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NPS photographer Brett Seymour dives on USS Arizona's number one turret guns.

Valor and Infamy Preserved: A Conversation with Brett Seymour of National Park Service

By Michael G. Williams
10/7/2016 • World War II Magazine

Brett Seymour, deputy chief and underwater photographer with the National Park Service, at the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Three-quarters of a century after the Japanese bombed the USS Arizona, the battleship remains a symbol of American sacrifice—left as it was when it sank 40 feet to the bottom of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, along with the bodies of most of the 1,177
servicemen killed on board. The Submerged Resources Center (SRC), an elite team of National Park Service archaeologists and photographers, leads the care and study of the 608-foot vessel, something Brett Seymour knows intimately. As the SRC’s deputy chief and photographer, he has dived on the Arizona for nearly 20 years.

When you hear “National Park Service,” you don’t typically think of underwater sites. How did the Submerged Resources Center arise?

The program goes back to the mid-1970s when the National Park Service teamed up with other agencies to investigate Native American sites flooded by new hydroelectric dams throughout the Southwest. Afterward the Park Service realized that they had a great resource on hand: a cadre of talented underwater archaeologists that they could plug into resources around the country.

How far do the SRC’s duties extend within the NPS?

We work anywhere and everywhere. The geography of the Park Service is massive; everyone knows Yellowstone and Yosemite, but there are so many other parks, monuments, and historic sites that are just as important to our nation’s fabric. The NPS cares for these places held in public trust. Our work is an extension of that mission—we just do it underwater. The SRC has worked in some amazing areas throughout the Service and pretty extensively around the world (for more of Brett’s gorgeous photos see our Portfolio section, “What Lies Beneath,” in our November/December 2016 issue). If there’s water there, chances are we’ve at least looked.

What did the NPS find when it first sent divers to the Arizona?

The NPS entered the picture in 1980 to assume joint responsibility for the Arizona’s care with the U.S. Navy; prior to that, the Arizona was the navy’s alone. The first site superintendent, Gary Cummins, didn’t know what he had lying beneath the waters of Pearl Harbor. So the SRC’s founder, archeologist Dan Lenihan, did some reconnaissance dives on the ship. When he descended only 20 feet near the bow he discovered that the number one turret and guns were still intact. Until then, the historical record said the navy had salvaged the Arizona’s guns shortly after the attack for use in coastal fortification around the island of Oahu. There was no record of the guns still being there—a whole turret, which is no small thing. It’s literally the size of a Greyhound bus!

What drew you to this work? 

The draw was the easy part; actually turning it into work, was…well, work. I always loved the water. Like many, I watched as Jacques Cousteau and his crew sailed the world on Calypso. My dad had a camp on a cold New Hampshire lake and, as a kid, I would spend hours trying to find ways to stay underwater: garden hoses; five-gallon buckets filled with air anchored to the bottom with cinder blocks. The photography part came as an elective in college. My friends made fun of me for that one, but I just grin and look back at a brilliant career move!

How did you get started?

Armed with knowledge of underwater Nikonos cameras, I oversold my abilities to the then-deputy chief of the SRC for a field summer in Dry Tortugas National Park in 1994. It was the summer of my life—diving seven days a week. I wanted to spend my career doing something I was passionate about, and sharing the underwater story of the NPS seemed like a great fit.

What does responsibility for the Arizona’s care entail?

Mainly interpretation of the site, then management. For 30 years, we’ve been filling in gaps in the history of the Pearl Harbor events and of the ship. On the Arizona, we’ve done this primarily through mapping, research, and photography. In the 1980s, the SRC mapped the ship, generating a five-part drawing that incorporated the port and starboard perspectives, as well as the typical overhead and profile views. Then, beginning in the late 1990s and early 2000’s, we launched a series of corrosion studies, oil analyses, and interior investigations to determine how long the ship is going to last.

Seymour explores stairs to the captain’s and admiral’s cabins on USS Arizona.

How long is that?

It’ll be several hundred years before the Arizona has a total structural collapse. We know this because we partnered with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST); we gave them the construction diagrams, deck levels, and compartments, along with corrosion analyses, interior environmental data, and the current thickness of the hull in specific areas. NIST fed this data into a supercomputer and projected future changes or deterioration.

Since the Arizona is sitting at the bottom of Pearl Harbor, we needed to ask some questions about what’s going on inside it. The Park Service has never allowed divers inside the ship out of respect for those entombed within the hull. Only after getting permission from USS Arizona survivors have we sent remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) inside. In the ship’s second deck, we found tremendous preservation because the still water there has almost no oxygen. No oxygen means no rust or corrosion. That’s not to say the Arizona isn’t deteriorating. It’s a steel ship submerged in saltwater; but the deterioration is more superficial than structural.

Does the oil leaking from the ship make diving difficult?

Not especially difficult, but definitely messy! Those of us who dive the Arizona regularly take precautions. We wear wetsuits, hoods, gloves, and full-face masks, which safeguard against aspirating any oil vapors through our regulators. The oil, which leaks at a rate of five to seven quarts a day, can get everywhere, though. It’s not like today’s motor oil; Bunker C fuel oil is very thick and gummy. But to me, it’s the smell of the oil that I associate with diving on the ship more than the oil itself.

As someone so familiar with the Arizona, its human element must be powerful.

Extremely. As a photographer I try to capture that element. The ship is not all steel. Arizona has a soul, and I believe others who share the underwater experience would say the same. Artifacts either on the deck or inside the ship bring that soul to life. On any given dive you can see .50-caliber bullets, coke bottles, cooking pots, and ceramic bowls—even a boot or shoe sole.

While conducting an interior survey, we maneuvered the ROV inside a cabin and noticed a locker where sailors would hang their clothes. Inside, we discovered a navy uniform with the epaulettes on the shoulders, still hanging on a wire hanger. Beside it was a pair of uniform dress pants with leather suspenders dangling in the sediment on the locker’s floor. Everyone in the control room froze. These links to ordinary, everyday life are sobering.

Is there a moment from one dive that stands out?

A few years ago, we were doing an artifact inventory and came across a sailor’s shaving kit. It had the handle of a straight-edge razor and a bottle of tonic. I could imagine its owner in front of a mirror shaving just before the attack. On another dive, I swam over the deck and noticed a coiled fire hose. That was chilling. I mean, any one of those sailors aboard the Arizona would have manned that hose to fight the fires if he could. The fact that it was untouched underscores how devastating the powder magazine blast was, and how quickly the ship sank.

What does the Arizona Memorial mean to you?

The amazing thing about the Arizona is that it’s still there. You’re not just seeing where something happened. You’re seeing what happened. The public is able to visit and see the very thing that’s being memorialized, if only from the surface; my job is to give them a better view and understanding of what’s left.

A porthole on the USS Arizona, its interior cover closed, trapping air from before the attack.

What’s next for SRC and the Arizona?

Recently, our efforts have focused on digital mapping and creating a virtual 3-D model of the Arizona that opens up a new avenue of site management. Partnering with Autodesk, a 3-D and engineering software company, we’ve mapped the Arizona with sonar, photogrammetry, and underwater lasers. The result is stunning—the first 3-D model that accurately reflects the current condition of the battleship. The digital map also allows us to monitor changes in the ship by comparing this model with future scans.

We unveiled a four-foot 3-D print of the ship last December 7; this year we will be presenting 3-D prints to each of the remaining Arizona survivors. Also, this December 7, two more deceased survivors will be added to the memorial, with urns containing their ashes placed inside the Arizona, allowing them to be buried at sea with their crewmates. One of them is John Anderson, one of 37 sets of brothers on the ship, whose twin brother died during the attack. I’ve known John for quite some time. Several years ago, he was gracious enough to be our guest of honor for a live satellite broadcast from underwater on the Arizona. His interment might be my most personal connection to the Arizona yet. ✯

 

This excerpt was originally published in the November/December 2016 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here.

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