April 29, 2012

The appearance of Jean-Michel Cousteau at ODU last week triggered a flood of memories: Silver-suited aquanauts flying through inner-space like fish; sea creatures curiously inspecting these air-breathing intruders; humans living underwater and scooting about with cameras and diving saucers.

And all the while a silken-voiced, red-capped, French-accented narrator expounding on the wonders and raptures of the deep.

This was the undersea world of Jacques Cousteau, and it was not only brought to us in living color on television screens but, for a brief time, dwelt in our midst.

 You might remember the headlines from 1980: famed ocean explorer to move his operations, including his legendary research vessel Calypso, to Norfolk.

Furthermore, the Cousteau Society and the city would build a $24.7 million Cousteau Ocean Center that would take visitors on imaginary sea adventures.

 The worldwide offices of the Cousteau Society did come to Norfolk, and Calypso and one of her sister ships called the city home for a few years. There was much media attention in 1982 when Calypso set off for an ambitious exploration of the Amazon.

 The Society moved into low-rent space on West 21st Street. Staff converged from several parts of the globe, including Los Angeles and New York. Besides expedition planning, services to 160,000 members, including publications, were handled there.

 Plans were unveiled for a soaring, futuristic exhibition hall on the downtown waterfront. Officials touted it as Norfolk’s coming of age as an international center for marine exploration.

 Cousteau, with his characteristic white turtleneck and trim blue suits, came and spoke and charmed audiences with his vision of a blue planet. Jean-Michel and his family lived in a sprawling house on the Larchmont waterfront.

 But slowly, glacially, the relationship cooled. A review of voluminous yellowing newspaper clips shows the gradual crumbling of trust as city and Cousteau representatives tried to make the plan for an ocean center work. But they could never quite agree on what the center would house or how it would be paid for.

 I can’t figure out whether it was bureaucratic bean counters, cautious public officials or quixotic dreamers -- or all three – that killed the Cousteau Ocean Center. Maybe it was not meant to be.

There were six years of numbing negotiations. City officials couldn’t pin down exactly what the center would display. There’d be simulated adventures but no live animals. For Cousteau that was a non-starter.

And, although some pledges of funds were in hand, the deadline for producing the money kept slipping. It’ll be here, the city was constantly told; it’ll be here.

Back in 1980 when the project was announced, Mayor Vincent S. Thomas wholeheartedly supported it. But by 1984, with a new mayor, Joseph A. Leafe, in office, the story was different. Some think it was dead the moment he arrived in City Hall.

“Captain Cousteau really never focused on exactly what the project should be,” Leafe told me last week. “He’d be here and talk about it and then he’d be gone. Everything was in flux.”

This newspaper began to get cold feet, “It’s time to fish or cut bait,” an editorial said in February 1986.

On April 14, 1986, Leafe did the latter, dropping his support and indicating that a majority of City Council agreed. A formal vote was never taken, but the project was dead.

The Society continued its Norfolk operations, still running its expeditions from here. A few years later, when the city withdrew the low-rent space, it moved to an office in Greenbriar. The only nearby water was a mostly dry creek.

Jacques Cousteau died in 1997 and most society functions moved to Paris, leaving a small staff that moved to the former Hampton Visitor Center on the waterfront.

A few years ago an even smaller staff moved back to Chesapeake. And now, except for a Chesapeake warehouse that still houses tons of decompression chambers, a robot shark and shark cage, submersibles, scooters, ship models, etc. , all vestiges of the Society are gone.

The Cousteau Ocean Center does still live in Norfolk, though. In June 1994, on the exact spot where it was to rise, its replacement, Nauticus, opened. It’s vastly different, of course, but the city recognizes the birthright. Sometime in the future, Nauticus director Hank Lynch says, he’d like to house an exhibit for some of that adventurous stuff.

It’ll be a fitting coda.

Note: I came here in 1993 as editor of Calypso Log, the magazine of The Cousteau Society, then joined the Pilot four years later.

Photo: Calypso docking at the NOAA Pier, June 1979. Pilot file photo.

April 22, 2012

A young navy pilot comes in for a landing near a residential area and realizes he’s not going to make it. There’s a sudden crash and the terrible certainty that people have been killed. But something almost impossible happens. It may be the split-second action by the pilot. Or maybe an almost-Easter miracle. This wasn’t April 7, 2012 but April 13, 1944, and the place was Creeds, a farming community that is now part of sprawling Virginia Beach. It was four days after Easter.
The family of Paul J. Whitehurst Sr. had just settled down for the night. The large wooden house was packed with people: Whitehurst and his wife, Viola: his mother, Mahala; his brother, Aaron; two of their three children, Paul and Madeline. Upstairs were renters, a sailor, his wife and a baby, as well as another sailor’s wife and her baby who were spending the night. The house was in the middle of a wheat field on Campbell’s Landing Road, near the intersection of Morris Neck Road. At about 11:20 p.m., Ensign Luis Echenique was approaching Runway 18 at the Creeds Navy Auxiliary Air Station in an FM-2 “Wildcat” fighter when he apparently realized he was too low. What he saw was runway lights suddenly disappearing. They must have been blocked by a house. He had a split second to react. He pulled up on the stick and tried to gain altitude. There was a huge crash as the plane took off half of the roof. A newspaper account said bricks from a chimney showered the upstairs rooms “as one mother threw herself across her baby, on a bed. None suffered more than a few scratches.” In the other upstairs bedroom, young Paul and his sister Madeline had been sound asleep. The plane just missed their side of the house, but the ceiling collapsed and debris fell everywhere. The severely mangled plane ricocheted off the roof and landed in a tree beside the house. The pilot, although badly shaken, climbed out of the wreckage uninjured except for a few scratches. Everyone had survived. Last week after the FA-18 crash at the Beach, I got an e-mail from Paula Whitehurst Knight, the granddaughter of the house’s owner, remarking on the similarity of the accidents and concluding that if the pilot hadn’t reacted the way he did, “I probably wouldn’t be e-mailing you right now.” Paul J. Whitehurst Jr., the son who lived through the crash, is now “three score and 16 years old,” as he puts it, and still farms the field where the accident took place. Knight’s husband, hog farmer and Republican state Delegate Barry Knight drove me out to visit him the other day. We swung by the field and stood there talking. On the other side of the road the runway for the old Creeds Airfield is still there, but now sits beside a police tactical driving and K-9 training center. He pointed to the middle of the field of waving wheat where the house once stood. Whitehurst, known to all as “P.J.,” was only 8 at the time. He said he awoke to a wild scene. “The next thing I knew, somebody was carrying me downstairs.” And he remembers his uncle Aaron “trying to get the door open. Mother and father carried us out; they were concerned about fire.” Soon after, his father filed a damage report with the Air Station saying, “the house is seriously damaged – foundation and partitions are sprung. Roof of the house has been demolished. Destroyed two rooms entirely and 1 partially. . . Three chimneys and flu’s knocked down. Fence and gate demolished where plane landed. Back porch torn away from house.” “In my opinion,” he concluded, “the house is a complete wreck and is beyond repair. I therefore file claim for a new house.” Paula Knight says her father was too young to remember the details of a likely settlement. “They all moved to his uncle’s house for about two years before they moved to Princess Anne Road.” The era, it seems, was full of plane accidents. “It seemed something happened just about every day,” Whitehurst said. “There were right many accidents.” He doesn’t reflect much on what might have happened, although “You’re talking about a matter of a couple of feet.” [Any lower and] “it might have taken out a lot of people.” But he added, “I don’t really think much about it, tell the truth.”

April 15, 2012

Painting by Patrick O’Brien showing the cutter Surveyor under attack by British forces on the York River in 1813. Courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard.
On the rainy, foggy night of June 12, 1813, a two-masted cutter with sails furled dropped anchor in the York River off Gloucester Point.

The vessel, Surveyor, was one of several nimble, swift revenue cutters that were designated to patrol U.S. waters, enforce trade laws and collect customs duties.

In peacetime, these sleek, well-armed cutters did their part to halt smuggling and bring badly needed funds to government coffers. In wartime, they seized cargo and occasionally went into battle with enemy ships. This was wartime. The War of 1812, America’s second war for independence from Britain, had begun a year before.

The cutters owed their existence to Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the treasury, who asked asked Congress for authority to build sea-going vessels to enforce trade laws and tariffs. The approval on Aug. 4, 1790 is considered the birth date of the Coast Guard.

The Surveyor measured 68 feet on deck, with a girth of 19 feet and a draft of six. It carried a crew of about 25 officers and men, and the usual cutter armament of six 6-pound cannon.

It was calm and still that night on the York, one of the Surveyor’s officers related, with “fog resting in dense folds close to the surface of the river. The creaking of the thole pins in the guard or picket boat was distinctly heard, as the little force proceeded leisurely down the river, while the occasional patter of rain sounded monotonously along the deck of the Revenue Cutter.”

The quiet was shattered by sounds of musket shots. The guard boat that had been out on patrol encountered British barges loaded with troops, and the crew pulled hard for the Yorktown shore, exchanging several shots with the attackers before escaping.

The alarm had been sounded, and Capt. Samuel Travis readied the Surveyor for action. Gunports were opened, guns loaded and run out.
At about midnight, barges carrying more than 50 British officers and crew from the 32-gun frigate HMS Narcissus approached through the fog with muffled oars. They steered away from Surveyor’s six-pounders, so Travis armed his men with two muskets each and told them to wait until he gave the order to fire.

As the Surveyor officer remembered, “The boats were but a few yards distant, the forms of the men plainly discernible, when the commander . . . directed his men to aim low and fire. With the rattling volley, came the cheers of the attacking party, who dashed alongside, despite the leaden missiles, and a desperate hand-to-hand conflict ensued on the deck of the Surveyor.”

Although outnumbered and surrounded, the crew “contested every inch of the deck with stubborn courage,” killing three of the attackers and wounding seven more. Travis surrendered only after realizing that all was lost.

The next day, the lieutenant in charge of the attacking flotilla returned Travis’s sword to the ship where he was being held. He included a note:

“Your gallant and desperate attempt to defend your vessel against more than double your number excited such admiration on the part of your opponents as I have seldom witnessed, and induced me to return you the sword you had so ably used...I am at a loss which to admire most, the previous arrangement on board the Surveyor or the determined manner in which her deck was disputed inch-by-inch.”

This gritty battle turned out to be one of the most hotly contested cutter engagements of the war. There would be others. The swift-sailing vessels would run down ships attempting to bring supplies to the enemy. They would overtake barges loaded with enemy troops. They’d escort convoys of merchant ships and protect them from capture.

The cutters’ duties were far-reaching. They rescued mariners in distress. They went after and battled pirate ships on the high seas and stopped slave ships heading for U.S. ports. They fought in the Civil War. Then in 1915, just over100 years from that battle on the York, the Revenue Cutter Service was merged with the U.S. Life-Saving Service to form the Coast

Note: The Coast Guard is looking for anyone related to Captain Travis or who may know of any pictures or artifacts pertaining to him. They may contact the Atlantic Area Historian’s Office at 757-398-6643 or William.h.thiesen@uscg.mil.

April 8, 2012

In March 1825 a son was born to a free African American couple in Norfolk. He must have been a very bright child but his parents knew there was almost no way, regardless of whether he was free or slave, to receive an education. It was against the law.

So young Alexander Thomas Augusta learned by stealth. And, eventually, after several moves and setbacks, he became the first black surgeon – and highest-ranking black officer – to serve the Union during the Civil War.

From Norfolk?

I was struck by that when I saw Augusta’s picture, a brief history about him and his surgical case at the Hampton History Museum. It’s part of a traveling exhibit, “An American Turning Point,” sponsored by The Virginia Historical Association.

It’s an amazing story of perseverance in the face of daunting obstacles.

One historian writes that Augusta got his first education at an illegal Episcopal school in Norfolk. It may have been at Christ Church where, in 1853, a woman and her daughter for arrested for running a school for 25 black children, according to the book Norfolk: The First Four Centuries.

During the 1940s, Augusta moved to Baltimore where he worked part-time as a barber while studying medicine with private tutors. According to an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, he was denied admittance to the University of Pennsylvania Medical School.

He continued his studies in California and Philadelphia. He ended up in Canada and in 1856 received a bachelor of medicine degree from Trinity Medical College in Toronto. He served as hospital director there until he returned to the states six years later.

There was a war going on and he was going to be part of it.

In January 1863 Augusta wrote to President Lincoln offering his medical services for one of the black regiments then being formed. He got his wishes: surgeon in 7th Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops, with the rank of major. His regiment was involved in several engagements during the war, including Beaufort, S.C. But his biggest battles had to do with the color of his skin.

It was unheard at the time for white officers to report to black superiors, and there were many complaints, including a letter to the president from white assistants complaining of this “unexpected, unusual and most unpleasant relationship in which we have been placed.”

One rainy day in Washington he was rushing to testify at a court martial across town and hailed a trolley. As he would write to the judge advocate, the conductor “informed me that I must ride in the front. . . as it was against the rules for colored persons to ride inside.

“I told him I could not ride on the front, and he said I should not ride at all. He then ejected me from the platform, and at the same time gave orders to the driver to go on. I have therefore been compelled to walk the distance in the mud and rain. . . .”

He must have been furious because he wrote to a Massachusetts enator who read his letter to the Senate and eventually the laws were changed. “And now,” a colleague rejoiced, “the colored people of Washington enjoy the privilege of riding in the street when and where they like.”

He would win other battles, including a dispute over pay. Even with the rank of major he’d been paid the same as black enlisted soldiers. He was proud of his rank and adamant about wearing his uniform in public, even though it once got him attacked on a train to Baltimore.

“My position as an officer of the United States entitles me to wear the insignia of my office,” he wrote. “and if I am either afraid or ashamed to wear them, anywhere, I am not fit to hold my commission.”

In March 1865, Augusta was brevetted lieutenant colonel of volunteers, “for faithful and meritorious service.”

Following the war, Augusta served as assistant surgeon at the Freedman’s Hospital in Savannah. Later, he worked for ten years on the medical faculty at Howard University – the first African American to such a position.

There’d be another first: When he died at the age of 65 in 1890 he became the first black officer to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Photo: Norfolk native Alexander Augusta in uniform during the Civil War. Courtesy of the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore.

April 1, 2012

The most arresting part of the Virginia Historical Society’s traveling exhibit, now at the Hampton History Museum, is something called a lenticular graphic.

That hardly describes it because, through a series of life-size, three-dimensional panels that seem to move as you move, it puts you in the midst of Confederate soldiers charging a Union position during the Civil War.

Guns booming, officers shouting, horses whinnying, bodies falling, men crying, “Help me! Help me!.” Death coming at you.

And as if to make the point perfectly clear, the display, called “the Face of Battle,” includes a real-looking skull of an unknown soldier, with a bullet hole in the cranium, and a facsimile of an upper arm bone from a known one, Pvt. David S. Doggett of the 35th Virginia Cavalry.

If you thought there might have been any glory on the battlefield, the exhibit, entitled An American Turning Point, The Civil War in Virginia, might give you pause.

There’s a display on the telegraph, which is kind of fascinating because it invites you to take your cell phone and try to text the message as fast as a telegrapher could type in code.

Are you ready? 5. . . 4. . . 3. . . 2. . .1 –

“April 14, Washington DC. The president of the United States was shot in a theater tonight and perhaps mortally wounded. The President is not expected to live through the night.”

It took the telegrapher, using shorthand words like “potus” for president of the United States” and “thea” for theater, 54 seconds.

But the point of the display is to underscore the new technology that put the Civil War just a few steps away from modern ones – the “science of killing” that included railroads and iron ships, land mines and hand grenades, telegraphy and reconnaissance balloons.

Among the artifacts on display are a bugle that Pvt. Rufus A. Wilbur of the 1st Maine Cavalry used as he signaled to his regiment on April 6, 1865, just before he was killed, and a telegraph receiver and transmitter that reportedly relayed news of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox three days later.

Again, in the unglamorous department, there’s a display on the Confederate soldier who became the first amputee of the war and proceeded to invent, out of barrel staves, an artificial leg with an articulating knee joint. James Edward Hanger patented the device that is still referred to as the Hanger prosthesis.

There were 60,000 amputations performed during the war.

Then there’s the display about the “deadliest enemy,” bacteria and viruses, and the sobering reminder that they killed two thirds of the 600,000 soldiers who died during the conflict.

There’s also a display of weapons, including a quote by Union Major Gen. John Sedgewick, describing the rifled musket: “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.”

They were his last words.

The exhibit runs through June 24. A second exhibit, “Surviving War,” opens December 29.

Next week, the highest ranking African American soldier, born in Norfolk.

Illustration: The lenticular graphic featured in the exhibit “An American Turning Point. Courtesy of The Virginia Historical Society.