NORFOLK — During his 10-year career as a Navy diver, Chris Johnson helped recover victims and wreckage from a capsized ferry in Haiti, a Civil War ironclad, a fallen spacecraft and TWA Flight 800.
“I was proud to be a part of these operations and many, many others,” he told a crowd at the Nauticus museum Saturday. But none of it would have been possible, he said, without Carl Brashear, the Navy’s first black master diver.
“The barriers he broke down, enabled a guy like me… to be able to do something that I could come here and talk to you about today,” said Johnson, who now works for a diving equipment company in New Jersey.
A new exhibit at the Nauticus honors Brashear, who lived in Virginia Beach until his death in 2006. The Black Dolphin Divers of Richmond, an education and advocacy group for black divers, invited Johnson to speak as part of the exhibit.
One of Brashear’s four sons, 46-year-old Phillip Brashear, was in the audience. He helped create the display, which chronicles his father’s life from his childhood on a farm in Kentucky, to his early Navy career, to the 1966 diving accident that cost him his left leg.
After the amputation at Portsmouth Naval Medical Center, Carl Brashear went on to become the first amputee to be certified or recertified as a Navy diver.
The motion picture “Men of Honor,” starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Robert De Niro, tells his life story.
“The exhibit is overwhelming. It’s awesome,” said Phillip Brashear, who’s a retired Army National Guard helicopter pilot. “It kind of eases the pain of not having him with me.”
Though there still weren’t many black divers in the Navy when Johnson enlisted in 1992, he never faced any problems because of his race, he said.
“I didn’t encounter those types of issues because of people like Carl Brashear,” Johnson said. “The Navy was very, very good to me.”
The exhibit, “Dream to Dive: The Carl Brashear Story” continues through June 7.
It “relives the full life of one of our famous Hampton Roads heroes,” Phillip Brashear said. “It’s a great legacy.”