdotes into a very unusual job in a very unusual time.  Highly recommended.

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