Navy Exhibit Highlights Bravery Under the Sea

Posted June 23, 2010 at 4:55pm

The Academy Award-winning movie “The Hurt Locker” exposed the general public, largely for the first time, to the perilous duties of the Army’s bomb disposal units in the Iraq War.

These brave soldiers of the explosive ordnance disposal team trudge through the hot desert sun in 100-pound Kevlar bomb suits to disarm deadly improvised explosive devices before they can detonate, killing troops or civilians.

It seems an unthinkable task. But now imagine doing that underwater.

That’s the life of the Navy’s EOD branch, which has been defusing bombs offshore and on land since World War II.

“As many people know, the [IEDs] have presented a formidable threat to our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last eight-plus years,” said retired Navy Rear Adm. Edward K. Walker Jr., president and CEO of the U.S. Navy Memorial. “But water-based explosives, including mines, have also threatened ships and merchant vessels for centuries.”

To commemorate the fearless teams who risk their lives daily to prevent maritime disasters, the memorial’s Naval Heritage Center (701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW) is showing an exhibit highlighting the history of the EOD units.

“The highly trained professionals who search for and defuse these dangerous weapons, at sea and ashore, have a long history in the military, and we wanted to showcase this legacy and the incredible bravery,” Walker said. “They exemplify the core values of all of our sea services: honor, courage and commitment.”

On display is a WWII-era bomb disposal suit. Weighing in at 190 pounds — 84 of which come just from the massive tool belt — it looks like something right out of the 1954 film “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”

This archaic equipment is similar to what Lt. Draper L. Kauffman, widely considered the father of EOD, would have worn when he submerged himself in icy Pacific waters near Japan during World War II.

Kauffman, who eventually reached the rank of rear admiral before dying in 1979, appropriated British bomb disposal techniques and organized the first American naval bomb disposal school at the Washington Navy Yard in 1942.

President George H.W. Bush, a distant relative, wrote in an introduction to Kauffman’s biography, “America’s First Frogman,” that Kauffman “defines for me what service to country is all about.”

“He was a true leader,” Bush wrote. “He always put his men first.”

Of course, technology advanced, and by the time Operation Desert Storm rolled around, man transportable robotic systems were helping EOD squads remotely disarm or detonate IEDs.

These mechanical mini-tanks, each with one long crab-like arm, can take the place of a human and potentially save his or her life.

But not all situations can be handled remotely, and often a human must be sent in. Luckily, the gear has gotten significantly more sophisticated from the WWII days.

A modern suit is on display so visitors can make note of the stark contrast. The sleek suits not only weigh 100 pounds, but can also include air conditioning to keep the divers literally cool under pressure.

Bombs in Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo, in addition to the United States’ current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, have been disposed of by divers who proudly wear “the crab” — the explosive ordnance disposal badge, featuring a wreath, bomb, lightning bolts and a shield.

Panels on the modest one-wall exhibit explain all this history and more.

The exhibit is funded by Glenn R. Jones, a former Navy EOD diver and founder of Jones International University, a private online college.

The Navy Memorial will host a reception next month with EOD naval representatives and the sponsors of the exhibit, and the event will include a panel discussion about the history of the EOD.

The memorial also features an exhibit honoring the Navy Supply personnel, who provide the “beans, bullets and black oil” that enable the Navy to operate around the globe, according to the exhibit.

A documentary called “A Day in the Life of a Navy Supply Corps Officer” helps expound on these divers’ duties. This movie — and a Discovery Channel short film called “At Sea,” which gives a fast-paced look at the Navy’s missions around the globe — play daily at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m.

Both exhibitions are free and run through March 2011.