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Posted on Jul 24, 2021 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

Take a Voyage to The Bottom of the Sea with The Bathyscape Trieste. Book Review.

Take a Voyage to The Bottom of the Sea with The Bathyscape Trieste. Book Review.

Ray Garbee

Opening the Great Ocean Depths: The Bathyscape Trieste. 2021.  Authors: Norman Polmar and Lee J. Mathers. Naval Institute Press. 304 pages. Price: $44.95 ISBN: 978-1-6824-7591-1

The United States Navy submarine branch has long carried the nickname as the “Silent Service”. During the Cold War that phrase referred to both how quiet the boats were as well as the often-clandestine nature of their work. While not as glamourous as the attack boats and boomers, research submersibles like the Trieste, Alvin and the NR-1 performed critical missions and often operated under the cloak of deep waters. Now, Norman Polmar and Lee J. Mather bring the origins of the deep submersible operations to the surface in their recent book Opening the Great Ocean Depths: The Bathyscape Trieste.

The Trieste was one of the earliest of the submersibles designed from the pressure hull outward as a way for a human crew to explore the deep ocean and ultimately, to explore the very bottom of the sea. Trieste, and her crew of Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh, famously reached the bottom of the Challenger Deep in the Marianas Trench on January 23, 1960.

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Opening the Great Ocean Depths: The Bathyscape Trieste is a historical account of the inception, construction and operation of an underwater craft designed to literally “go where no one has gone before” – into the deepest depths of the world’s oceans.

Trieste being lowered into the water. (Image courtesy Naval Historical Center)

The book hews to a conventional historical narrative that starts with the career of aeronaut Auguste Piccard and his son Jacques as they envision and design a unique underwater craft that would become the submersible Trieste. It’s an illuminating look into the state of science and industry in the years leading up to and following the Second World War. The travails faced by the Piccard’s in getting the Trieste built show that the more things change, the more they stay the same. A good innovator needs to be a good self-promoter and be willing to seize opportunity when it presents itself.

And it’s those opportunities that drive the narrative forward starting with the prototype vehicle being obtained by the United States Navy in 1958. Polmar and Mather provide an excellent narrative of the transfer of the craft and operators to U.S. Navy control. The story documents the refitting of the Trieste in preparation for the attempt on a scientific record – descending to the bottom of the Challenger Deep in the Marianas Trench. It’s an engaging tale, fraught with technical and political challenges.

Trieste under tow. (Image courtesy Naval Historical Center)

It might seem that once the initial goal of the Trieste’s inventors had been achieved, that the craft might have been decommissioned or replaced with a new model. Instead, the story transitions from that of the purely scientific-political objective of being the first to the bottom of the sea. While often characterized as a research vessel, the Trieste and her crews of Navy submariners would be repeatedly called upon to participate in national security activities. Trieste’s unique capability to dive deeper than any other manned submersible craft in the US inventory led to deployments to the Atlantic Ocean to assist in the search for the USS Thresher and USS Scorpion, as well as participating in the search and recovery operations from the Palomares nuclear weapons incident.

Trieste iat Boston Navy Yard. (Image courtesy Naval Historical Center)

These operations are conveyed with a solid eye for the details not just of the technical search, but the significant challenges the sailors faced in using their ‘bleeding edge’ technology. The balance between mission objectives and the functionality of the craft and safety of the crew are fascinating reading.

Another fascinating element of the story is what’s left unsaid. There are multiple references to the Trieste engaging in classified dives where the reader is left to wonder just exactly what the crew of the Trieste were doing deep under the sea throughout the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

The book is a worthy companion to Sontag and Drew’s 1998 book Blind Man’s Bluff in that Opening the Great Depths provides superb details specific to the Trieste and her crews over her thirty-year career. While publicly touted as a scientific research vessel, the narrative explores the opportunities the Trieste offered for intelligence gathering and supporting other Cold War era national security initiatives.

As laid out by Polmar and Mather, the history of the Trieste and her crews is a story of iterative development and continuous improvement. Each dive revealed equipment issues or opportunities to improve performance. The Trieste rarely stayed in the same configuration from year to year. In some cases, the vessel experienced such comprehensive improvements that the only original part remaining was the pressure sphere of the crew compartment. In the case of these dramatic overhauls, the essentially new vessels would have a number appended to the name, culminating in the Trieste III.

But this story is about much more than just the creation and evolution of hardware. The heart of any vessel is her crew. In the case of Trieste, that crew was divided between the two to four personnel that actually dove inside the craft and the (comparatively) larger crew of support personnel and tenders that made Trieste’s operations possible.  Polmar and Mather excel in shining a light on the experiences of the dive crews and the resourceful support crews that kept Trieste running under adverse conditions. Much of this is possible from the extensive interviews done with former crew members. The interviews with the crews provide numerous colorful anecdotes, including great quotes like “the Navy does not glue it’s ships together!”

Artist’s conception of the Trieste hovering off the seafloor. (Image courtesy Naval Historical Center)

Opening the Great Ocean Depths: The Bathyscape Trieste, is a solid work of maritime history. The narrative constructed by Polmar and Mather reveals how there was much more to the Trieste storythan just being able to dive to the bottom of the sea. Her story starts with the people that envisioned her design and forged a working vessel from that vision. The book carries that story on in how her crew used that unique ability to support the navy’s missions as well as the national security goals of the United States.

Opening the Great Ocean Depths: The Bathyscape Trieste, is an engaging tale with a colorful cast of characters that shows that those who dare, can achieve great things.  Readers with an interest in the history of oceanographic exploration will find this an informational work as will those interested in the evolution of U.S. Navy’s research into deep water operations. The book provides illuminating details of Trieste’s involvement in the search for both the USS Thresher and the USS Scorpion. An excellent addition to your maritime history library!

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