How About a UCT Reunion in the Tektite Basecamp
...and Some Random Musings About that Special Job
By Jim Mennucci
Jim Mennucci was a steelworker/diver on the Tektite program and recently made a trip back to the Tektite site. He offers his memories of the Tektite program and asks if there might be interest in a UCT reunion there.
I recently came across the “Summary Report on Project Tektite 1” written by the Office of Naval Research back in January 1970; this got me to thinking about that job again – a job that comes about maybe once in a person’s lifetime and that’s if they’re lucky. It really was the luck of the draw in the case of the Seabee divers who were chosen not based on any resume of experience, as almost everyone lacked experience except Dick Miller who came from SEALAB.
Tektite took place more than 45 years ago and I still have vivid memories, and this is looking back thru a 40 year career in the undersea field. But none of my experiences are more memorable and enjoyable than those from Tektite. Living in the Virgin Islands working on a National Geographic documented underwater habitat project of course helped.
But there was much more in play – I’ve read a number of the “founding fathers” biographies and found it curious that people like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were fully aware of their legacy and enjoyed steering the process…it was something like that, we all knew we were contributing to something totally new which, in our case, kept us focused and on an even trajectory – I mean we’re sailors being asked to work in a “Don’t Stop the Carnival” environment (check out the book). It’s enviable to have worked on a job where everyone’s rowing together and energized simply by being the first to do it.
The passage below, taken from the introduction in the Tektite final report, acknowledges what I’ve been trying to say:
Particular mention is made of the Navy SEABEEs’ extensive and energetic work in Tektite 1. The SEABEE force was comprised of officers and men from Amphibious Construction Battalion TWO, with additional SEABEE divers from both the Atlantic and Pacific fleets. The SEABEES were active through the project, both in implementing the Navy’s engineering program and in supplying construction and maintenance services for all on-site Tektite facilities.
This is high praise coming from the highest echelons of the Navy – we were the life-blood of the job, literally doing everything. Our real satisfactions were job execution out on the water but it’s nice to also hear someone acknowledge the full spectrum of our Seabee capability.
In retrospect I guess, and in the eyes of many, we ran the Caribbean Hotel Seabee – I’m not sure, but I bet this may be the first and last time the Navy’s done something like providing berthing and nourishment for a 100 or so, mostly civilian personnel supporting the project. The report also recommends that Seabee divers should be included in any future Navy experimental/research activities. Tektite and Sealab in retrospect represent the high point in our nation’s quest to colonize the seafloor, unfortunately, the nation’s interest waned and the era ended way too soon – that’s just the way it was in the late 60’s – nothing nearly as exciting has come along since. The Navy continued to develop saturation diving but this didn’t lead to anything new.
So, what do I remember about the job—here are a few thoughts: The dive team was formed in early September 1968 with about a dozen Seabee divers converging on Little Creek. Our initial work consisted of outfitting a dive barge and supporting Walt Eager’s dream of making AMMI barges levitate. He wanted but didn’t get an underwater elevator to deliver the habitat that was responsive to his beck and call – they had a viable fallback, just not as elegant. An advanced party deployed to St. John’s in October to build the base camp. The dive team was split at this point, with some staying in Little Creek to work on Eager’s AMMIs and the others sent to VI to play Seabee. After the AMMI work was wrapped up we flew down to meet the team. The base camp was functional by the time we got there so it was out on the water every day doing site preparation in advance of the habitat arriving. The advanced work was completed in time for all to make it home for Thanksgiving. The month of December was spent getting support equipment ready and building a new dive barge as the first one had too many leaks to patch (so we learned after way too much effort).
All were loaded onto an LSD, along with motorcycles for most members of the dive team, and moved up to Philly to pick up the habitat. We left for the Virgin Islands on Super Bowl Sunday – Namath beat the Colts. We had about a month to implant the habitat and to get all the support systems up and running. The habitat was manned on 15 Feb, which began the 60-day stay on the bottom. Around-the-clock support was set up. I was put in charge of the decompression chamber, which took about a ½ hour to check out at the beginning of each watch, after which I often settled into a book for the next 8 hours. My still close friend Charlie Dunn oversaw the support systems: electrical generators, air compressors, water for the habitat, TVs, both HP units for scuba tank charging, and redundant (and amazingly small) LP oil-less paint compressors that maintained O2 level in the habitat (CO2 was scrubbed below in the habitat). Air flow from the compressor was regulated to maintain a steady-state O2 pp in the habitat of 8% which was needed to avoid O2 irritation – the excess air was allowed to bubble out of the habitat. Aquanauts breathed normal compressed air in their scuba rigs.
There was also a team of divers on each watch that followed the aquanauts when they were out doing their daily or nightly scientific chores. Each watch had a lead diver that ran the side. Murray Kato (from EDU) was the master diver on my watch – I always wondered why we needed him till we bought the aquanauts up and I saw how thin the Seabee knowledge of saturation diving and decompression was. With the aquanauts up, all the equipment was recovered and made ready for its LSD ride back to the states. It was a program of multiple phases that just never got dull.
How’s that for jump starting what became known as the UCT’s. Credit goes to Commander Walt Eager who singularly had the vision, to the CEC for the skills that solved the many inimitable first-time engineering challenges, and to the Seabee divers who took their trade beneath the waves. It’s the built-in combination of program management with the engineering and construction execution that is unique to the SEABEE way that was recognized early and I’m sure still drives the UCTs today – and by the way, happy 40th guys…hoist one for me.
And finally, I took a sailing vacation with the family in the Virgin Islands recently, picked up a moor in Lameshur Bay and visited the Tektite base camp which is now home to a Tektite Museum. I spent an afternoon with the museum curator who has been to a number of Tektite reunions and is very familiar with many parts of the job but knows the least about the Seabee effort. He is quick to relate that for those he has met that were on both Tektite 1 and 2, that the ‘Seabee way’ was sorely missed on Tektite 2. It seems that everyone’s been back for a reunion except the Seabees.
Randy Brown, the museum curator, feels it’s overdue and time to have a reunion for the Seabee’s and I agree. I think it’d be neat if the East Coast UCT reunion was held in the Tektite base camp which is much improved since we built it. Think about it and let me know how we might arrange such an event. Let’s face it the Tektite basecamp is kind of the “fertile crescent” for UCT diving or call it Mecca – it’s our birthplace and it’s time for a pilgrimage back. They’ve done a wonderful job making the base camp a Caribbean paradise and would make it available for the reunion. There’s a fair amount of info online just google Project Tektite.
Jim Mennucci can be contacted at email@example.com if anyone wants to talk about Tektite as a reunion site and what the program might look like.
List of the First U. S. Navy Seabee Divers
Download the following PDF to see a list of the very first U.S. Navy Seabee Divers that participated in the first and second underwater construction projects, Tektite and Afar, which lead to the creation and commissioning of the Underwater Construction Teams in February 1974.