Hampton Roads welcomes last surviving Army diver
Jim Kennedy slogged onto Utah Beach in 1944 and saw the bloated bodies of American servicemen in the water.
The tide washed them out. The tide washed them back in.
It was three weeks after D-Day, June 6, 1944. The drama of the landing had passed, and the grim work of cleaning up the beach had begun. The Allies were pushing inward.
And Kennedy’s own story was just about to start.
He belonged to a unit of U.S. Army deep sea divers who were dispatched to the port city of Cherbourg. The Allies had captured it after a bitter fight, and the Germans had done their best to make it unusable as a supply point.
Whatever could be sunk in the harbor was sunk. Among the debris were 24 rail cars crammed full of sea mines. The job of Kennedy and his crew: Clear the damn harbor.
He and fellow divers worked around the clock in two-man teams. They lifted out mines one by one. They strapped cables around chunks of wire-reinforced concrete — chunks as big as Buicks — and waited for a steam-operated crane to do the heavy lifting.
“They would bring it up,” he recalled, “and at the very beginning, the minute it broke the surface, the cable would snap.”
“Yeah, lovely is right,” he said with a laugh.
He can smile about it today, at least once in a while.
Now 85 years old, Kennedy holds a special place in the rapidly disappearing World War II generation.
He is the last known surviving U.S. Army deep sea diver, and he is being honored this week in Williamsburg, where the U.S. Army Divers Association is holding its reunion.
As America prepares to mark the 65th anniversary of the landing at D-Day, Kennedy’s sharp recollections provide a different view of that pivotal point in history, a view that is literally beneath the surface.
“You had a job to do, and you concentrated on that job,” he said. “If you’re getting that cable strung, you don’t have time to screw around.”
And the qualities for a good diver in WWII?
“The first thing,” he said, “is don’t be claustrophobic.”
On Thursday, some divers from the association came to Fort Eustis, where they donned a classic WWII suit and took it for a spin in a diving tank used to train today’s Army divers.
Capt. Jesse Greene, a diver in the mid-1990s, came away impressed with the moxie of his predecessors who slogged around in 198 pounds of equipment.
“I have a new respect for guys like him who dove in that,” Greene said. “I don’t know how anybody could get anything done in that suit. It’s difficult to see. It’s difficult to move around.”
He spent much of his time in the water trying to peer through a fogged-up window.
The trick to clearing it: Turn off the air in the helmet, reduce the pressure, open the spitcock valve, get some water in your mouth, and spit at the window.
Maybe that old suit isn’t up to today’s standards, but it marked a grand improvement over Kennedy’s first diving “apparatus,” which goes back to when he was a kid.
My cousin and I, we made a diving helmet out of a thirty-gallon water tank,” he said. “We thought we were real good stuff. We had air running into it. You had to hold it down.”
They tried it out at a local swimming hole and darned near drowned.
Born in Wyoming and growing up in Colorado, he doesn’t know why he was always fascinated by the water, but he was. His January birthday makes him an Aquarius, so maybe that’s it, he says.
His one wish would be to celebrate more birthdays with his comrades, but they’re all gone now. He had a buddy from Philadelphia, a fellow diver, and they last spoke in August 2007.
“The next thing I hear from his daughter, it was January, he died of pneumonia, so that just left me,” he said.
How does it feel to the last surviving Army diver? He returns the question: How do you think it feels?
“I just see that sand-clock going,” he said, twirling his fingers, “and the calendars are turning like this.”