Remembering World War II veterans Gerry Keane: Navy hardhat diver

90-year-old vet recalls WWII, Korea experiences



JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – Gerald Francis Keane was 20 years old when he joined the Navy in 1943 to do his part in World War II.

Keane spent 12 years in the Navy, most of that time as a “hardhat diver” – that’s the kind of diver you see in old black and white movies with the brass helmet, canvas suit and weighted shoes walking on the bottom.

Keane didn’t start out as a diver. Instead he first was posted the SC 679 – SC standing for sub chaser. He spent eight months on patrol in the North Atlantic. But Only once did they catch a radio signal that appeared to be a Nazi U-boat, but they lost radar contact.

“We were tracking that boat but they ducked into a thermal current, and it was like disappearing into the fog. We were short of food, so we had to break off and head back to Norfolk [Va.] to resupply,” Keane said.

Keane was a radar man then, but he hated the duty. He also experienced his first hurricane in the SC 679, and that was a terrifying experience.

“Our boat was just 110 feet long, made out of wood. Imagine looking up a 100-foot wave and you’re at the bottom of it. The next thing you know, you’re sitting at the top of a 100-foot wave looking down. That was enough to convince me to do something else,” he said.

So Keane asked for a transfer to diving school. Trained divers were something the Navy was short on, and Pearl Harbor had taught them just how much they were needed. In the weeks and months after Dec. 7, 1941, Navy divers would spend 16,000 hours underwater making 4,000 dives to salvage and right the ships sunk or damaged at Pearl.

With the help of the hardhat divers, seven of nine battleships sunk or badly damaged Dec. 7, sailed to fight again.

Although Keane plays down his role in World War II – he says he never “saw any action” – the dives he made to recover downed planes (and the bodies of pilots in them), recover mines, inspect vessels for damage or seaworthiness and train for submarine rescue all required a high degree of professionalism in what was always dangerous work.

That’s why divers always received hazardous duty pay every month they dived. Once when receiving his pay, the paymaster in Pensacola, Fla., noted as a bosun he was making more than pilots, who were officers, did.

“That’s because there aren’t any parachutes underwater,” Keane told him.

But Pensacola was dangerous place for pilots also. The U.S. Naval Air Station was where naval pilots learned to fly and to land on a carrier. It was Keane’s job to recover the planes that crashed in the Gulf of Mexico and the bodies of the pilots who flew them.

“They wanted us to get the bodies first. Then if it was possible we would raise the plane. One time they were especially interested in recovering the propeller. It must have been some new kind of thing they were testing,” he said.

Another “problem” that would come up was sharks. Usually, the divers weren’t bothered by sharks in the Gulf, but they always had a man stationed above with a rifle.

“One day they signaled me come up fast. I didn’t know why, but as I came up I could hear ‘pshew, pshew.’ When I got topside they told me there were some sharks they didn’t like the looks of. What I heard was my shipmate shooting at them to drive them off,” Keane said.

As a hardhat diver, Keane was also trained for submarine rescue. He served on the USS Yazoo, which carried a diving bell that could be attached to hatch on a submarine. His skipper had been one of the divers involved in the 1939 rescue of 39 U.S. submariners aboard the USS Squalus.

“It was the skipper who made sure we always got our hazardous duty pay,” Keane said. “Wherever our submarines were stationed, we had to have a rescue ship in the area for an emergency.”

Keane and his crew never had to perform such a rescue but diving was still hazardous. He recalled one time his arms became fouled in a cable underwater. But he remained calm and a shift in the current un-fouled the cable a little later. But it was a tense time all the same.

His skipper told him about a friend who was still a diver assigned to salvage duty at Pearl Harbor. He was helping put cables to lift the ship up when the ship shifted and gently rested on top of him. He was trapped for four days before divers could clear enough mud from around him to pull him out.

In Korea, his ship was sent to the northern coast of China. The communists were still fighting their civil war while Americans were supplying those loyal to Chiang Kai Shek.

“We were tied up at the pier two blocks away from the shelling. The shelling would stop after a while, and we could see the mothers come out and pick up the bodies of their children. I don’t like to think about that,” Keane said.

In the end, it was his wife and children that got him out of the Navy. Although he had become a master diver teaching the next generation who would become Navy Seals, his wife Gina’s worries about the danger convinced him to leave the Navy.

Using the G.I. Bill, he went to college and became an accountant. Then he landed a job on Wall Street where he worked until he retired.

But there was always one regret that nagged him. In the 1950s shortly before leaving the Navy, the word was out a young ocean explorer named Jacques Cousteau was looking for Navy master divers to come work with him.

“That’s my one regret, that I never got the chance to dive with him,” Keane said. “But my wife never regretted it, and we raised a beautiful family.”

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