Salvaging scrap from San Diego bay: valves, shafts, propellers, heat exchangers, fire-fighting nozzles, running lights, bells, plumbing fixtures, pipes

Take It from the bottom

Bob left his job in the early '50s, bought an old Monterey-type fishing boat, and began scrap-diving with an old Alpine buddy.
  • Bob left his job in the early '50s, bought an old Monterey-type fishing boat, and began scrap-diving with an old Alpine buddy.

From the end of the World War II until the late '60s, San Diego Bay was always full of navy ships, and there was never enough pier space at the various bases to berth them. The surplus ships had to moor out in the stream on large buoys. During their stays, the sailors on board would throw everything they could get their hands on over the side. Don't ask me why.

In the early days of scrap-diving, the city dumped all its sewage into the bay.

In the early days of scrap-diving, the city dumped all its sewage into the bay.

There were always a submarine tender and a destroyer tender in the bay. These are huge, floating repair facilities. They carry everything aboard to rebuild engines, repair electronics, or even perform major structural repairs on hulls. The two destroyer tender moorings were on either side of the old Coronado ferry crossing. The mooring on the east side of the bay, known as the Fifth Street Landing, was right off the old Rowing Club (now a Chart House restaurants); the other one was on the Coronado side of the bay, west of the crossing.

The first man to dive for scrap metal in San Diego Bay was Bob Gowdy, a small, quiet man from Alpine.

The first man to dive for scrap metal in San Diego Bay was Bob Gowdy, a small, quiet man from Alpine.

The submarine tender moorings were directly in front of what is now Reuben's restaurant on Harbor Island Drive but which didn't exist at the time. The tenders would sit there for six months working on their dependents, which would be tied alongside, like so many baby ducks and their mother. Scrap would rain over the side. At the end of the six months, they would leave for the western Pacific and be replaced by sister ships who were returning from their own six-month tours.

First Compressor. The only thing missing was the compressor, but these came up regularly in the clam shell.

First Compressor. The only thing missing was the compressor, but these came up regularly in the clam shell.

In the South Bay, there were two strings of mooring buoys, one on either side of he channel. On the Coronado side were what we called the barge moorings, because there were normally occupied by LSTs and other types of large landing barges. On the Naval Station side, the moorings were occupied by repair ships, oilers, and cargo ships. In the North Bay, there was a string of moorings along Shelter Island that could accommodate larger ships, such as LSDs.

The first man to dive for scrap metal in San Diego Bay was Bob Gowdy, a small, quiet man from Alpine. When Bob got out of the service in the late '40s, he went to work for a man who was going to make a fortune for himself and his investors by cleaning up the scrap on the bottom of the bay. His method was to take a large crane barge into the mooring after a vessel had departed, then grab whatever was on the bottom with a large "clam shell." The results would be dumped on deck; then whatever metals there were would b separated into various components, such as iron and nonferrous metals like aluminum, copper, brass, or cupronickel. These would be sold to local scrap-metal dealers.

Gowdy was the crane operator, and he soon recognized that this was an inefficient way to do things. At the time, the only metals valuable enough to warrant salvaging were the nonferrous ones, yet most of what came on board was iron. He decided that diving and working on the bottom was the way to go. So Bob left his job in the early '50s, bought an old Monterey-type fishing boat, and began scrap-diving with an old Alpine buddy, Ted Judd.

Diving gear, as we know it today, was not available at the time. Scuba was not yet mass-produced; wet suits had recently been invented but not perfected. The only readily available gear was Navy MK V deep-sea gear; this could be bought on the surplus market. For about 25 dollars, one would get a big box that contained an MK V helmet, a canvas dress, long woolen underwear, a weight belt, a pair of lead shoes, and a hundred feet of hose. The only thing missing was the compressor, but these came up regularly in the clam shell. Bob refurbished one of these navy castoffs and was ready to go. Since neither he nor Frank had every been diving before, this venture became known as the "Gowdy Instant Deep-Sea Diving School." Many unlikely people, including me, became graduates simply by being bolted into the gear and thrown over the side. If you didn't panic, you got your diploma.

Judd gave up scrap-diving after awhile, and Gowdy was joined by another Alpine friend, Frank Ball. They bought a new boat at a Coast Guard surplus auction. She was a 32-foot harbor buoy-tender named Ballast Point. Built in 1906, she had been in continuous service in San Diego Bay. With a little bit of white paint, the boys changed her name to Ball Point. Gowdy and Ball performed other diving services besides scrap-diving. One of their steady clients was Tex Brock, who owned a bait barge in the bay. Once a year, they cleaned the accumulated marine growth off Brock's bait receivers. They also sold him anchors they had salvaged. one day they were at Brock's house and noticed he had a large local chart on a den wall on which he marked every obstruction he encountered while setting his nets. He did this so he would never set his nets there again; they would come up shredded if hey came up at all. On slow days in the bar, Gowdy and Ball would dive on these spots to see what they were.


There was one new mark off the ocean side of Silver Strand, which Tex had told them was a really big, bad one. When they finally got around to checking it some days later, Gowdy made a dip on it, came up, and yelled, "Jesus, Frank, it's a submarine!" The sub was lying on her side right inside the surf line, her bow toward the beach, stern seaward. A hatch just aft of her conning tower was wide open. Gowdy took an air hose down and tied it inside, then pumped air into the hull for several hours so they could stand up inside and walk around without cumbersome gear. They looked around and got some numbers from the manufacturers' plates so they could find out more about her. Later they took their information to the Navy and asked about the sub. After some weeks of checking they finally discovered it was the S37. Sometime toward the end of the war, she was being towed to Long Beach to be scrapped but had broken the tow just outside San Diego Harbor. It was a foggy night, as the story goes, and the tug lost her. She apparently just drifted into the beach. Since her after-hatch was open, she just filled with water and sank. Nobody every saw her again until Gowdy did.

The two men asked if they could salvage her, and initially, the navy said they didn't see why not. While the navy continued its deliberations, Gowdy and Ball went looking for a larger vessel and bought 52-foot, twin-screw, former navy LCM, which Gowdy christened Manfred after the TV cartoon character Might Manfred, the Wonder Dog. In the meantime, the Navy decided to put the submarine out on salvage bid, and someone bought the rights for $2000. The boys were upset and decided at least to get the easy part, the two bronze propellers.

Propellers are mounted on shafts on the keyway; then there is a big nut behind them. First the men had to remove the nut, then break the propeller loose from the keyway. The only way to do the latter is with explosives. They fabricated a big wrench and got the nuts off with the help of a "come-along," or hoisting lever, then looked into getting a permit to blast the propellers off. It involved a mountain of red tape, so they decided the hell with it, let's just do it. They wrapped the shafts just in front of the props with primer cord, then went topside and let it rip. A huge fountain of water erupted in front of Manfred. Hundreds of dead or stunned fish began floating to the surface. Soon every sea bird in the surrounding neighborhood was there. The sky was black with them. Here they were, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. No chance. Meanwhile, the props had slipped right off the shafts, so Gowdy and Ball hurriedly loaded them on Manfred and headed for the barn at flank speed, which to her was on the order of seven knots. They took the propellers directly to a scrap dealer, who bought them and put them on the next ship to Japan. Subsequent attempts to salvage S37 have all failed, and she still sits off Silver Strand, just where Gowdy found her.

In 1958 Bob Gowdy finished school and got a job as a physicist for the navy. Frank Ball graduated at about the same time and found work as an electronics engineer. They both decided to retire from scrap-diving and sold Manfred to another local diver. Shortly after this, I talked Gowdy into coming out of retirement. We both had families to support and needed the money. We picked up a new boat, an 18-foot, inboard skiff that had been a bait-net tender on a tuna clipper. All the tuna clippers at that time were converting from bait operation to purse seine nets, so skiffs were no longer necessary. You could buy one for $300, use it as long as it functioned, then buy a new one. They were truly expendable boats. We outfitted her with a diving ladder, compressor and horse, a small crane on the stern. Since the boat was so small compared to the 30-foot Manfred, we switched from deep-sea gear to a "hookah rig," with a scuba regulator, and wore wet suits, which by now were on the market. Gowdy and I worked together for about a year until he decided to retire again. I found a new partner, Bob Bradley, who had recently gotten out of the navy, where he had been a fighter pilot.


On a routine day, we would leave the dock early in the morning and head for a promising mooring. Upon arrival, we'd anchor up and put the scrap bucket over the stern. The scrap bucket consisted of a 25-gallon drum with lots of holes poked in it. We generally made two dives a day apiece, normally of one- to one and a half hours' duration. We rotated dives so one of us could rest and tend the other. The diver would swim down the bucket line, then pull his hose down taut and tie it to the bucket. This way he could always get back to the bucket by following his hose. Then he would start swimming around looking for scrap. When he found something, he would come back and drop it in the bucket. If he found a pile of scrap, he could always move the bucket over to it. At the end of the dive, he would blow the bucket to the surface, using a 30-gallon canvas bag attached to it, which he would fill with the air from his mouthpiece. Then we'd winch it aboard with the crane, dump the scrap into the boat, put the bucket back down, and the next diver would go down.

In the early days of scrap-diving, the city dumped all its sewage into the bay. Add to this, all the ships in the bay discharged their own sewage directly over the side, a very disconcerting thing when you were working downstream of a ship like a tender with a crew of several thousand. Visibility on the bottom was normally less than a foot. We contrived a Braille system: our tactile senses actually got so keen that we could separate different types of metals by touch — for instance, iron rusted, brass was coarse. Later the sewage outfall was put in on the ocean side of Point Loma, and visibility improved tremendously. On some days, you could see 20 feet or more. I can remember on those clear days marveling at all the thousands of blue-and-white Pyrex navy coffee cups that littered the bottom. Their coffee cup bills must have been staggering.

We salvaged only nonferrous metals, and these would come in various forms — there were valves, shafts, propellers, heat exchangers, fire-fighting nozzles, running lights, bells, plumbing fixtures, and various pipes. For example, during her six-month tour in the bay, one submarine tender might perform dozens of overhauls. The submarine engines were 16-cylinder monsters, and all the rod and main bearings and wrist pins were red brass with a babbit lining. The used parts were carried out of the sub and piled on deck. At night some sailor would throw them over the side, and you'd always find them in neat, conical piles on the bottom. Each pile was worth about $125 to us. Sometimes we'd find four or five piles a day, plus hundreds of pounds of other goodies. On the average, we made about a hundred dollars per day apiece; our best day's take was more than $1000.

We also found crates of new dishes, crates of new knives, forks and spoons, chain hoists, compressors, tools, furniture, and vises. One day I found a ladies' urinal. We had never seen anything like this and were puzzled until a woman enlightened us. I bolted it to the side of my house and used it as a planter. There were lots of wallets, always with no money, and they were invariable weighted down with something heavy before they were dropped. Occasionally, we'd find bundles of letters, also weighted down. They were soggy and hard to read and, again, were always anthologies of romance, from those full of young lovers' early dreams to the last "Dear John" letters.

Off Shelter Island, the anchors of the mooring buoys were generally covered with lobsters. When we worked these moorings, we could pick up 30 to 40 lobsters a day. What we couldn't eat, we'd sell or trade with eager grocers. There were very few problems with other sea creatures. I had a gray whale swim over me when I was down, but except for the sudden darkness, I didn't even notice. Occasionally, we'd see a bay shark; these are rare but are considered dangerous. In the early days of our Braille system, we'd sometimes grab the tail of one of the huge rays that lie on the bottom. These triangular-shaped monsters can grow to six feet across, and when grabbed, they'd come out of the mud, wings flapping. Your heart just stopped. After the bay sewage was cleared up, we saw lots of electric torpedo rays, capable of producing jolts of electricity up to 600 volts. Luckily, we never grabbed one of those.

Scrap-diving was not entirely without its hazards, although none of us was ever severely injured. I was the only one to get the bends, which occurs when a person decompresses too rapidly after a long period under pressure. It happened on a cold winter day when we were working on the westernmost destroyer tender mooring, which at 16 feet, is the deepest one in the bay. I made the last dive of the day, my second, and felt a sharp pain in my shoulder upon surfacing. Later that evening, I had to be treated at the recompression chamber at the Underwater Demolition Team facility on Coronado. When I told the staff I had made two 90-minute dives to 60 feet with only two hours of surface time between them and that we did this every weekend, they couldn't believe we hadn't been bent many times before.

During the entire scrap-dicing era, we had the bay pretty much to ourselves. The only serious competition was from some local abalone drivers. When the abalone season closed, which at that time was from January through March, a few of them would come into the bay to make money from scrap. They were good drivers and would pick up a lot. They must have preferred diving outside for abalone, though, because as soon as the season reopened, they'd be gone.

Toward the end of the '60s, the navy closed the 32nd Street Naval Station repair facility and moved it to Long Beach. This opened up a tremendous amount of dock space, and the destroyer tenders moved into the piers there. The submarine tenders moved into their new facility on the seaward side of Ballast Point. Slowly the other ships found dock space and left the moorings. Most of the buoys themselves were removed from the bay. We continued to work the old mooring for about a year, until the pickings got really slim. Then, recognizing the end of the scrap-diving era, we decided to give it up.

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