Sunday, April 09, 2006

Tales from a watery grave: Speaker shares story of CSS Hunley


The Post & Mail
By Chris Meyers
April 07, 2006

The story of the CSS Hunley is one of triumph and tragedy, success and failure.

The Hunley, the first submarine ever used during combat in the United States, was a Confederate submarine that sank two times and went through two crews before the third and final sinking that left it, and the crew, on the bottom of Charleston Harbor about one and a half miles out to sea.

Telling the story of the Hunley and its three separate crews was Civil War expert Bob Willey, a member of the National Park Service who was at Charleston when the Hunley was raised from the water for the first time.

“It was a most awesome site,” he told a crowd of at least 60 people at the Whitley County Historical Society's banquet Thursday night at the Eagles Nest.

“I don't know how I did this, but I stood there for 45 minutes looking at that black silt,” Willey said.

The silt had filled much of the submarine while it was on the bottom of the ocean for 140 years.

The story begins during the Civil War. The Hunley was originally designed to tow a mine behind it and dive under the ship it was attacking, pulling the mine into it to destroy it.

The crew hoped the destroyed ship would shield the submarine from the explosion.

After its first mission, Lt. John Payne accidentally stepped on a lever that made the ship dive, but the hatches were still open.

Five of the eight crew members drowned - Payne was one of the survivors.

The loss did not deter the Confederate Navy. The Hunley was raised and another crew recruited.

This time tragedy struck once again when the ship sank while on a routine dive and all men on board drowned.

It was recovered once again after resting on the bottom of the ocean for five days.

The submarine was found with it's bow buried in the muck and still at the same 30 degree angle it took to the bottom.

After this recovery, the design for how the Hunley would attack was changed.

A long, pointed pole was put on the front so the sub could ram its target and stick a torpedo into it, retreat and detonate the torpedo remotely by copper wire that stretched from the torpedo to inside the sub.

The commanding officer would then activate a Civil War-era battery that sent the detonating charge.

The third and final crew recruited for the Hunley not only joined because of patriotism, Willey said, but also because of the reward offered to the crew members if they sank a Union ship.

That reward today would equal about $1.7 million, he said.

Their fateful mission was to sink a Union ship in the Charleston Harbor.

If the mission was successful, the crew was to shine a blue light toward fellow soldiers on land, who would shine a white light back so the Hunley crew would know where to dock.

“They were successful, but nothing's known after that,” Willey said.

He said records show the blue light was used and the white light returned, but the ship and crew were never seen again.

Fast forward to May of 1995 as explorers and on-lookers stood in awe as the sub was carefully brought to shore.

The recovery team had to use inflatable straps under the sub that were carefully monitored and adjusted so no harm would come to the ship.

“They thought there was a possibility it would break apart as it was raised,” Willey said.

Fortunately, the sub surfaced intact and for the first time since it set to sea on that fateful night, human eyes saw the first innovations in naval warfare.

The sub was about 40 feet long, 3 1/2 feet wide, 4 feet tall and weighed about 58,000 pounds. The only light for the eight-man crew was one candle.

“It was essentially just a big iron boiler with tapered ends,” Willey said.

He said that before the sub was raised, the scientists who discovered it went to a local museum that had a scale model of what the sub was supposed to look like and compared what was right and wrong.

“They went down to the museum at midnight and ran around the Hunley (model) yelling that's wrong, that's wrong,” Willey said.

After it was raised, scientists found a broken window on one of the conning towers, but that should not have been enough to sink the ship.

“I don't think there's a chance we'll ever know for sure,” Willey said of what caused the sinking.

Inside the ship were the remains of the crew, clothing and their possessions that included coins, wallets with money still in them and smoking pipes.

“All 16 shoes of the eight crewman contained human remains as did the skulls which still contained brain material,” Willey said.

He said nothing has been lost that was found inside the ship and everything has been kept in a climate-controlled environment, processed and refurbished to as close to mint condition as possible.

He said the bench that the crew sat on to turn the propeller was removed and told an interesting story on its own.

“There were three layers of paint, which leads them to believe it was repainted before each sinking.”

The submarine is kept in a tank of water at 43 degrees Fahrenheit and when it's removed from it, it must have a constant mist sprayed on it so it won't deteriorate.

This will have to happen for another few years until the material is stable enough to be displayed in a different way.

On April 17, 2004, a long procession of tens of thousands of people, including surviving relatives of the crew, gathered at the unusually calm waters of Charleston Harbor to give the crew a proper burial at Magnolia Cemetery.

“For the Hunley crew, their 140-year journey had finally ended,” Willey said.



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