The Army’s Mud Divers of Vietnam

The Army’s Mud Divers of Vietnam

Dangerous work in the deep and dark

Suited up and ready to dive (Bain News Service / Public domain)

TThey’re an elite group of only 150 across an entire military branch of over three million. The training is brutal, and few candidates make it through. A good thing, since the Army diver’s work is traumatic, dangerous, and often performed in the dark.

Ask any Army diver if he eats crabs, and the answer is likely “No way.”

The training

Cross the bottom of a seven-lane pool in one breath. Swim the pool’s length, then tread water for twenty minutes using hands and feet; tread another twenty minutes in a dead man’s float. Finish a 500-yard swim in twelve minutes and thirty seconds; run a mile and a half in the same amount of time. In between, manage fifty pushups, fifty sit-ups, and six pull-ups.

That’s only the first day. By the end of the exercises, more than ninety percent will drop out or not make the cut. The few who do will face new challenges: retrieving their equipment from the deep end of the pool after instructors have thrown it in, surviving the panic of simulated drowning, working in the cold and murky depths of a river while strapped with heavy equipment.

It all looks like the first grueling evolution from the film G.I. Jane, except most of it happens underwater. In the dark.

“What really jolted me though was the black water I had to work with in Vietnam. Zero visibility while looking for bodies on the bottom of a deep river will scare the hell out of anybody. […] Groping is an intransitive verb that I like to use when describing our type of diving. We groped for this, we groped for that. We were always groping for something.” (Callahan, 2013)

The work and weight of an engineer Army diver

They were jacks-of-all-trades. A day’s labor might involve rebuilding pipelines and reconstructing piers. Sometimes they safeguard bridges; other times, they demolish them. They salvage drowned tanks and dead bodies. These are not members of Special Forces, often not even considered combat soldiers in the strictest sense of the word. Trained by the Navy, they operate within the land warfare branch of the armed services.

In late 1960s Vietnam, their equipment was often SCUBA gear, but deeper dives or strong currents required the Mark V rig. Put the components all together, and the suit weighs about 200 pounds:

  • Diving bell / helmet
    55 lbs. of copper and bronze
  • Dress
    30 lbs. of canvas and rubber
  • Harness and weight belt
    84 lbs. of lead blocks
  • Lead-soled canvas boots
    17.5 lbs. each

Diver Emerson Emory in a Mark V rig, c. 1950 (Emerson Emory Papers / CC BY)

If you were to use helium for even lower depths, you’d be putting on an additional 100 pounds of weight. For those of you who have done any SCUBA, consider this: a standard single tank, a 2mm shorty wetsuit, and your mask, regulator, and fins all add up to between fifty and sixty lbs. Remember how hard it was to get out of the water with all that kit weighing you down? Now quadruple it.

In an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered, Jennifer Egan speaks of her experience trying on the Mark V suit while researching her novel Manhattan Beach. (It’s about a woman who becomes a Navy diver.)

“And so I had a chance to put this on. It felt excruciatingly heavy. There was a tremendous amount of pressure right at the top of my shoulders. … I was thrilled to have the experience of being in it, and yet I couldn’t have wanted it off any more.” (Egan on All Things Considered, 2017)

Days of danger and trauma

We’re not talking about a leisure dive in the Caribbean, which can by itself be a little intimidating for the novice diver. We’re talking about working in the least optimal conditions, in cold and in dark, in currents strong enough to shift steel I-beams. In Vietnam, we’re talking about getting caught in the submerged chain link and concertina wire used to protect bridge piers. Of course, not all of the job happened underwater:

US Army divers working on bridge in Vietnam, 1968 (Credit: L. Villafaña)

While we’re on the subject of danger, here’s a story about being the accidental target of a concussion grenade because your own side mistook you for the enemy:

“The L.T. [Lieutenant], doing his [security check] business about eighty feet below in the pitch black, had no idea what was coming. Like a runaway freight train barreling toward him in the dark, something slammed headlong into his body! I’ll never forget it. I was watching as the explosion went off and knew something bad had happened to our L.T. Seconds passed as we all watched and waited when we should’ve been donning Scuba gear to recover his remains. Suddenly, he blasted out of the water like a Poseidon missile shot from a nuclear sub! Surrounded by a pool of boiling bubbles, our poor Lieutenant shouted as loud as he could under the circumstances: “I want that man’s stripe!” (Callahan, 2013, p. 43)

This wasn’t out of the ordinary: Over 10,000 Americans were killed unintentionally in Vietnam (Callahan).

And then there was the other kind of work, the emotionally-wrought recovery of bodies that may have been disintegrating underwater for long periods. Ask any Army diver if he eats crabs, and the answer is likely “No way.”

A cadaver in the river. Vietnam, 1968 (Credit: L. Villafaña)

“Crustaceans get the soft tissue; the nose, the ears, the lips, genitals. The human body degrades horribly underwater. Limbs dislodge from joints. Torsos, under a heavy pack of light currents, sty there. […] I never got used to it. Talking to my fellow divers years later, they never did either.” (Callahan, 2013, p. 38)

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