Story by Petty Officer 2nd Class Vaughan Dill, Navy Public Affairs Support Element, Det. Northwest
KEYPORT, Wash. – More than 40 members of the Bathyscaphe Trieste Alumni Association gathered and reminisced at the Naval Undersea Museum-Keyport, as part of their bi-annual alumni reunion Sept. 13-17.
The Alumni Association is comprised of members who were associated with the Trieste, or its predecessor, deep submergence vehicle Trieste II (DSV 1), in any capacity, including uniformed Navy, Naval Sea Systems Command, shipyard workers, universities, contractors, support ships and other support units.
“Everything we did, we did it for the first time, and we had to figure out how to do it, said Merle Vogel, Trieste II pilot. “It wasn’t like nuclear power, where you just do things by the reactor plant manual, in deep submergence you have got to sort it out, figure out how to do it, and do it. It’s something new all the time.”
The Trieste was initially operated by the French Navy before being purchased by the United States Navy in 1958, and was the first of only two manned submarines ever to explore the deepest part of the ocean, the Challenger Deep in the Marianas Trench.
“I’m the only one at the reunion that was involved with the original Trieste, because that was 57 years ago,” said retired Capt. Don Walsh, original Trieste pilot. “Only three people have been to the deepest place in the ocean, myself and Jacques Piccard in the Trieste, and Jim Cameron.
Following years of modifications and preparations, Trieste was finally ready and the two man crew took the plunge, descending to the depth of 10,916 metres (35,814 ft), reaching the trench floor on Jan. 23 1960, with Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh piloting the submersible. This was the first time a vessel had ever reached the deepest known point of the Earth’s oceans.
“We were test pilots, like a new airplane, we were not oceanographers,” said Walsh. “We were two engineers who made the dive with this thing to make sure it was safe, it was reliable, and could do good oceanographic work as a platform for marine scientists and oceanographers.”
The descent took approximately 4 hours and 47 minutes. At approximately 9400 meters, the pilots heard a loud bang, and the sub shook violently. The two were unable to find the source of the bang, only later to find out a Plexiglas window in the entrance tunnel had cracked due to the enormous pressure of the deep sea.
“We looked at all of our indicators, our instruments and such, and everything was normal,” said Walsh. “So we just decided to continue on down.”
The two spent approximately 20 minutes on the ocean floor before dropping their ballast of iron pellets and beginning a 3 hour and 15 minute ascent back to the surface.
The two pilots thought that would be the first of many trips to explore the depths of the ocean, but by the end of the sixties the Navy abandoned manned exploration of the deepest parts of the ocean.
It wasn’t until 52 years later that James Cameron built a special submersible of his own and successfully made the descent by himself in 2012.
“I was fortunate because I go to make the deepest dive in the Trieste in 1960, but I also was on Jim Cameron’s expedition 52 years later in 2012, when he used his special submersible to dive again to the deepest place in the ocean,” said Walsh. “But I have him by 20 feet.”
Trieste went on to be modified to serve other purposes, including locating the missing nuclear submarine USS Thresher (SSN-593) off the coast of New England, before being retired and put on display at the Washington Navy Yard. Its Terni pressure sphere was incorporated into its predecessor, the Trieste II.
“To me it was really an adventure working on Trieste, starting in the mid 60’s, and working in the deep submergence program through 1980,” said Dick Taylor, Trieste II pilot. “It really was an adventure; there was something new all the time, there was a challenge all the time, there were obstacles to overcome, and it was just a wonderful experience for a young Sailor.”