By Carrie White, The Virginian-Pilot
NORFOLK, VA — Carl Brashear was every bit the hero that the film “Men of Honor,” starring Cuba Gooding Jr., portrayed him to be.
He lived a life that his son DaWayne Brashear calls “unbelievable, even though it’s true. You couldn’t have made this up.”
The former Virginia Beach resident became the first black Navy master diver as well as the first amputee to be a certified Navy diver. A new 3,300-square-foot exhibition at Nauticus, “Dream to Dive: The Life of Navy Master Diver Carl Brashear,” honors his accomplishments.
DaWayne Brashear, a Virginia Commonwealth University graduate in design who works as a model, actor and interior designer in New York City, is performing a one-man show, “Reflections… The Early Years,” Saturday as part of the Nauticus exhibit. He says the exhibit is the result of his and his brother’s determination to “spread my father’s story and legacy – to improve others’ lives with his story.”
Carl Brashear, born in Kentucky in 1931, left school in the seventh grade. He enlisted in the Navy and became interested in diving. He tried several times to enroll in the Navy’s Ships Salvage Diver’s School before being admitted. At the school, he was subjected to racism, such as instructors marking correct test answers as incorrect, verbally abusing him and publicly humiliating him.
After graduating and air-diving (diving to depths no greater than 285 feet) for seven years, he applied for Deep Sea Diving School. Because he had left school so early, the physics and science of diving overwhelmed him, and he failed to complete the training. However, after three years of studying, he received his high school equivalency degree, was readmitted to the school and graduated third in his class.
In 1966, during an operation at sea, his leg was severely injured. Because of numerous infections and complications, Brashear realized his leg would never be strong enough to enable him to dive again, and he chose to have it amputated.
He was sent to Portsmouth Naval Medical Center to wait for his discharge papers. However, Brashear, who had been fitted for a prosthesis, secretly attended dive schools to prove he was still physically able to dive.
His training was intense: For instance, he forced himself to walk around on the surface in his 290-pound dive suit. Finally, he was cleared for active duty. In 1970, he became the first black Navy master diver.
In addition to the movie and numerous other awards and honors, two ships, a Lewis and Clark-class dry cargo ship and a Newport News fireboat, are named for him. He died at Portsmouth Naval Medical Center in 2006 at age 75.
The Nauticus exhibit is the first full museum exhibit to be dedicated to Brashear. After his death, DaWayne and his brother Phillip, an Army Black Hawk helicopter pilot, were sorting through their father’s possessions in his Virginia Beach home. They found many photographs and other remembrances of Brashear’s life, including a two-volume question-and-answer book that the Hollywood producers had compiled about Brashear’s life. DaWayne was astonished.
“I never really knew my father’s life. He never talked about diving to us. When he had his accident, I was too young to even go to the hospital, although I remember his looking out his window and waving to me down in the parking lot. I learned a lot about his life from working with him on the movie, but I learned about his thoughts and feelings about things – like my mother, us (his children) and diving – from the book.”
Legends are wonderful to meet but often not easy to live with.
“He was gone a lot – being a diver and being the best. Diving was his life and love. I often felt that we, his family, were second to diving. It was hard to figure out who he was. There was a lot he didn’t tell us as kids.”
Brashear divorced his wife – mother of DaWayne, Phillip and their two other brothers – after more than 20 years of marriage.
“He was very stubborn. He drank. Things were pretty intense around the house at times. I was a little unsure, a little nervous when I was growing up,” DaWayne said. Brashear, who was married three times, struggled with alcoholism his entire life but was “always a good provider. I’m not half the provider for my family that he was.”
As an older man, Brashear’s relationship with his sons grew stronger: “Once he turned to God, though, he became more mellow and content” and more communicative about his career and his life.
Life with Carl Brashear as a father is the subject of DaWayne’s performance, which includes a question-and-answer period. “It’s grown out of all the talks I’ve been asked to do about my father. I talk about growing up in a minority military family in the ’60s and ’70s, about my family, and about my father. I have so many stories about him.”
For instance, often the visibility during diving expeditions was zero. “You feel, son,” Brashear told DaWayne about how he performed operations underwater.
“He was so agile. Even though his fingers were thick, he could do anything with his hands.”
Once, a cargo of thousands of rounds of ammo was lost in the sea. “He had to round up all of it by feeling, and he did – all but 50 or so (bullets). He felt in the mud and put the ammo in a bucket and sent it up. He recovered black boxes out of jet fighters, bodies – everything – by touch.”
In addition to being unable to see underwater, diving was difficult physically. For instance, Brashear suffered with breathing problems after becoming a diver. Indeed, most divers did.
“I don’t know any diver who dove in my father’s time that isn’t on oxygen or who doesn’t have breathing problems. There was no OSHA back then – and the air they breathed was improperly filtered. My father would sometimes cough up oil after a long dive. But I’ve never heard one of those divers blame the Navy for their problems. Diving was totally voluntary – and divers are tough.”
Lung problems weren’t the only physical toll on Brashear’s body. His back suffered as well. “Imagine all the stress of wearing a 290-pound suit. And then imagine how off-kilter your core would be wearing a prosthesis. He told me once, ‘I haven’t been pain-free since 1967.’ ”
Although many retirees miss the excitement of a career, Brashear didn’t. He told DaWayne, “I don’t miss swimming. I’ve dived the world over. I don’t even want to take a bath most of the time!”
The Nauticus exhibit tells the story of Brashear’s life. It is filled with black-and-white photos of Brashear, a replica of his 290-pound Mark V diving suit and even two of his artificial legs.
Nauticus is also having regular weekend viewings of the movie “Men of Honor.” For children, there is an interactive “Challenge Area” with a rock-climbing wall, balance beam, pull-up and dip bars and other exercise equipment that Brashear used to show what he put himself through after the amputation. In addition, Nauticus educators will give demonstrations on topics like the science of buoyancy.
It’s all there for anyone who wants to dive in and learn about a local legend and his craft.