Man in the Sea Memorial Monument?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Navy photo

Navy diver Sue Trukken

There is a movement afloat for a monument to honor “all military divers” to be constructed at the Washington Navy Yard, in the District of Columbia.

That’s great! But if this monument is for “all military divers” why is it called The Man in the Sea Memorial?

The idea of a sculpture of a military diver in a full hardhat configuration on the bottom of the sea was conceived in 2003 by a group of ex-military divers who had started an on-line forum for military divers to contact each other and share their diving experiences.

Whether your realize it or not, there are military divers in all of the military services — Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines — as well as in the National Guard, the Coast Guard, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The planned location at the Washington Navy Yard is appropriate. The Naval School of Diving and Salvage operated there from 1927 to 1980, when the school was decommissioned and moved to Panama City, Fla., as the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center.

At least three women attended the school just before its decommissioning: Susan Trukken, Martha (Gray) Herb and myself. All of us trained in the Mark V hard hat dive system. Susan went on to become the first female saturation diver, Martha is currently the first and only diving officer to become a rear admiral, and I went on to become the first woman in command of a Navy ship.

Additionally, there were enlisted women who became hard-hat divers in the mid-1970s. The first to achieve this feat was a young hull technician named Donna Tobias, in 1975. The senior instructor of the Atlantic Fleet Second Class Diving School in Little Creek, Va., was Pierce West, a senior chief. He was asked by a former colleague to interview Donna for entry into the school:

I have to admit that I was initially incredulous. The deep sea diving rig [Mark V hard hat system] weighed nearly 200 pounds on dry land, and one has to climb down and back up a steel ladder to enter the water with the air vent turned off. This was to prevent the suit from “blowing up” once out of the water, as the water pressure keeps the suit collapsed around the body. This requires a certain amount of strength, not to mention a certain mind set. Our washout rate of previously all male students was from 60-75%.

But I had a great deal of respect for my shipmate, and if he was asking this of me, I was willing to consider her request, however unlikely it would be that she would be admitted. I stipulated that I wanted a face-to-face interview with her and that she was to understand that there were no guarantees that anything would happen past the interview.

Petty Officer Tobias showed up the following week, and after an hour-long interview, where I did my best to point out to her all the difficulties that stood in the way of her actually graduating, as well as what trials and tribulations would follow given the unlikely prospect of her actually making it through the course. I did my level best to discourage her, but at the end of the interview, I knew that if any student would make it through to graduation in the next class, she would be that student…As I remember, Donna graduated either as #7 or #8 in a final class size of 13. I believe that there were originally 46 or 47 people who started out on day #1.

Many other women also attended dive school in Panama City, Fla. There were at least 300, whose went on to become fleet divers, underwater construction divers, diving officers, diving medical officers, diving medical technicians, and explosive ordnance disposal officers and technicians. One, and still only one woman, Electrician’s Mate Master Chief Mary Bonnin, became a master diver. Most of the women were Navy, but a few were in the Army, Coast Guard, and NOAA… which leads me back to my original question:

If this monument is for “all military divers” why is it called The Man in the Sea Memorial Monument?

I know what some of you are thinking… “man” is historically associated with “human” which encompasses all of us. Yeah, you guys can think that all you want, but us women bristle with being grouped under “men.”

However, The Human in the Sea Memorial Monument just doesn’t sound right; neither does Person in the Sea.

But why not simply The Diver in the Sea Memorial Monument? Yeah, kind of redundant. How about just The Divers Memorial Monument?

So what to do? Well, I think a start would be to acknowledge that there have been, and there are currently, women in the diving community. Nowhere on the monument’s web site is there an acknowledgement that women are divers!

It is thought of as a totally masculine occupation, and the name continues to underline that assumption. Just as at the National Naval Aviation Museum, which I wrote about in April, women are conspicuously absent from this movement. This also needs to change.