On this week’s episode of Now & Then, “The Titan, the Sea, and What We See,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman connected the overwhelming national reaction to the tragic implosion of the Titan submersible to two past sea tragedies that particularly captured the American imagination: the 1813 ocean disappearance of Theodosia Burr and the 1872 mystery of the Mary Celeste. In 1973, a catastrophe involving the Johnson Sea Link research submersible also riveted the nation and served as a referendum on both the promise and peril of high-tech ocean exploration. 

The Johnson Sea Link was the brainchild of Edwin A. Link. An inventor from a young age, Link grew up in Binghamton, New York in the 1910s, where his father manufactured player pianos and pipe organs for movie theaters. Young Link, inspired by his father’s tinkering spirit, used overflow parts to craft a series of flashing lights for an advertising airplane. 

Obsessed with flying, Link eschewed college and barnstormed during the 1920s in an early Cessna. In 1929, he invented the first marketable flight simulator. The Army Air Corps began purchasing the simulators in 1934, and Link grew his fledgling Link Aviation into a multi-million dollar company. 

By the 1950s, Link had shifted some of his focus from the skies to the seas. Along with his wife Marion and his two young sons, William and Clayton, he constructed a 65-foot boat called the Sea Diver and began organizing dives in search of ancient artifacts. The Links traveled the world, discovering anchors from Christopher Columbus’s fleet, relics from the 1695 British wreck Winchester, priceless Roman coins, and artifacts from the sunken Jamaican city of Port Royal. Link also experimented with a dramatic underwater house, which he placed at the bottom of the Potomac River in 1963. 

“I started as a grease monkey with dirt under my fingernails and now after making my fortune as a swivel chair executive I am back as an experimenter,” Link told the New York Times in 1956.

In 1965, Link commercialized his sea-diving efforts, spearheading Ocean Systems Inc. to partner with oil companies in search of petroleum and mineral reserves on the Continental Shelf.

In addition to his capitalistic endeavors, Link also got heavily involved in non-profit scientific research. He teamed up with his friend J. Seward Johnson, the Johnson & Johnson heir and Vice President and a longtime yachtsman and ocean enthusiast. Link constructed the Johnson Sea Link in the backyard of his own Binghamton home. 

The 23-foot submersible, completed in 1971, could dive as far as 1,000 feet below the ocean’s surface. The device was separated into two compartments that were completely sealed from one another. The front compartment was a 360-degree bubble and had space for a pilot and a scientist-observer. The back aluminum compartment had room for three divers, who could exit to collect specimens. 

The Johnson Sea Link quickly went into service for the Smithsonian Institution. On Father’s Day, June 17th, 1973, the Links assembled for a mission 15 miles Southeast of Key West. They planned to recover fish traps set near the wreck of the destroyer USS Fred T. Berry, which the Navy had scuttled in May 1972 and which had become an artificial reef ripe for oceanographic research. 

Ed Link oversaw the dives from the deck of the Sea Diver. Four men went on the Johnson-Sea-Link. In the first compartment were pilot Jock Menzies and marine biologist Dr. Robert Meek. In the back compartment were Link’s son Clayton, by this point a 31-year-old ex-Navy diver, and Al Stover, a veteran diver noted for his 1966 role in helping to recover a hydrogen bomb lost off the coast of Spain. 

The first of the two scheduled dives, which began around 8:30 AM, did not require Link and Stover to exit the craft, so they did not bring their insulated wetsuits or extra stores of air. They were fully isolated from the front cabin, as with all Sea Link dives. 

The divers descended 362 feet below the surface to reach the fish traps, but soon the Sea Link became entangled in cables, wires, and antennae from the scuttled USS Berry.  

The elder Link radioed the Key West Naval Base, which dispatched the rescue boat USS Tringa. The Navy divers, who were on liberty when the call came in and were slow to arrive, were ultimately unable to reach the ship given a strong gulf stream current. They failed in four separate attempts. 

The younger Link and Stover, in the back cabin, were in far more danger than Menzies and Meek up front. The rear compartment, given its access to the outside water and its thinner aluminum lining, began to plummet in temperature. The cold, in turn, lessened the effectiveness of Baralyme, a chemical in the compartment that was designed to soak up carbon dioxide from the divers’ exhalations. The air in the cabin quickly became hazardous. 

Still, the two men in the back cabin opted not to attempt an ambitious swim to the surface, particularly given their lack of heavy gear. They remained confident in a swift rescue.  

As the Navy divers continued to fail, however, the situation became dire for the back compartment. The national press appeared as the rescue effort stretched past 24 hours. “4 Men in Tiny Research Sub Trapped 360 Feet Under Sea,” read a Los Angeles Times headline on the second day of the crisis. Stover and Link began to rub Baralyme on their bodies in a desperate effort to trigger its effectiveness and to get some clean air. 

The elder Link continued to coordinate rescue efforts. His hometown Binghamton Sun-Bulletin chronicled his focus during the ordeal: “Sleepless and tightlipped, the aging inventor had clutched the walkie-talkie throughout the night and following morning, clenching and unclenching his fists as he coordinated the painfully slow-moving rescue efforts.”  

The paper concluded, “Mr. Link had been an integral part of the rescue efforts, not just a father standing helplessly by waiting for news of his son.”

Finally, after 31 hours without much progress, a nearby research vessel, the A.B. Wood, headed to the site and sent down a sled with an underside grappling hook. The sled, with the help of a remote television camera, finally managed to move the cables, hook onto the Johnson Sea Link, and bring the men up

The two men in the front compartment got out, but rescue crews remained unable to get to the motionless Stover and Link in the back cabin, which was pressurized at twelve times the surface level and had to be slowly decompressed for a safe entry.  Before long, it was clear that the two men had succumbed to cold and carbon dioxide. 

“Clayton is dead, definitely,” his mother, Marion, told the press circus that had assembled. “I understand why Clayton died. He was as much of a scientist as his father. And he would understand if he could be aware what had happened.” 

Marion continued to project strength in interviews in the following hours: “We are going to learn as much from this as we can — and then just go forward.” 

Edwin Link concurred, telling the press, “We’re not going to stop. This shows the magnitude of the problem and the challenge.”

Link was suffering, though. In From Sky to Sea: A Story of Edwin A. Link, a chronicle of Link’s life written by Marion and author Susan van Hoek, the authors revealed the depth of Edwin Link’s pain in the aftermath of the tragedy, and particularly for not pushing his son and Stover harder to try to swim to the surface: “Ed would later blame himself for respecting their decision.” 

Four days after the rescue operation, a funeral for Stover and Clayton Link was held in Vero Beach. The families honored the intense passions of the fallen men, even gracing the chapel with blue and orange flowers in the shape of the Sea Link. 

After the ceremony, Menzies and Meek held a brief press conference and did their best to recount succinctly Stover and Link’s final hours. “They agreed to wait for the Navy,” Menzies said. “They kept asking about the Co2 level. They never said they were dying.” 

“The thing is over now, and there’s no use going back,” he summated.

The forward-looking perspective of the Links and Jock Menzies was shared by Allyn Vine, a close colleague of Link’s from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Vine told the New York Times that he fully expected the Johnson Sea Link to continue its research work after a brief suspension. “Friends get hurt on the highway and you drive more defensively,” he analogized. “You don’t stop driving, however.” 

Link indeed continued to innovate. He spent the two years after the tragedy inventing a new rescue system, called CORD. The centerpiece of Link’s innovation was a 680-pound unmanned aluminum submarine called the “Fish” that could hook to trapped vessels and drag them out via remote control. Computerized thrusters held the “Fish” directly over the sub, which could be pinpointed through precise radio technology. 

After the initial spike in press frenzy surrounding the tragedy, the attention began to subside. There was, however, in late 1974 an ABC Movie of the Week fictionalization of the crisis, entitled Trapped Beneath the Sea. The film starred actor Lee J. Cobb in the role of the Edwin Link character, who was renamed Victor Bateman and who lost his son-in-law rather than his son.

Link died in 1981, but the Johnson Sea Link operated until 2011 with much success.

Shortly after the crisis, in a heartfelt tribute to the Link family and their colleagues’ devotion – tragedy and all – to sea exploration, J. Seward Johnson II, the son of Link’s collaborator and a rising realist sculptor, crafted four interconnected busts: Stover, Stover’s father, Clayton Link, and Edwin Link. The sculpture graces the grounds of  the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, a Florida non-profit founded by Link and the elder Seward that continued the Sea Link’s work. The quartet was named “Safety in the Seas.” 

For a broader view on sea exploration in the 1960s, check out Ben Hallwarth’s 2012 Sealab: America’s Forgotten Quest to Live and Work on the Ocean Floor

And head to the Twitter account of Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.

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