James F. Cahill: A Diving Legend

James F. Cahill: A Diving Legend

Recently we reviewed the Cahill Mid-size Diver from Spinnaker Watches. After several weeks of wearing the watch and really enjoying it, our interest was piqued as to who exactly the watch was named after and why Spinnaker chose the name. Before long, we were engulfed in the life and adventure of James Cahill.

It didn’t take long. It turns out that James Cahill was a famous scuba diver and, in fact, the first person to dive the waters of New England.

I decided to dig a little deeper, and then became consumed with the man affectionately known in his late years as “the Captain.”

It didn’t hurt that most of his life was spent on the North Shore of Massachusetts, an area that I have visited many times, which has a place in my heart for its singular beauty and atmosphere.

Remembering towns such as Salem, Ipswich, Rockport, Gloucester, Marblehead, Swampscott, Beverly, and Saugus motivated me to dive deeper (pun intended!)

This Is The Story of a Life Well Lived

This story is rich and varied and we will touch upon World War II, the Korean War, Tarzan, drownings, murders (yes, murder!), “academy awards,” lobster motels, Ipswich clams, the largest scuba diving chain of stores in the U.S, Jacques Cousteau, Navy Seals, Skin Diver Magazine, Frogmen, the Gloucester Fisherman, “Sea Hunt,” treasure hunts, tragedy, harbormasters, leadership, and for good measure, Kevin Costner, Lou Gossett Jr. and Cameron Diaz.

Does this interest you? I hope so, because this is the story of a life well lived.

When Tom Brokaw wrote his best selling book, The Greatest Generation, about Americans born during the depression and forged in the crucible of WWII, he was referring to people like James Cahill. Reading comments from friends and associates, newspaper and magazine articles, obituaries – you come away with the thought that no one could be as ‘Irish American Charming’ and ‘New England Bright’ as James Cahill.

Let me introduce you to the man….story-telling fashion

In 1953, he applied for a Massachusetts lobstering license. To the astonishment of the clerks at the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisherman, instead of using pots like lobsterman had been doing for hundreds of years, Mr. Cahill was diving for his lobsters. Since he had spent much of his last Navy tour of duty detonating mines in Korea and blowing up icebergs in Greenland, Cahill was accustomed to the discomfort of cold water.

On his lobster expeditions he wore a crude diving suit that seldom kept him dry or warm. Most of the time, he just wore long underwear that hardly kept the cold out on his 1 hour dives in 45 degree water.

He took lobsters from nooks in the natural rocks but, surprisingly, got a better catch out of several dozen auto tires that were scattered about the seafloor of the Salem harbor. During the spring and early summer, he usually got one from every tire. After cleaning out the tires he soon came to realize that within 3 days new lobsters would take up residence.

Since the tires were obviously being used by lobsters on the move, he decided to form his own ‘lobster motel.’ He began to place tires here and there near rock outcroppings on the water’s bottom from the open ocean to Salem Harbor. At one time, he had 100 tires planted at depths of 15 feet to 100 feet; he never caught less than 20 lobsters a day and often brought back more than 60.

This was a very profitable business but, alas, did not last long. Why? In 1952, Cahill founded New England Divers, Inc. in Beverly, MA, which became the largest outlet for underwater gear in the U.S. Within 4 years he was outfitting scuba divers with foam suits that made the cold, New England waters almost tolerable. Some of the divers in the newly growing sport put down their own tires in the harbor, but some simply raided his old ‘motel chain’ and bought a chuckle to his heart.

A quick afterthought: in most cases, only the elite served in both WW 11 and the Korean War. Those with special skills were called back. The most famous case is that of The Kid, Ted Williams, arguably the greatest hitter in baseball of all time. His combined service time in both wars was 5 1/2 years. If he had ever played those years, we might never have to worry about the legitimacy of Barry Bonds’ home run record. Though not a professional athlete, James Cahill was such an elite underwater diver that he was called back for the Korean War.

Back to the Beginning

James Cahill was born on March 30, 1926, in Salem, Massachusetts. He was an outstanding high school athlete and went on to play halfback on the football teams of Boston College and Holy Cross. He served as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy in both WW 11 and the Korean War.

He volunteered and was accepted into the rigorous and demanding classes of the Underwater Demolition Team, code-named the Amphibious Rogers, which preceded the formation of the Navy Seals.

After his naval career ended and he was discharged, he traveled to the Virgin Islands where he was hired as an adviser for a motion picture called Frogman. Starring Richard Wildmark, a 1947 Academy Award winner, this 1951 picture was the first scuba diving movie and became a popular and cultural hit.

It was a story about underwater demolition teams (frogmen) and their arduous task of clearing underwater obstacles planted by the enemy during wartime.

Most of the action was shot aboard the USS Keensmith located in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. The working conditions of cast and crew were considered so “riotous” (leave that up to the reader) that all female roles were written out of the movie. Imagine that happening today!

A Different Beginning – Diving

Diving has existed for longer than most people assume, and historical records evidence the activity as far back as Alexander the Great in 332 B.C. However, the true ‘Golden Era’ of diving occurred in the increasingly sports-oriented US in the middle of the 20th century.

Pioneers of the sea ventured out with all types of makeshift equipment. With shingles for fins and coffee cans for masks, not even science fiction writers could have imagined what these hearty souls constructed.

The turning point in diving came with the vision and creativity of two men. A French Naval Lieutenant, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, and an engineer, Emile Gagnan, constructed a small device called the Aqua Lung made from a car regulator.

Invented in 1943, it was marketed commercially in France in 1946. This self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (acronym SCUBA) was the first to reach both worldwide popularity and commercial success.

Diving lore has it that Cousteau convinced Rene Bussoz to import this “adult toy” to America in 1949 to be sold at Bussoz’s sporting goods store in Westwood, California. The rest is history. But we will pause in our story to partake in some revisionist history. Yes, the Aqua Lung ended up in Westwood but in a very circuitous journey.

Cahill Mid-Size Diver From Spinnaker

Rene was the son of Pierre Bussoz, a famous French developer of slot machines in the late 19th century and continuing into the 20th. Living in Paris, Rene was a bright student with an eye for the ladies. After graduating from a high commercial school, he opened his own sporting goods store on the Champs-Elysees and later another in Geneva, Switzerland.

He was introduced to America when he delivered slot machine parts to Las Vegas for his father in 1936. Rene was attracted to the lifestyle and enamored with the movie stars he met. In 1939, he moved his sporting goods business to Westwood, California, and was successful enough to buy a house in up-scale Bel-Aire and thus living in close proximity to many Hollywood stars.

On a return trip to France to pick up some parts for his father and fins and masks for his store, he saw a piece of scuba diving equipment in a store window. Entering the shop a clerk told him to contact Cousteau about the equipment and provided him with a telephone number.

Rene spoke to Cousteau and ordered 20 Aqua Lungs to be delivered to his shop in America. In 1947, a first shipment of 6 regulators were delivered to the shop, but Rene’s financial partner was not happy, thinking the Aqua Lang would be a passing fad. In fact, when Cousteau called a week later asking Rene if he wanted to complete the order, he told him no the market was saturated.

During this time, movie stars Buster Crabbe (more about him later) and Johnny Weissmuller frequented the sports shop. The two were involved with the first dive using the regulators but they didn’t work. Rene was furious and wanted to send the regulators back, but a friend, Glen McCall, said by making some adjustments he could make them work. McCall was correct and the next dive was successful.

Yet there were still bumps in the road. One issue was air fill for the tanks. At first, a friend at UCLA did the fills, but then Rene placed an air compressor in a bathroom above his shop. The compressor ran almost non-stop and one day it exploded and metal parts came crashing down through the ceiling. Fortunately there were no injuries.

The famous “Rene 1953” signature

The regulators made in France were very crude and Rene knew he needed to improve them to make his investment a success. So he lured McCall, and later Dick Anderson, a high school dropout yet a person with a very high mechanical aptitude. They both became catalysts for Rene’s blossoming business.

Rene was a great salesman, but disliked spending money. At the time, tariffs were high. However, because of his experience with his father’s slot business, he was able to get around much of the cost.

He started importing parts and assembling regulators in his shop. Around this time, he received a huge contract from the US Navy for regulators worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. So he flew to Paris and made a deal with Cousteau for the American rights to the Aqua Lung

Rene’s contract with the US government required that he use parts made in the country. He thus formed a company called US Divers. After some trial and error, he had his tanks manufactured by Processed Steel of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Those tanks were stamped with the famous “Rene 1953” signature. His valves were made in Chicago and now his whole apparatus was manufactured in America.

Due to rapid growth, he moved his manufacturing operation to Los Angeles and hired a sales manager. At this time, a buyer could purchase a tank, a valve and a regulator for $140 and US Divers was basically the only show in the country.

Rene Bussoz has always been treated as a minor player in the popularizing of scuba diving when, in fact, he played a major role.

Seeing the success of the venture in America, Cousteau now wanted to regain control of the business. Surprisingly, Rene entered into negotiations, tense at the outset. But, with the help of Emile Gagnan, a man that Rene respected, a deal was struck. Cousteau would regain control by purchasing US Divers for 2 million dollars and would later restore the name Aqua Lung.

Why this unexpected development? Unbeknownst to Cousteau, Rene had been denied naturalization and would not be allowed to make a permanent home in the US.

It turned out that he was not eligible for citizenship because he had signed papers during WWII that exempted him from US military service. He was also being pursued by the government in Federal court for unpaid tariffs. He was able to extricate himself from the Federal case but the taint doomed all hopes for citizenship.

Thus, Rene had to leave the glamorous Hollywood environment he so craved, but he did leave as a millionaire. Returning to France, he became a very successful golf entrepreneur and lived to a ripe old age.

As Paul Harvey, the iconic radio broadcaster would say, “that is the rest of the story.” Props to Rene Bussoz. He has always been treated as a minor player in the popularizing of scuba diving when, in fact, he played a major role.

Shall we get back to the Captain?

In the mid-fifties, Cahill founded the Hui Kai scuba training camp on Children’s Island, off the coast of Marblehead, and part of the city of Salem. The Island had recently been purchased by the North Shore YMCA.

Previously, it had been used as a sanitorium for crippled and sick children for over 30 years, then had been vacant for about 10 years. The YMCA opened a day camp for children that is still in operation today.

Joining him in this endeavor was Buster Crabbe. Born Clarence Crabbe and nicknamed Buster by his parents, he was a widely popular actor at the time. Crabbe had been a world class swimmer, winning a bronze medal for the 1500 meter freestyle in 1928 in Amsterdam. In Paris, in 1932, he won the gold medal in the 400 meter freestyle, breaking the record of Johnny Weissmuller by .1 of a second. Weissmuller did not compete in 1932. He was a 5 time gold medal winner in swimming and a bronze medalist in water polo.

He never lost a competitive race and set 50 world records in freestyle and backstroke, yet he did lose one competition. Both he and Crabbe became movie stars, but it was Crabbe that starred in the first Tarzan movie ever made. Weissmuller went on to make six Tarzan movies, and his Tarzan yell is still considered the gold standard.

Crabbe made over 100 movies in his lifetime and was the first Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. Throughout his acting career, he remained an active participant in swimming and diving. For many years, even up to this death, he was also involved in swimming pool construction. The Cahill/Crabbe relationship was based on the recognition that with the new access to diving equipment, many inexperienced individuals would take up the sport and there would be a need for competent instruction.

With the advent of the Aqua Lung, adventurous skin divers took the new invention and used it to supplement the “true” sport of breath-holding diving. The old pioneers were staunchly proud of the sport and the physical prowess required. The real diehards considered the Aqua Lung to be for sissies who needed extra help.

Accessibility, as Cahill already realized, brought some storm clouds. Men, women and children with no previous experience were now taking up scuba diving. The early pioneers recognized that if not done correctly, scuba diving could be a dangerous sport and, thus, saw a need to bring diving instructions to the masses.

Now, for the first time, inexperienced divers could stay underwater much longer than they could with a single breath, yet there was a serious lack of instruction. During the 50’s, recreational dive clubs were the only source of training, however methods could be slap dash and not organized. The need for codifying was at hand.

In 1951, the first issue of a new magazine hit the stands. It was entitled Skin Diver, and its initial issue was only 16 pages. It had a column called “the Instructors Corner” and it later added a section called “National Divers Patrol” which published names of scuba diving instructors. That being said, certification was, at the time, non-existent and experience varied.

In 1955, the Los Angeles County Parks and Recreation Department created the first Underwater Instructors Certification Course and became the world’s first civilian training agency. Los Angeles was followed by certifying programs in Broward County, Florida, and the American Red Cross.

In 1962, these efforts led to the formation by respected advocates and seasoned divers of a national organization. They named it the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI) and began to set rigorous standards to obtain a certification as a diving instructor. Cahill, a respected role model and widely popular figure in the sport, was elected to the first Board of Directors of this organization that, to this day, is still the most influential in the sport.The current US Navy Seals are trained to NAUI standards.

Just a fun little sidetrack….1996 Olympic decathlon champ Dan O’Brien, actors Kevin Costner and Lou Gossett Jr. and actress/writer Cameron Diaz have all met the rigorous standards and are certified dive instructors.

Cahill served from 1962 until 1966. As the influential owner and principal figure for New England Divers, the powerhouse distributor for the industry, he dictated a lot of procedures for manufacturers with respect to safety and design. New England Divers was expanding and, at one time, besides the main store in Beverly, also had stores in Seattle, WA, San Diego, San Francisco and La Mesa, CA, and Hingham and Kendall, Florida.

The Beverly shop, on Water St. and then on Tozer Rd. was Jim’s personal base where he taught and operated the largest supply shop of scuba equipment in the US. From all accounts, his tenure at NAUI was that of an instructor that everyone wants to have: tough but friendly. Using top of the line staff, his certification course at Gloucester-Swampscott was considered the best in the NAUI.

The advances in equipment in the 50’s established a growing interest in scuba diving. Much of this early interest with the general public was generated by the hugely popular TV show Sea Hunt, an underwater adventure series that ran for 156 episodes from 1957 to 1961.

It Starred Lloyd Bridges as Mike Nelson, a former US Navy frogman known for his expert diving, traveling on his boat the Argonaut. Nielson would outmaneuver villains, rescue children and dogs, even salvage bicycles and nuclear missiles. Many stars made guest appearances, and a very young Jack Nicholson is seen in the last episode.

Comedians, especially Johnny Carson, used to tell jokes about the frequency of which Mike Nelson could emerge from the sea despite sharks, shipwrecks, criminals etc. Such a popular show needed a great consultant with deep knowledge and the ability to make Bridges a competent diver to enhance the believability of the scenes.

Of course, the producers turned to James Cahill, who was a consultant to Lloyd Bridges throughout the tenure of the show. The show’s popularity never waned with the public, but it did with Bridges. Thinking he was being typecast, he decided to call it quits. The producers were not sure that the public would warm to a new Mike Nelson and decided to discontinue the show. If you have never watched Sea Hunt there are numerous episodes on you tube.

Dramatic Historical Dives – with James Cahill at the forefront (of course)

The Texas Towers were a set of 3 radar facilities off the eastern seaboard of the United States which were used by the Air Force during the Cold War. Modeled on offshore drilling platforms employed off the Texas coast, they were in operation from 1958 to 1963. After a disastrous collapse of one of the towers in 1961, the remaining towers were closed out of a concern for safety of the crews.

Towers built off the coasts of Cape Cod and Nantucket were sunk 60 and 80 feet respectively into the bedrock of the ocean floor. Texas Tower 4, off the coast of New Jersey, by comparison was only sunk 15 feet into the sand and had walls only one inch thick.

In 1960, Hurricane Donna tested and severely damaged the tower. The crew was not evacuated and had to weather the storm. In January of 1961, the Air Force decided to shut Tower 4 but did not have a timetable.

On January 15, 1961, a nor’easter began to blow and a supply ship that serviced the tower warned the tower of impending bad weather. The commanding officer, Captain Gordon Phelan, asked to evacuate but was denied based on the expensive radar equipment in the tower. At 1pm Captain Phelan called his wife and said the tower was gyrating.

The Air Force finally decided that they would evacuate the tower on January 16th at 3 am. Disastrously, however, at 7:28 pm on the 15th, the tower disappeared from radar.

The entire crew, twenty-eight men, both airmen and civilians, perished. Horribly, news of their deaths came to the families in the form of reporters’ questions before any official notice came from the Air Force. A recovery mission was put in place at once, and James Cahill was put in charge. He quickly organized an elite team.

He and his team made over 25 dives to below 200 feet over 2 days, but in the end, despite the heroic effort, only the body of one crewman was found, Master Sgt. Troy Williams.

A Senate investigation found many lapses and errors. A regional commander was court martialed, but later acquitted. In 2011 President Barack Obama recognized the men’s sacrifice and sent formal letters of apologies to their families, the first government acknowledgement of error in 50 years.

During these years, Jim was very busy running New England Divers and doing local police investigative work in the areas of drownings and salvage. In fact, he found the gun in the grisly, infamous Clark murder case in Newburyport, MA. Mrs. Clark fatally shot and stabbed her husband and then dumped his body in the Merrimack River. Months later, a badly decomposed body was found in the river by a fisherman. Cahill aided the police by conducting an underwater search in the river and locating the murder weapon.

Brotherly Love

The waters along the New England coast are beautiful but treacherous. Over the years, rocky shoals, storms and fog claimed many vessels. Jim Cahill, with his vast knowledge, led many expeditions to explore these shipwrecks. In 1972, Cahill was the primary subject of a book on scuba diving titled Diary of the Depths which was written by his brother, Robert Ellis Cahill, a prolific author of more than three dozen books on New England History. (A little patience here the story veers bizarrely.)

Cahill’s brother, besides his literary pursuits, in 1975, became sheriff of Essex County, MA, with the office located in Salem. As sheriff, he brought the first indoor plumbing to the county jail, established the first rehabilitation programs and introduced formal training for officers.

While sheriff, he investigated the alleged curse of Giles Corey. Corey, a resident of Salem, was arrested in 1692 on charges of witchcraft. Refusing to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty he was tortured and killed.

Legend has it that he put a curse on all sheriffs of Essex County. From that time, research has indicated that every sheriff, starting with George Corwin in 1696, either died or resigned from office as a result of a heart or blood ailment.

Robert Ellis Cahill, while in office, went back 100 years and found that every sheriff had succumbed to “the curse.” Then, while serving in office, he suffered a rare blood disease, a heart attack and a stroke.

Doctors could not find the cause of his afflictions and he was forced to resign in 1978. Further research indicated that sheriffs suffered the same fate until 1991, when the curse was seemingly lifted when the sheriff’s office was relocated from Salem to Middleton. There have been no further incidents.

The End of an Era

Throughout the 60’s and until the late 70’s, Jim Cahill was totally immersed with running the largest scuba diving distribution in the US. But it seems all good things must end. Jim, from all accounts, was being worn down by everyday business and wanted to be more engaged with the water.

In 1979, he sold New England Divers to a company that moved the business to Danvers, Massachusetts. Within a few years, a thriving, 30-year-old company was out of business. Many of the staff had left and opened their own shops and, even today, there are a few shops using that name. For those interested in owning a bit of the rich history, there are many sites on the internet offering vintage New England Divers decals, equipment,etc.

As for Jim, he became the harbormaster of Salem Harbor in 1981 and was responsible for enforcing regulations to ensure the safety of navigation, the security of the harbor and the correct operations of port facilities. Salem Harbor was (and still is) a mixture of commercial and recreation vessels. It is the second deepest of all ports in Massachusetts.

Jim performed his duties, as he always did, with diligence and organization. He patrolled the waters daily in his tugboat, Bob Sea. Jim retired in 1991, but remained a fixture on the North Shore, involved in community and diving.

In 2003, in recognition of his contributions to the development of scuba diving Cahill was awarded a prestigious NOGI, the academy award for diving. The New Orleans Grand Isle (NOGI) was originally to be an award given to winners of a spearfishing contest that was held around the oil rigs of the New Orleans Grand Isle. A few days after the August 1960 tournament ended, statuettes (modeled in the shape of the motion picture academy statue) were handed out for another reason: outstanding contributions to scuba diving.

That occurred on August 20th during the Underwater Society of America’s first convention. The group was formed on February 22, 1959, in Boston, to promote the science, environment, service and education of anything underwater. The spearfishing tournament was disbanded many years ago, but the Underwater Society and the NOGI awards have continued to this day. The award was a culmination of James Cahill’s career and he was deeply moved and humbled.

James Cahill died February 28, 2008 at the Seacoast Nursing and Rehabilitation in Gloucester, Massachusetts. He was 81 and survived by his wife, Barbara, of Ipswich, and 4 daughters and 3 sons.

Personal Thoughts On James F. Cahill

I never met James Cahill, but I have visited the North Shore many, many times. I especially frequented the area in the 80’s and 90’s and have a special affection for it. Thus, with a little leeway from you, the reader, it seems almost poetic that Jim Cahill passed in Gloucester.

The city is America’s oldest working seaport and has a rich maritime history. It epitomizes the essence of the North Shore. The famous Man at the Wheel Memorial, also known as the Gloucester Fisherman, has the inscription: “They that go down to the sea in ships.”

That is the first line of Psalm 107:23. The remainder of that verse and the subsequent one is as follows: “Doing business on the great waters; they saw the works of the Lord, His wondrous works in the deep.” ENOUGH SAID.

Reading that Barbara Cahill was from Ipswich brought back some pleasant and delicious memories. Ipswich is quite different from many North Shore towns in that it has a sandy, dune-filled beach and wet, salty, muddy marshes, in contrast to most of the craggy, rocky area. When I think of Ipswich, I think of fried clams. History tells us that Lawrence Woodman, known as Chubby, faced with a huge vat of hot oil for his potato chip business and a mess of clams harvested in the mud flats of his hometown had a eureka moment. As they say, the rest is history….Ipswich history.

What makes a great French Burgundy? It is the “terroir,” literally, the taste of the soil. It is the same with the Ipswich clam. They are harvested in a wet, salty, muddy environment where a soft shell clam can thrive by burrowing in the mud to escape its natural enemies: sea birds and crabs. Mud clams are richer and sweeter tasting than other clams and do not have the grit that you get from sand flat clams.

Route 133, which leads from Rowley, Massachusetts, to Ipswich, to Essex, and beyond, is known as ‘the clam highway.’ I have been on that pilgrim road many times and the historic Woodman’s, run by descendants of Chubby, is still in business. Yet far and away, the best fried clams to be had are at the Clam Box in Ipswich.

Established in 1935, and run for over 35 years by Marina “Chickie” Aggelakis, it sets the standard for the fried clam. Ms. Aggelakis is a very imposing figure and absolutely the queen of her domain. The Clam Box serves other food, but it is not unusual to see lines forming 30 minutes prior to the 11 am opening for the star attraction: fried clams.

The Clam Box takes freshly shucked, soft-shell clams and dips them in evaporated milk and tosses them in a breading mixture of yellow corn flour, not cornmeal (she told me this many years ago.) Quickly, so as not to get soggy, the breaded clams are dropped in a drying vat for 30 seconds, that way any excess breading is deposited in the first vat so that the second vat of oil stays clean and fresh.

That’s the secret to freshly shucked clams: light breading, fresh oil and fresh frying. I am sure that Jim and Barbara and their children frequented the Clam Box.

In these trying times, I can only dream and wish that I had spent some time at the Clam Box munching clams in the company of James Cahill.

Finally, a little reflection, a picture of Salem Harbor….all it needs is a harbormaster guiding his tugboat.

Earth lie lightly!