Before the First Mercury Splashdown

By Captain Norm Olson, USN, Retired

In 1958-1959, while I served as the Executive Officer, Underwater Demolition Team TWENTY-ONE, Navy Frogmen from Underwater Demolition Unit TWO (UDU-TWO) in Little Creek, VA supported NASA in two separate but related long-forgotten, undocumented events. The details of both are based on my recollections, and in the case of the first event, the shared accounts of BMCM Bill Bruhmuller, USN, Retired, and former JO3 Wesley E. Tucker, USN, both of whom were test subjects. Bill gave me a detailed account of his own experience, and Wes provided me background material titled “50 Years of Research on Man in Flight” that he obtained from the Air Force Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory, Wright-Patterson AFB, OH. These two events took place several years before the first Mercury splashdown, and the notoriety that was subsequently experienced by UDT for their at-sea recovery operations in support of Project’s Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.

Like most activities conducted by UDT between the wars, they went unnoticed and unrecognized. There were several reasons for this, but the best explanation I can come up with is that we did not fit cleanly in the blue water Navy, thus no one in the hierarchy cared. Moreover, in those days, the men in the Underwater Demolition Teams did not view their service as being extraordinary, thus, they felt no need to talk about it. And probably more important, we were very poor at documenting experiences, such as the two I am going to relate.

In the early 1950s, NASA was tasked with exploring the feasibility of space travel. The purpose of Project Mercury was to realize the vision that a human pilot, be transported in a life support system (capsule), could be thrust into orbit by a liquid fuel rocket, be maintained there for several revolutions of the earth, and be successfully and safely recovered from orbit. The Air Force had been keenly aware of the need for clarification of the parameters of human endurance, safety, and comfort during periods of unusual stress, and began directing biomedical research toward the development of tests to assist in selecting pilots for special research projects.

Over a 4-year period, a series of physiological, psychological, and biochemical tests were incorporated into a stress-test program, during which time several special groups were tested, including USAF pilots and young volunteers from the University of Dayton. As time went on, Captain (MC) Charles L. Wilson, USAF, the Principal Investigator, came to appreciate that physical fitness, along with the ability to withstand physiological and psychological stress, would play a key factor in the astronaut selection program for Project Mercury.

In an attempt to establish minimum selection standards, the Air Force canvassed all the services to determine what organizations required both a high level of fitness, and a screening program that placed candidates under extreme stress. In the final months, they selected Navy Frogmen from UDU-TWO to be stress-tested. When the request for volunteers arrived at UDT’s doorstep in the spring of 1958, many put up their hands but only twelve were chosen.

Since 4-decades have passed, it is not clear what our specific selection criteria was; however, physical fitness and diving experience, particularly under difficult and hazardous conditions, was certainly of prime consideration. Three groups of four were selected to participate, each for a period of two weeks. They were:

Group I
GM1 Thomas McAllister
SK2 Harvey Collins
DM2 Leonard Waugh
CS3 William Bruhmuller

Group II
MMC Robert Sheehan
EN2 John Lyons
BM3 Louis Kucinski
JO3 Wesley Tucker

Group III *
BM1Rudolph Boesch
BM1 Fred Robbins
EN1 Jake Rhinebolt
SN Ron Gerringer

* Note:    Rudy “The Survivor” couldn’t remember who the rest of them were, so Wes had to dig deep into the Air Force’s files to come up with the rest of the group. It must be all that verified air that he’s been breathing lately, or maybe he just had a senior moment resulting from his first exposure to the Air Force some 40 plus years ago.

The purpose of the stress tests administered to the UDT subjects and others, was to study physical fitness, stamina, motivation and physiological responses. They were the same tests that were ultimately used to select the first group of astronauts that participated in the Special Crew Selection Program.

  • Treadmill and Harvard Step Test – It was easily determined that the level of fitness of the UDT personnel was far above average.
  • Blood Tests – They were administered on a regular basis.
  • Flack Test – It crudely represented motivation and consisted of blowing into a rubber mouthpiece in such a manner to support a column of mercury at 40 mm for as long as possible. Again, our folks exceeded the norm.
  • Cold Pressor Test – It also represented motivation. Three resting blood pressures and pulses were taken at 1-minute intervals while the subject was relaxed, then he was directed to plunge both feet into a pan of ice water for 7-minutes. Something like diving in the Arctic and Antarctic. Three posttest blood pressures and pulses were then taken. Lack of motivation did not seem to be a problem for our folks.
  • Heat Test  Each subject was exposed to an ambient temperature of 130 degrees Fahrenheit for 3-hours, wearing a flight suit, long underwear, socks and flight boots. Thermocouples were attached to the forehead and back of the hand, and EKG leads were affixed to extremities. Body heat storage is a measure of the heat that a body will store when exposed to a hot environment. It is the most reliable parameter for evaluating the performance of a subject under heat stress. The better the heat dissipation, the less chance for heat stroke, a condition that has a very high mortality. Other than some edginess during card games, our folks proved to be good heat subjects. It must have been that St. Thomas sun.
  • Human centrifuge – Its purpose was to determine human tolerance for normal and emergency space flight trajectories. The ability to pull a G-Force of 6-9 was considered acceptable. All of our folks were pulling 8-11 G’s and calling for more. Are Frogmen stupid, or what?
  • Partial Pressure Suit Test – The procedure involved being denitrogenated on 100% oxygen for two hours, wearing a helmet and facepiece. As soon as denitrogenating began, the subjects were fitted with the MC-3 partial pressure suit; with extremity EKG leads being applied. During the final 30-minutes, the subjects were exposed to a battery of tests designed to measure psychomotor functions. Blood and urine samples were drawn before entering the low-pressure (high-altitude) chamber, which was first brought up to 40,000 feet, then 55,000 feet, and finally 65,000 feet, where the test started and continued for 60-minutes.

Following successful completion of the high-altitude test, the subjects were given the opportunity to briefly experience pressure suit protection at 115,000 feet, for which they all received certification. The MC-3, when worn at 65,000 feet for 1-hour, presents definite physiological and psychological stresses, referred to as “graying-out.” Fortunately, none of our guys saw gray. That said, they did cause the chamber crew quite a bit of anxiety, because they kept falling asleep during the chamber runs. Claustrophobia, from wearing the helmet and pressure suit, was obviously not a problem for our folks. However, one challenge that persisted throughout was the size of the pressure suits. They were designed for the likes of “Lenny” Waugh, “Rip” Collins and “Shorty” Lyons and not “Horse” Kucinski and “Pappy” Sheehan. Then again, being resourceful and use to getting in and out of tight places, they managed to overcome this inconvenience, which they were convinced was purposely imposed on them by the Air Force.

One sidelight worth mentioning was their violation of orders restricting them to the base during the intermediate weekend. So what’s new! Upon their return on Monday, it was obvious to the medical staff that their physical, if not mental state had somewhat diminished; however, to their dismay, this did not adversely affect their ability to perform. This impressed the staff and apparently made our guys more credible in their eyes.

While there is no documented evidence that the UDT subjects out performed other test subjects, I suspect that they proved to the stress-test investigators that the bar for the physical fitness test portion of the Project Mercury Candidate Evaluation Program could be raised. In February the following year, a 7-week selection program was conducted for 32 candidates of Project Mercury. All of the tests performed by UDT were included, as well as a multitude of flight related examinations, evaluations, experiments and simulations designed to determine the individual’s ability to withstand physiological and psychological stress. Seven candidates were selected to be the first Mercury Astronauts.

Several months after their selection, I received a phone call from one of the original Astronauts. He informed me that they were conducting advanced training at Langley AFB, VA, and he wanted to visit UDU-TWO to discuss the possibility of receiving SCUBA training. Subsequently, two of them called on me, and we came to an agreement to provide two weeks of training on a not-to-interfere basis with other requirements. This training was conducted in Little Creek, during the summer of 1959.

The purpose for them wanting this training was three-fold: (1) to experience the feeling of weightlessness, (2) for survival in the event they had to jettison the space capsule once it hit the water, and (3) for recreation, as they were being transferred to Cape Canaveral, FL, which at the time was an isolated beach area.

Until several weeks ago, I did not recall which of the Astronauts called and subsequently visited UDU-TWO to set up the training. However, while I was attending the ONR/USNA sponsored symposium “Naval Forces Under the Sea – Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” I ran into Scott Carpenter. Previously, while he was attending a SEALAB Reunion in Panama City, I provided him (via Gunner “Woody” Woodward) a copy of the group photo shown in this article. During the symposium, we briefly revisited the SCUBA training they received 42 years ago. Aside from thanking me for the photo, he confirmed that it was he who was the point man that coordinated the training with me.

Further, it is of interest to note that their request for SCUBA training was in no way related to any knowledge of UDT’s previous participation in the stress-test evaluations. Moreover, those UDT personnel that participated in these evaluations had no idea that their efforts, in some small way, would lead to the selection of the seven Mercury Astronauts preparing to undergo SCUBA training in Little Creek.

The SCUBA training program was run by the Submersible Operations (SUBOPS) Department. The OIC was LTJG Fred Cook, and BM1 “Corny” Leyden, GM1 Tom McAllister, GM1 Marlow Proctor and LCDR “Doc” Lamphier ably assisted him. Others that supported the training were several reserve officers that were on two weeks active duty: LT Norm Ott, LT Bill Alteri and LT Loughlan, to mention a few. The training went extremely well, and the seven astronauts adapted literally like fish to water. They were physically fit, and based on their solid understanding of aviation medicine, they had no difficulty with the environment or understanding the physiology of diving. It was a great experience for all concerned, and as a token of their appreciation, they hosted a very nice party at Langley AFB for the UDT instructors.

While these two events were certainly not seminal in terms of the pioneering efforts that led to the success of the NASA Space Program, UDT did in some small way contribute to the building blocks that ultimately led to the first Mercury splashdown.

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