Feature: Oris Carl Brashear Chronograph
You see them come and go, watches made in honour of people whose names are unfamiliar and will most likely remain so. In the case of the Oris Carl Brashear Chronograph, that is not one of those names you should gloss over and forget. This is the story of Master Chief Petty Officer Carl Brashear, the man they sent to find a missing atomic bomb.
In 1966, off the coast of Spain, the unthinkable happened. During mid-air refuelling, a United States Air Force B-52 bomber collided with a KC-135 tanker, tearing both aircraft apart and killing most of their crew. Of eleven, only four survived.
But there was a bigger problem. That B-52 was carrying a very sensitive load—not one, but four nuclear warheads, type B28RI hydrogen bombs. The mission came at the height of the cold war, a gruelling slog that took the crew towards the border of the then-Soviet Union and back again, requiring two in-flight refuelling operations.
It was the second refuelling of the mission, and the crew was exhausted. The pilot approached the tanker too fast, and where a call to break away by the tanker’s boom operator would usually be made, no such call happened. The boom struck the fuselage of the B-52, ripped off the left wing and caused an explosion witnessed by a second B-52 over a mile away.
Three of the four warheads were recovered within twenty-four hours, but one had been lost at sea. It would take eighty days, twenty ships, thousands of people and a hundred and fifty special forces divers to find it. Carl Brashear was one of them.
It had been a long, difficult path for Brashear to find himself on that mission. Growing up in segregation in post-war Kentucky, he received little schooling and seemed destined to remain with his family working the fields. But he had other ideas; he wanted to become an elite underwater specialist for the U.S. Navy, a Master Diver. Never mind how difficult it was to become a Master Diver; the U.S Navy’s basic diving program, despite being one of the most dangerous careers on the planet, was heavily oversubscribed—and not once had an African-American been admitted.
Brashear wasn’t to be deterred. He completed submission after submission, year after year, only to be told that they had been lost or damaged—but his persistence prevailed. In 1948, Brashear was finally accepted into the U.S. Navy—but not as a diver, but a steward. To become a diver, he would have to undertake nine years of education to make up for the inadequacies of his schooling, all the while finding death threats left in his bunk just because of the colour of his skin.
But Brashear’s persistence continued, and after nine long years, he finally graduated as a United States Navy Diver, the first African-American to do so. His dream of becoming a Master Diver came ever closer—but it was still a long, long way away. For twelve more years, Brashear worked some of the most dangerous missions imaginable, recovering lost aircraft, ammunition and even bodies from the ocean bed.
His dedication earned him the right to escort Eisenhower’s presidential yacht and the rank of Chief, and he knew he was close to becoming a Master Diver. When he was assigned to recover that missing hydrogen bomb off the coast of Spain, he knew it was his opportunity to make it a reality. What actually happened would change his life forever.
Brashear, by this point, was no stranger to a salvage operation. His skill and experience in the field was why he had been selected as one of just a hundred and fifty elite divers in an emergency operation of thousands to recover the most powerful weapon mankind had ever conceived off. The mission needed to be fast, efficient and effective, and Brashear was exactly that.
After two months of non-stop searching, however, things were starting to look bleak. People were tired, and there was no end in sight. The warhead had to be found at all costs—there was no rest until it was. But like the incident that had incited the search for the warhead in the first place, tiredness became the operation’s worst enemy. Mistakes were being made—and one that nearly cost Brashear his life.
During a search shift, a tow cable hauling Brashear’s diving platform sheared, whipping a steel pipe straight through his leg. It was all but severed, and despite attempts to save it, necrosis set in and it had to be amputated.
Brashear’s dream was over. His life as he knew it, was over. With one leg, he was unable to continue as a diver, let alone become a Master Diver. The career he had worked so hard to build, the hurdles he’d had to clear were all for nothing. As soon as he was discharged from the hospital, he was summoned to the medical board where he was to be retired.
But he didn’t show. Instead, he went into training, building back his strength, learning how to use his prosthetic leg to walk, to run—and to dive. He trained so hard that his stump would fill his prosthetic with blood, a wound he hid so he wouldn’t get sent back to the sick bay. Rather, he hid himself away and soaked the bleeding mess in a bucket of hot, salty water so it was just about good enough to go again the next day.
Brashear was already understood to be a persistent man, but this was him at his most stubborn. He repeated this routine over and over again for two years until finally—finally—the U.S. Navy recertified him as a diver. For most people, this would have been victory enough, but for Brashear, this only reignited his determination to achieve his ultimate goal.
Now he was a diver once again, he was able to continue pushing to become a Master Diver, and over the course of two more years, he pushed himself harder than ever to overcome every single obstacle to be stacked against him. To achieve this goal, he would need to become more educated and more experienced than ever in a field that had never before accepted a person like him.
But by now you know how this story ends. Brashear did what he had to do, achieved what he had to achieve. Despite segregation, despite his lack of education, despite his physical limitations, in 1970, Carl Brashear become a Master Diver.
A watch is just a watch, but the courage and determination of Carl Brashear is an inspiration that shouldn’t remain buried at the back of a history book. Now more than ever there are lessons to learn from his story of dogged resolve. The Oris Carl Brashear Chronograph is a nice watch, sure, but more importantly it’s brought an otherwise unknown hero to light. I hope we can all learn something from it.
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