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Following is an excerpt from the U.S. Naval Institute's oral history of Master Chief Boatswain's Mate Carl M. Brashear, USN (Ret.). The interview was conducted 17 November 1989 at the U.S. Naval Station, Norfolk, Virginia. The entire oral history, including this excerpt, is copyright 1998 jointly by Carl Brashear and the U.S. Naval Institute.

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Master Chief Brashear: Okay. I went to first-class school and graduated number three. They didn't have a job on an ARS, so I went [in June 1964] to an ATF, the USS Shakori.1 You cannot get the proper qualification on an ATF to groom you for master, so I stayed on the Shakori for only one year.

Paul Stillwell: Why do you say you can't get the proper qualification?

Master Chief Brashear: Well, on something like that they mostly just tow. You don't do a lot of salvage jobs, because you just don't have the capabilities. So I stayed aboard there for a year and requested to go aboard the Hoist.2
     Well, I got aboard the Hoist [in September 1965] and was working and studying and preparing myself to be a master diver. This was when the accident happened and I tore my leg off.

Paul Stillwell: Please describe that.

Master Chief Brashear: Well, in 1966, the Air Force lost a nuclear bomb off the coast of Palomares, Spain.3 The Air Force asked the Navy to recover that bomb, and, of course, the Navy said yes. Admiral Guest formed the task force, and we started searching for that bomb in January of 1966.4
     The reason the bomb dropped in the water was that two airplanes were maneuvering, and the fuel plane was fueling a B-52. According to what the people said, it gained on the B-52 too fast, and they collided in midair. Three of the bombs' parachutes opened and landed over on the land in Spain. One of the parachutes didn't open, and it fell in the water. So we searched for the bomb close to the shoreline for about two and a half months, and all we were getting was pings on beer cans, coral heads, and other contacts.

Paul Stillwell: This is with your sonar?

Master Chief Brashear: Yes. But every time we would get a contact, we would dive on it. And we dove around the clock for two months. So the fisherman that saw the bomb go into the water kept telling the officials, "You're too close! Too close! Out there! Out there!" He'd take his fingers and measure. So one day Admiral Guest said we would try it. So they made a replica of the bomb on the tender and then dropped it to see how it would show up on the screen, same dimension, same length, same diameter. Then we went out six miles, and the first pass, there the bomb was, six miles in 2,600 feet of water.
     So we rigged to pick this thing up. The CURV, out of Woods Hole was going down to hook this thing up.5 Stillwell, I rigged up what I call a spider. It was a three-legged contraption that I was going to drop for this bomb to be hooked up to. I had my grapnel hooks and everything, you know. So the Hoist had a very good skipper. Doggone, he was nice!
     We dropped that equipment in 2,600 feet of water, and it landed 15 feet from the bomb. The crew of Alvin said it was amazing. The parachute on the bomb hadn't opened, so the Alvin went down and put the parachute shrouds in the grapnel hooks that I had on each leg of the spider. But the Alvin ran out of batteries and had to surface.
     So Admiral Guest, through the radio conversation with our skipper, said to pick it up. So we picked it up to a certain depth. Then we brought a boat alongside to pick the crate up out of the boat and set it on the deck to when I picked that bomb up I'd put it in this crate. I was picking the bomb up with the capstan. I got the crate, picking it up, and the boat broke loose. It was a Mike-8.6 The engineer was revving up the engines, and it parted the line. I was trying to get my sailors out of the way, and I ran back down to grab a sailor, just manhandling him out of the way. Just as I started to leave, the boat pulled on the pipe that had the mooring line tied to it. That pipe came loose, flew across the deck, and it struck my leg below the knee. They said I was way up in the air just turning flips. I landed about two foot inside of that freeboard. They said if I'd been two feet farther over, I'd have gone over the side. I jumped up and started to run and fell over. That's when I knew how bad my leg was.7

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Paul Stillwell: Was it taken off by the mooring line?

Master Chief Brashear: Taken off by a pipe and the boat's mooring line that parted.
     Then we dropped the bomb back down into 2,600 feet of water. So there I was on the ship with my leg torn off—no doctor, no morphine, six and a half miles from the Albany. So the corpsmen placed two tourniquets on my leg. He was interviewed for a program in the "Comeback" TV series, and he said that the reason he couldn't stop the bleeding with two tourniquets was because I was in such good physical condition and my leg was such a mass of muscle.
     So we steamed towards the Albany. I was telling the guys about what I had rigged on the ship, and how to rerig it. Finally, we got to the Albany, which was just sitting there, but this little old ARS was just going up and down, up and down. So they just literally pitched me up onto the deck of the Albany, and I hit the deck. BOOM! I said, "Doggone, you didn't have to drop me that far." [Laughter]

Q: You were conscious this long?

Master Chief Brashear: Yes, I was still conscious. So I thought I was going to the sick bay on the Albany, but they put me in a helicopter towards Torrejon Air Force Base in Spain. They got the doctor off of the doggone cruiser. But they got in too big of a hurry. They didn't fuel the helicopter and couldn't make it. So they set me down on a dilapidated runway somewhere in Spain waiting for a two-engine small plane to come and get me and take me to Torrejon.
     Well, the accident happened at 5:00 o'clock in the afternoon, and at 9:00 o'clock I was on the runway there. During this period of time before then, the doctor wouldn't give me any water. So I asked him for some water, and he said, "Well, you can have some." He told me this later. He said he was going to give it to me because I was going to die anyway. So he said, "Heck, I might as well give it to him. He's almost dead now."

Q: The tourniquets must have started working at some point. I mean, you couldn't bleed for four hours.

Master Chief Brashear: Oh, yes. I mean, they were doing a little, but weren't stopping it completely. I lost so much blood that I went into shock around 9:00 o'clock.

Q: I'm not surprised.

Master Chief Brashear: So then I just passed out. And I don't remember the plane coming to get me, or I don't remember getting into the hospital at Torrejon.
     Now, I'm going to tell you some stuff that my doctor told me later in Torrejon. He said that when I was rolled into the emergency room at Torrejon Air Force Base, he said I didn't have any pulse whatsoever, no heartbeat, couldn't feel a thing, he said. But he said he told the medics to do something, but I can't recall what he said he told the medics to do. He said the medics were slow about doing it, and he said he thought he'd feel on me one more time. He said I had a very, very faint heartbeat, and that's when he found out I was alive. He said I almost was in the morgue. Right away, he started making fast arrangements to get some blood, and they pumped 18 pints of blood in me, and I came to.
     Then they were going to piece my leg back on and do plastic surgery. Well, they were going to make my leg three inches shorter than the other leg. When they took the bandage off, my foot fell off. So they tried again, and it would fall off. It got gangrene and got infected. Well, I was slowly dying from that. So they transferred me up to Wiesbaden, Germany. There the doctor said that he could fix me, but it would take three years and could have me walking on a brace. So I raised all sorts of hell in that hospital.
     So he said, "Well, do you want to be air-mailed out to the States?" That's the term he used. He said, "Do you want to be air-mailed out to the States?"
     I said, "Yes, sir! Air-mail me out of here!"
     So he air-mailed me to the States, and I arrived in McGuire Air Force Base.8 I was there on the ward with other people that found out I was infected so bad, so then they carted me off out of there about midnight and put me in a little isolation place. That was McGuire.
     So three days later, I came down to Portsmouth Naval Hospital.9 Here again, Dr. O'Neill and an Air Force doctor—doggone, I can't remember his name now—but Dr. O'Neill was the major surgeon there.10 He said he could have me fixed in 30 months or four years or something like that, have me walking on a brace. He told me all the different types of pins he could put on there. So I said, "Well, I can't stay here that long." I said, "I've got to get out of here." I said, "Go ahead and amputate."
     So he said, "Geez, Chief! Anybody could amputate. It takes a good doctor to fix it."
     I said, "Yeah, but I can't stay here three years. I can't be tied up that long. I've got to go back to diving." They just laughed, "The fool's crazy! He doesn't have the chance of a snowball in hell of staying in the Navy. And a diver? No way! Impossible!"
     So they messed around with my leg so much and got it infected so bad I convinced them to go ahead and amputate. So they did a guillotine-type of operation, just chopped it off, cleared up the infection. A while later he said, "We didn't go high enough. We need to cut off another inch and a half." So they cut off an inch and a half to make sure they got it, and veed it out and sewed it up. This was in July 1966.
     After that I kept saying, "I'm going to be a deep-sea diver, doggone it!" By this time, I was reading some books about a Canadian Air Force pilot that flew airplanes with no legs. I had also read books that said a prosthesis can support any amount of weight. I also read you've got to develop an attitude that, "Hey, look, I'm going to accept this. I'm going to make it work." I worked towards it.
     So they got me good enough to go to Philadelphia to a prosthetic center to get a prosthesis. So I got up there, and they told me it would be about two months before they could fit me with a temporary cast to shrink my stump. And so I talked to them a little bit. About the next week after that I had a cast on my leg to shrink my stump, and I could walk with a cane. Then I said, "Well, I've got to start working out." I was feeling bad. So I was working out outside the hospital and broke my doggone leg, broke it off. So I went over to the brace and limb shop and got me another one.
     They said, "How'd you do it?"
     I said, "I was shadow boxing." [Laughter]
     People thought I was crazy, Stillwell. They said, "The fool doesn't have good sense." I was out shadow boxing and broke my leg.

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Paul Stillwell: Can't keep a good man down.

Master Chief Brashear: So they fixed me up another one, and they were telling me how long it would take to make a leg and all this stuff. So I got in good with them. I'd go over there and work. I mean, I'd do everything around the hospital. I didn't want anybody doing anything for me. So I started working in the brace and limb shop, helping them out. I'd go sweep the shop, just do things. They made me a leg. They got it finished in December.
     About the third or second of December, they gave me a leg, and I made a statement to the doctor. "Doctor," I said, "once I get a leg, I'm going to give you back this crutch, and I'll never use it again. I'm going to walk back to the hospital."
     "No way! No way you can do that! Impossible!"
     The day they strapped that leg on me, Stillwell, I gave those crutches back to those people, and I don't have one today, never used one, don't have one in the house, and I walked back to the hospital.
     Well, then I had to say, "Now, how am I going to get out of Philadelphia back down to Virginia to be around that diving school?" So I called to try to get a tango number.11 They wouldn't give me one. So I said, "Well, I'm just going to let it all hang out." So I caught a bus, came down to Portsmouth, tried to turn in at the naval hospital; they ran me off. They wouldn't let me in. So they ran me back to Philadelphia. So I got up there, and I raised so much hell, they got me a tango number and got me out of there, sent me to the hospital over here in Portsmouth.
     Chief Warrant Officer Axtell was the officer in charge of the diving school.12 I sneaked off from the hospital and went over and saw him. He knew me from salvage school, and I said, "Ax, I've got to dive. I've got to get some pictures. I've got to prove to the people that I'm going to be a diver."
     He said, "You son of a bitch, if something happens to you, you'll ruin my career!"
     I said, "I know that! I know that!"
     He said, "My career goes right out the window if I let you dive and something happens to you."
     I said, "I know that, Ax. I've got to dive."
     So he said, "I'm going to take a chance."
     So he took a chance, and I got me a photographer. I dove in a deep-sea rig, dove in a shallow-water rig, dove in scuba gear, and got these pictures. I went back to the hospital, and I was on report. The nurse put me on report, see.

Q: For being gone?

Master Chief Brashear: Yes, being over the hill. She put me on report, and then she talked to me. She tore it up. So I said to myself, "I wonder how she's going to tear up the next one, because I'm going to be gone again." [Laughter]
     I had to get some more pictures. So I left, came back over to the diving school again, and saw Ax. I said, "Ax, I've got to get some more pictures."
     He said, "Okay, go on out there and tell them to dress you up."
     So I got the pictures, and then they held my medical board at the naval hospital. I had those pictures. So the nurse put me on report for not being at the hospital, and Admiral Yon said that I shouldn't be like that.13 But he talked to me about returning to diving and everything.
     I didn't appear at the physical evaluation board. That created another big thing. I wasn't there. I was in Washington, D.C. They never did get me to a physical evaluation board. I was supposed to go to one board, and it took them about six or eight weeks to set up another board. I was thinking in my mind, "Well, I'm not going to that one either."
     In the meantime, they were getting tired of me at the naval hospital, so they sent me to the naval station for medical hold. When they would get a physical evaluation board set up, then I'd go back over there to the board, and that was just as good as I wanted. But between the naval hospital and the naval station, I endorsed my own orders and put, "FFT to the second-class diving school." And I reported in to the second-class diving school.
     When I told Ax about it, he laid some choice words on me, but he accepted me. I was an E-8 then.15 And then it was time for me to go back to the physical evaluation board. BuMed was calling the naval station to inform me when I was supposed to go to the physical evaluation board.16 But they didn't have me on the 1080. So you know what the old 1080 used to be?

Paul Stillwell: That's a printout of personnel.

Master Chief Brashear: Yes, a printout. I wasn't on the 1080 over there. They didn't know where I was. Finally, somehow or other, they found out I was at the second-class diving school. This lieutenant commander called me and said, "Where are you?"
     I said, "I'm on this phone talking to you right now."
     He said, "How in the hell did you get to the diving school?"
     I said, "Orders, sir."
     And, boy, what a confusion that made. So they told me to report to the physical evaluation board. And then I was put on report again. By then they were really tired of messing with me. But I'd sent all those pictures to BuMed along with my medical board.
     So they said, "Well, if he did that down there, he can do it up here." So they called me to Washington, D.C., and I had to spend a week at the deep-sea diving school diving with a captain and a commander. Quite a few people from BuMed came over and watched me. They watched me dive for a week as an amputee and run around the building, do physical fitness every morning, lead the calisthenics. I said, "Pretty good, a captain watching a chief work." I'd just wise off at them, you know.
     So at the end of that week, they called me over to BuMed, had me stand outside of a door there like a dummy, and they were all sitting around a table. Captain Jacks was policy control, and he told me, "Any time you want, you can mention my name. I'm policy control." He said, "Most of the people in your position want to get a medical disability, get out of the Navy, and do the least they can and draw as much pay as they can. And then you're asking for full duty. I don't know how to handle it." He said, "Suppose you would be diving and tear your leg off?"
     I said, "Well, Captain, it wouldn't bleed."
     He said, "Get out of here. Get out." He ran me off.
     So finally they called me back in. I reported back to the diving school. Axtell had been relieved by this time by Chief Warrant Officer Duell.17 Axtell left word that I was coming back. Duell was the most efficient, conscientious, dedicated man I've ever seen in the Navy. He was a perfectionist.
     They wrote him a letter telling him what to do to me. They wanted him to evaluate me for one year, and at the end of that year for him to write his report back to BuMed. You know, that man dove me every day, every cotton-picking day. I did it every day--weekends and all. At the end of that year he wrote the most beautiful letter. Boy, that was something. I was returned to full duty and full diving--the first time in naval history for an amputee.

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Paul Stillwell: That's quite an inspiring story, Master Chief.

Master Chief Brashear: That was an accomplishment. Sometimes I would come back from a run, and my artificial leg would have a puddle of blood from my stump. I wouldn't go to sick bay. In that year, if I had gone to sick bay, they would have written me up. I didn't go to sick bay. I'd go somewhere and hide and soak my leg in a bucket of hot water with salt in it--an old remedy. Then I'd get up the next morning and run. I was to lead the calisthenics every morning with the students. Duell would be there. I was a chief. All the other students were white hats.18 They never did get a chief while I was there. But I could hear them say, "That old chief--he's going to kill us." He gets out there, he ain't got no quitting sense on those calisthenics. He does this. He does that." They didn't know I was an amputee.
     It just happened, the first two weeks we had orientation and physics. The third week in second-class school you go to the swimming pool. When I went to the swimming pool, I came out with my other leg under my arm. Those kids down there almost had a heart attack. [Laughter] Here was the same guy that was leading them, that they were talking about, had only one leg and was swimming them to death. But that would build those kids up, make them mad. That was sure a good motivational period for those kids.

Paul Stillwell: I'm sure it was.

Master Chief Brashear: At the end of that year, I was restored to full diving on full duty. I went to the boat house for two years of shore duty as the naval air station division officer.

Paul Stillwell: Why don't we resume that the next time we get together?

Master Chief Brashear: Okay.

Paul Stillwell: Thank you very much.

  1. The fleet ocean tug Shakori (ATF-162) was commissioned 20 December 1945. She was 205 feet long, 38 feet in the beam, had a draft of 15 feet, and a displacement of 1,675 tons. Her top speed was 16.5 knots.
  2. The salvage ship Hoist (ARS-40) was commissioned 21 July 1945. She was 214 feet long, 39 feet in the beam, had a draft of 14 feet, and a displacement of 1,360 tons. Her top speed was 15 knots.
  3. The collision of the two U.S. Air Force planes was on 17 January 1966. The bomb that fell into the sea near Palomares, Spain, was located by the U.S. Navy's deep-diving research vessel Alvin on 17 March. Once lines were attached to the bomb, it was brought to the surface on 7 April by the submarine rescue ship Petrel (ASR-14). The Hoist took part in the recovery operation.
  4. Rear Admiral William S. Guest, USN.
  5. CURV - controlled underwater recovery vehicle.
  6. LCM-8, a particular model of the landing craft mechanized.
  7. The date of Chief Brashear's accident was 25 March 1966. The lower part of Brashear's leg was not torn off by the accident itself; instead he suffered compound fractures of both bones in the lower leg. A portion of his leg was amputated subsequently on 11 May 1966 because of persistent infection and necrosis.
  8. McGuire Air Force Base is adjacent to the Army's Fort Dix near Wrightstown, New Jersey.
  9. This hospital is near the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia.
  10. The medical reports on Brashear's injury do not mention a Dr. O'Neill. His diagnostic summary from the hospital at Portsmouth, Virginia, does contain references to Captain G. J. Blacker, Medical Corps, U.S. Air Force.
  11. The Navy uses tango numbers to authorize transportation.
  12. Chief Ship Repair Technician Clair F. Axtell, Jr., USN.
  13. Rear Admiral Joseph L. Yon, MC, USN.
  14. 14 FFT - for further transfer.
  15. E-8 is the pay grade for senior chief petty officer.
  16. BuMed - Bureau of Medicine and Surgery in Washington, D.C.
  17. Chief Warrant Officer Raymond K. Duell, USN.
  18. "White hat" is a slang term for an enlisted person below the rate of chief petty officer.
Ordering Information

The paper-bound version of Carl Brashear's entire oral history, an overall description of his life and naval career, is available for sale by the Naval Institute for a special rate of $20.00, plus $3.50 for shipping and handling. To place an order or inquire further, please contact:

Mr. Paul Stillwell
History Division
U.S. Naval Institute
291 Wood Road Annapolis, MD 21402-5034
410-295-1020
oralhistory@usni.org

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