November 1997 the Naval Institute Press published Ellsberg's biography,
Salvage Man, by John D. Alden. I had been working on cataloging
Ellsberg's papers since 1982 and had completed over 12,000 pages
and 1,000 photos for Alden's research. Due to the high price of
paper at the time, and perhaps the wealth of information, they made
Alden cut the book by nearly one-third. Much important material
wasn't included, so this website will present as much of the "lost"
material as possible. Unfortunately, too, the NIP only printed 1,500
copies and did no publicity, so that within two years the book was
out of print. Alden and I hope to republish it in conjunction with
the republication of some of Ellsberg's best known works.
Here is the Naval Institute Press' publication announcement:
Few American naval officers have been as unconventional as Edward
Ellsberg and still managed to rise to the rank of rear admiral.
This probing biography shows Ellsberg time and again confronting
the Navy's conservatism, service politics, and professional jealousies
to literally salvage the unsalvageable. Author John Alden vividly
describes Ellsberg's first public success in 1926 when he raised
the sunken submarine S-51. Two years later he made headlines
again during an attempt to save six men trapped in the S-4.
In 1941 Ellsberg managed to refloat two Italian dry docks that
everyone considered unsalvageable. Then, as Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's
salvage officer for North Africa, he unblocked the sabotaged port
of Oran, raised more dry docks, and rescued torpedoed ships. In
1944 he was instrumental in preparing the artificial harbors that
made the Normandy landings a success. These World War II accomplishments
earned Ellsberg the Order of the British Empire but only reluctant
notice from his own navy, although he exerted a lasting influence
on U.S. submarine recovery operations.
Taking full advantage of Ellsberg's extensive collection of papers
and archives on both sides of the Atlantic, this insightful study
is the first to focus on the determined admiral. A man of many talents,
Ellsberg also published a number of books, including the very popular
On the Bottom, which brought the story of salvaging to public
John D. Alden enlisted in the Naval Reserve in 1942, attended midshipman's
school, and made three war patrols in the southwest Pacific on the
USS Lamprey. He later served on the submarine Sea Cat
and the aircraft carrier Palau before becoming an engineering
duty officer. In that capacity he filled a variety of positions
at the Electronic Supply Office, the Office of the Supervisor of
Shipbuilding at Groton, San Francisco Naval Shipyard, the Bureau
of Ships, and Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Following his retirement
from active duty in 1965, Commander Alden was employed by Engineers
Joint Council as director of manpower activities for thirteen years
and then from 1978 to 1987 as accreditation director at the Accreditation
Board for Engineering and Technology.
Alden's long-standing interest in naval affairs and ship histories
has been evidenced in many articles published in the U.S. Naval
Proceedings, Naval History, and other maritime journals.
Four of his earlier books have been published by the Naval Institute
Press: Flush Decks and Four Pipes, The American Steel
Navy, The Fleet Submarine in the U.S. Navy, and U.S.
Submarine Attacks During World War II. In 1994, he was awarded
a research grant from the U.S. Office of Naval History to work on
this biography of the late Rear Admiral Edward Ellsberg, whose salvage
exploits had made him one of the author's boyhood heroes.
A resident of Delmar, New York, Commander Alden remains active
in civic, church, and Boy Scout affairs and enjoys traveling with
his wife throughout the United States and abroad.
The following are some of the book reviews that may be of interest:
Review 1: Undersea Quarterly, Spring
1999, Bill Galvani
Review 2: The Northern Mariner, Canadian
Nautical Research Society, January 1999, Ian Buxton
Review 3: Naval War College Review,
Autumn 1999, Frank C. Mahncke
Review 4: Sea History, Summer 1998,
Review 5: Historical Diver, Spring
1999, Reviewer Unknown
Go to TOP
Salvage Man: Edward Ellsberg and the U.S. Navy, John Alden's
biography of Navy salvage officer Edward Ellsberg, at times races
along like a suspense-filled thriller. Ellsberg's career ascent
from Naval Academy midshipman to rear admiral contained almost all
the elements of an action-adventure movie: courage and a willingness
to take personal risks; impossible accomplishments under unbearable
circumstances; wartime danger; technical competence and innovation;
and political controversy.
John Alden is well qualified to write about Edward Ellsberg. An
experienced submarine officer and author of authoritative works
on U.S. submarines, he possesses a comprehensive understanding of
the Navy and its policies and politics during Ellsberg's era. Alden
had access to Ellsberg's voluminous correspondence with his wife
and other people. He has used this material well to give the reader
an insight into Ellsberg's thoughts and dreams. Salvage Man
is handsomely printed and the book has an excellent index. Alden's
selection of photographs compliments the book well and helps the
reader visualize the dangers and difficulties associated with salvage.
Alden has written an authoritative biography which brings much-overdue
attention to a man who made superb contributions to Navy salvage
in peacetime and to his nation in time of war.
When Edward Ellsberg graduated first in the Class of 1914 at Annapolis,
his career could have gone in many directions. Following his initial
assignment aboard the battleship Texas, the Navy sent Ellsberg
to Massachusetts Institute of Technology for postgraduate training
in naval architecture. During WWI he was reassigned to the Brooklyn
Navy Yard, but at war's end he returned to MIT and received a master's
degree in 1920. He also made a significant career change by leaving
the line officer corps and becoming a naval constructor. Alden's
analysis of the discrimination against constructors by the Navy
is perceptive and revealing, and though Ellsberg loved the engineering
work in which he was engaged, he felt this discrimination keenly.
At the Boston Navy Yard in his first assignment as a constructor,
Ellsberg proved to be an active, take-charge officer who did not
avoid confrontation or controversy when he felt he was right. Despite
the doubts of his seniors, he designed an innovative method for
launching large ships which proved effective.
Ellsberg's next assignment took him to the New York Navy Yard in
1924 where he showed brilliance and perseverance in solving ventilation
problems on the passenger liner Leviathan. His career took
another major direction change in September 1925 when the submarine
USS S-51 (SS 162) sank after being struck by the steamer
City of Rome. The Navy determined to raise the sunken submarine
and Ellsberg, who had no experience in such matters, volunteered
for the job.
Heading the salvage team was Captain E. J. King for whom Ellsberg
worked directly as salvage officer. The salvage of S-51 took
10 long months during which Ellsberg and the salvage team battled
against inadequate resources, a shortage of experienced deep-sea
divers, primitive equipment, and uncooperative weather. During the
operation Machinist Mate Lomie Waldern invented what became known
as the "Falcon nozzle," which greatly facilitated underwater
removal of mud and debris. Ellsberg, who realized the importance
of doing what your men had to do, became the first naval officer
to qualify as a deep-sea diver. Ellsberg said, "If I was going
to control the diving operation on the bottom of the sea, the bottom
of the sea was where I belonged."
Recognition came in different forms. Ellsberg established a reputation
as an expert in submarine salvage, and he received the Distinguished
Service Medal for his innovations and hard work. Perhaps more significantly,
the character of the man was measured by the comment of deep-sea
diver Francis Smith who shook his hand at the end of the operation
and said "There isn't one of that bunch of divers, Mr. Ellsberg,
who wouldn't go to hell for you!"
The loss and salvage of S-51 attracted considerable press
attention and gave Ellsberg the opportunity to start speaking and
writing about the Navy and salvage work. Naval ethics of the time
held that an officer should not use his experience to lecture or
write for profit, and Ellsberg came under much criticism for this
employment. A change in the law regarding naval promotions resulted
in severe inequities which would have required Ellsberg, as a promotion-eligible
and highly competent naval constructor, to wait years for promotion
until his line officer running mate also became eligible for promotion.
A man of Ellsberg's abilities could not wait for the bureaucracy
to reward merit, and he resigned in 1926 and started work for the
Tide Water Oil Company.
In the late 1920s Ellsberg began a long and prolific career as
a writer of naval history and fiction, beginning with On the
Bottom in 1929; an account of the salvage of S-51, it
became a best-seller. A subsequent book, Pigboats, published
in 1931, was made into the movie Hell Below by MGM studios.
Ellsberg resigned from Tide Water in 1935 and continued to write
Ellsberg re-entered the Navy on December 8, 1941. His return to
the Navy was not without controversy and some people suggested he
should not be re-commissioned but, as Admiral Nimitz said of him,
"If the Navy ever needed a salvage officer, they need one now!"
By March 1942 Ellsberg was in Massawa, Ethiopia, with the responsibility
for clearing the port and returning the dry-dock and ship repair
facilities to service. If conditions of the S-51 salvage
had been difficult, the situation in Massawa was almost beyond belief.
The Italians had sabotaged and destroyed facilities and sunk ships
as they exited the port. The summer heat and humidity on the Red
Sea were extreme, with temperatures rising well above 100 degrees
to 145 in dry-docks to as high as 160 on steel deckplates. Equipment
was damaged, decrepit, or non-existent. Experienced personnel were
in short supply. Ellsberg received no support from the U.S. Navy
and worked in a patchwork quilt of command involving the Royal Navy
and the U.S. Navy.
Ellsberg threw his heart, mind, and body into clearing the port.
He drove himself and his men to accomplish seemingly impossible
feats, often at great personal risk. He drew heavily on his own
experience as a diver to plan and often to accomplish personally
very difficult work. The results showed him to be a man of action,
intelligence, and personal courage. Alden's description of Ellsberg's
activities is among the most gripping of the book, and reading his
passages in the comfort of one's home scarcely allows one to appreciate
work under the Red Sea sun. Ellsberg succeeded in restoring Massawa's
capability as an important regional repair facility but at great
personal cost. He was subsequently to receive the Legion of Merit
for his successes at Massawa.
The Allied invasion of North Africa and capture of port facilities
demanded more harbor clearance and ship repair work, and Ellsberg
went without a break from Massawa to North Africa, arriving in November
1942. Here he encountered many of the same problems of supply, equipment,
personnel, and divided military control that he had experienced
in Ethiopia. Additionally, he encountered considerable professional
animosity from the Navy's senior salvage officer, Commodore William
A. Sullivan. Ellsberg worked frenetically clearing harbors and salvaging
torpedoed ships. His successes were great (he later received a second
Legion of Merit) but the physical strain was too much for a man
in his fifties. Ellsberg was hospitalized in February 1943 and he
returned to the United States for recuperation and shipbuilding
responsibilities in New York.
Ellsberg was back in Europe in 1944 with a posting to London for
duties involving the invasion of Normandy, and he made it to the
beaches 6 days after the landings of June 6, but he was soon back
in London and then back in the U.S. by September 1944. His final,
brief naval assignment took him to Cleveland as supervisor of shipbuilding
for small craft, but he was not well - his work in the Red Sea had
drained him - and in March 1945 he was released from active duty.
Following the war Ellsberg continued to write articles and books,
including Under the Red Sea Sun, an account of the salvage
at Massawa. He also consulted for shipbuilding companies. An active,
vigorous man, he enjoyed traveling and sailing in his sloop. He
passed away in 1983 with the rank of rear admiral.
Alden's biography of Edward Ellsberg will surely motivate any reader
to seek Ellsberg's books for a first-person account of some of the
most difficult Navy salvage projects ever completed.
Go to TOP
The Northern Mariner
Canadian Nautical Research Society
The name of Edward Ellsberg is well known in marine salvage circles.
He made his name as the American naval officer who successfully
salvaged sunken submarines and wartime wrecks when others said it
could not be done. Ellsberg, who died in 1983, had written so extensively
about his work at the time, that author John Alden's initial reaction
when asked to write his biography was that there was little left
to be said about him. But a family archive revealed a wealth of
further information, not only on his exploits, but on the man himself,
not least many hundreds of letters written to his wife Lucy of sixty
years. As a result, Alden has been able to marshal a wealth of source
material to go beyond Ellsberg's somewhat self-publicising writings
to present a well-rounded portrait of the man and his work. Himself
a former naval engineer officer, Alden is not only sympathetic to
Ellsberg and the difficulties he encountered but can explain clearly
the technical features of his work, and why he was successful where
others were not (He had the irritating habit to the authorities
of being proved right most of the time, based on sound technical
knowledge and backed up by a robust personality. But he often chafed
under a lack of recognition and long delayed promotions).
Ellsberg was one of very few Jews to be accepted into the US Naval
Academy in 1910. Coming near the top in almost all of his studies
(which had a strong engineering emphasis) he was encouraged to remain
a line (executive) officer, but preferred to transfer into Naval
Construction. Work in Brooklyn and Boston Navy Yards gave him opportunities
to shine both in supervising new construction (USS Texas;
Ed: USS Tennessee) and in repairing older ships (liner Leviathan's
serious problems with her boilers and ventilation). He made his
name raising the submarine S-51 which had sunk in 1925 after a collision
- the experience formed the foundation of extensive lecturing and
writing in popular journals.
Frustrated in the peacetime Navy, he went into the oil industry,
but remained in the US Naval Reserve. It was in that capacity that
his most valuable work was done from 1941 onwards. Under appalling
conditions, the captured Italian naval base of Massawa was brought
back into operation at a critical time when Rommel was approaching
Alexandria, by raising block-ships and salvaging three floating
docks. Later he carried out similar work in French North African
ports, though he was hampered by uncooperative and technically illiterate
authorities, civilian and military, and starved of men and equipment
(the Pacific war took priority). Photographs give an impression
of the scale of work on damaged ships and an idea of Ellsberg's
Sent to England to advise on preparations for the D-Day landings,
he found himself in a difficult situation with little authority,
as the British had prime responsibility for the naval side of operations.
Responsibility for the provisions of the two Mulberry harbours was
shared between the Admiralty and the War Office, which had not recognised
the scale of the problem or the resources required for deploying
the Phoenix concrete breakwater caissons. Once completed, these
were grounded off Selsey Bill, to be refloated after the beachhead
was secured and towed to Normandy. Ellsberg was the catalyst that
finally got the authorities to recognise the scale of the salvage
operation required to pump out and refloat over a hundred caissons
in a matter of a few days - without which the whole artificial port
concept would have been jeopardised.
Alden's book is well researched and referenced, providing an easily
read and understood account of a talented engineer well aware of
his capabilities. Both Ellsberg's successes and his setbacks are
fully described. If you have already read any of Ellsberg's books
(such as Under the Red Sea Sun or The Far Shore) you
will want to see the broader picture that Alden presents. Even if
you have not, you will still find yourself turning rapidly to each
successive chapter to find out what happens next in a well-paced
Go to TOP
Naval War College Review
Frank C. Mahncke
To this day, I keep and treasure battered copies of Commander Edward
Ellsberg's books On the Bottom, Men Under the Sea,
and Under the Red Sea Sun - books I read and read again as
a teenager. I devoured these stirring accounts of deep-sea salvage,
reading by flashlight under the blanket after lights-out, an environment
not unlike the tunneling under the sunken S-51 so vividly described
by Ellsberg. I often wondered who this "Commander Ellsberg
of the Navy" was. Now, thanks to John Alden's sterling biography,
Born in Colorado in 1891, Ellsberg graduated from Annapolis in
1914, at the head of his class academically but low in military
efficiency. In his career he was a "can do" engineer,
salvage master, inventor, writer, lecturer, and public figure both
in the Navy and in civilian life.
Author of thirteen (Ed: 17) popular books on marine salvage and
countless articles for the technical and popular press, Ellsberg
became well known for his technical commentary on maritime and naval
engineering matters. He left the Navy twice, frustrated by its bureaucratic
ways and its displeasure with his public stature. Twice he returned
when the Navy needed him.
The salvage and raising of the submarine S-51 first brought
national recognition. The S-51 had been rammed off Block
Island, Rhode Island, in September 1925, losing all but three hands.
At the time, the Navy had no deep-water salvage capability and was
dependent on maritime contractors. Ellsberg convinced the commandant
of the Brooklyn Navy Yard that he could raise the S-51 with
Navy divers and ships. The Navy would salvage its own.
Lying far over on its side in 132 feet of storm-tossed winter water,
the S-51 presented formidable salvage problems, Ellsberg,
who had qualified as a diver, rounded up about all the divers the
Navy had and set to work. First, they had to clear the tangled topside
rigging from the submarine. To do this Ellsberg developed an underwater
cutting torch, which he later patented and that became the standard
for underwater work. Next, the divers bored tunnels under the boat,
using high-pressure hoses to flush out the silt. Through these tunnels
chains were passed and attached to flooded pontoons, which, when
blown full of air, would lift the S-51. All this sounds deceptively
easy, but it was cruel, hard work. The weather was miserable, tunnels
collapsed on the divers, the pontoons would lift unevenly, and the
submarine would slip back to the bottom. Finally, in the summer
of 1926, the S-51 was brought to the surface and towed back
to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where the bodies of its crew were recovered
for burial. In 1929 Ellsberg wrote his first book, On the Bottom,
about the salvage of the S-51. It made him a public figure.
Ellsberg was not, however, a popular figure in the interwar U.S.
Navy: he received too much public attention and was too outspoken.
In 1926, denied a meritorious promotion and told that he would have
to wait another eight years, he resigned and began a new career
as a petroleum engineer and consultant. He returned to active duty
briefly in December 1927, to assist with the salvage of the submarine
S-4, which had been rammed and sunk off Cape Cod.
On 8 December 1941 Ellsberg again rejoined the Navy and was sent
to the Red Sea to clear the wrecked ships left by Axis forces to
block the port of Massawa, Ethiopia (now Eritrea). Clearing and
opening the port involved hammering together a workforce of British,
American and Italian technicians, rebuilding the port's machine
shops, and refloating a sunken drydock and several ships. Ellsberg
raised the drydock in nine days and was promoted to captain - all
this in fetid heat and in the face of obstinate British and American
In November 1942 he was rewarded for his accomplishments at Massawa
with a transfer to the North African coast, where he cleared the
ports of Oran and Algiers for Operation Torch. Here he conquered
once again the problems of Massawa, with the Vichy French added
From North Africa he was brought to England to advise on the Phoenix
Project, huge concrete caissons that were to be sunk off Normandy
to form breakwaters for artificial harbors to be constructed immediately
after D-Day. It appears that Ellsberg was less happy than in the
Red Sea and North Africa, for he was not a man well suited to advising
with tact and diplomacy other engineers who were about to get into
After the war, Ellsberg returned to private life as a consulting
engineer, eventually retiring to Maine, where he continued to lecture,
write, and stay in the public eye. He died in 1983 at ninety-one.
Ellsberg's biographer, John Alden, is a former submariner, naval
engineer, and author of several previous books for the Naval Institute
Press. In 1984 (Ed: 1994) he received a grant from the Office of
Naval History to write Salvage Man.
Alden paints a portrait of an extraordinarily competent, capable,
"hands on" officer who was tenacious, focused, and knew
exactly what needed to be done and how to do it. Ellsberg was blunt
and direct. He built organizations where none existed, often with
little support or even against serious resistance from higher authorities.
He was a "shade tree" mechanic and a robust field engineer
who taught men how to do their jobs under difficult circumstances,
leading by doing himself. At the age of fifty-one, he was diving
on wrecked ships, placing pumps and explosives. In his own words,
"It never pays to quit until you're dead."
Go to TOP
"Ship torpedoed. Get to sea!" So reads a typical message
to then Commander Ellsberg in a working day (or night) in his assignments
as salvage leader in the European Theater of Operations in World
War II. This experience carried him from raising sunken wrecks in
the harbors of Abyssinia, liberated by the British from Italy, to
similar work in harbors taken by the British 8th Army in North Africa,
and finally to the beaches of Normandy, where he cleared up an unholy
mess in the placement of the Phoenix caissons for Operation Mulberry
- the artificial harbors that enabled the Anglo-American-Canadian
armies to crack the wall of Hitler's Fortress Europe in the spring
I came to know Ellsberg's legendary feats from my father Alfred
Stanford, who served as Deputy Commander of the US Mulberry. Admiral
Cunningham, British commander in the Mediterranean, saw how Ellsberg's
methods worked, and also how he threw himself into the work in person,
and gave Ellsberg high marks, supporting him through all difficulties,
including those with US Navy commanders who resented Ellsberg's
abrasive ways. Fortunately, Cunningham was in England for the Normandy
invasion in 1944, and his urgent operational memo written just two-and-a-half
weeks before the invasion broke through the bureaucratic fog and
brought the matter of unusable Phoenix units to Winston Churchill's
attention, which finally led to action. This was Ellsberg's shining
moment, testing pumps that didn't function, taking no one's word
for anything, training emergency crews, and commandeering needed
Commander Alden's technical service in the US Navy enables him
to picture clearly and accurately the complex problems Ellsberg
dealt with in his Paul Bunyanesque way. This fine biography traces
Ellsberg's career from a tough childhood through graduating at the
top of his class from the US Naval Academy, and the salvage of the
sunken American submarine S-51 in the 1920s, into a leading role
in US Navy salvage in WWII. Alden brings this indomitable person
to life in these pages, without gilding any lilies. He carefully
compares different versions of critical events and catches the flavor
of Ellsberg's talk as well as the rhythm of his walk, and what my
father used to call the saintly simplicity of his character.
Go to TOP
When a ship needed raising, one tempestuous naval officer was the
man for the job.
Edward Ellsberg first attracted attention when he salvaged the
submarine S-51, rammed off Block Island in 1925. During World
War II he achieved distinction for raising scuttled floating dry
docks in the Red Sea. In and out of the Navy, Ellsberg was a man
of many talents. One of the most prolific authors ever to graduate
from the U.S. Naval Academy, his 17 books included several award
winners, and his stories appeared in popular magazines throughout
the 1930s and 1940s, enthralling many a young reader.
The son of Jewish refugees from czarist Russia, Ellsberg barely
met the height and weight requirements for admission to the Naval
Academy. He changed his name, Ned, to Edward as more befitting a
naval officer. Despite his diminutiveness, he won two medals in
fencing, wrote two prize essays, and won top honors in seamanship
and navigation. Although he was the top student in ordinance, two
gunnery awards went to rival classmates, the predominant theory
being that those prizes were diverted deliberately, lest Ellsberg
run off with every honor for the Class of 1914. He took great pride
in being the first Jewish midshipman to graduate at the top of his
Naval Academy class.
After a year on board the battleship Texas (BB-35), Ellsberg
studied naval architecture and marine engineering at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology (MIT). As the United States entered World
War I, he took charge of converting several seized German liners
into transports at the New York Navy Yard and was commended for
expediting repairs to the cruiser Huntington (CA-5). He rose
rapidly in the Construction Corps to the temporary rank of lieutenant
commander and became construction Superintendent for the battleship
Upon graduation from MIT in 1920, Ellsberg was ordered to the Boston
Navy Yard as a planning officer in the Hull and Engineering Departments.
His work ranged from submarines and destroyers to battleships and
ocean liners, he devised a new method to launch the destroyer tender
Whitney (AD-4), and he developed an improved system for the
shipboard distillation of fresh water. Cutbacks in the Navy forced
him to revert to the permanent rank of lieutenant, but in 1924 he
was again promoted to lieutenant commander and transferred to the
New York Navy Yard.
There he took part in the scrapping of two unfinished battleships
that had been canceled after the war. When the former German liner
Leviathan, then-flagship of the U.S. Merchant Marine, was
having ventilation problems after her conversion to oil, operators
turned to the Navy, which detailed Ellsberg to investigate. He and
an assistant, John Niedermair, (who became the Navy's chief ship
designer in World War II), not only solved the problems but also
identified a major deficiency in the forced-draft system for the
boilers and serious cracks in the ship's main deck. Ellsberg arranged
for repairs and supervised ventilation alterations so that the ship
never missed a scheduled trip.
He was hardly back at his regular job when the submarine S-51
was rammed and sunk in September 1925. From the rescue vessel Falcon
(ASR-2) he watched futile attempts to lift the wreck. He worked
out a salvaging plan and convinced his commandant, Rear Admiral
Charles P. Plunkett, to insist that the job be assigned to the New
York Navy Yard. Plunkett thereupon appointed Ellsberg to be the
salvage officer and Captain Ernest J. King, commander of the submarine
base at New London, to take charge of the operation. This was the
start of a life-long friendship between the austere King and the
The Navy had no existing salvage organization nor had anyone ever
raised so large a submarine, which was lying at a depth of 132 feet.
With ships, equipment, and divers from throughout the fleet, the
salvagers struggled to raise the hulk until winter weather set in.
Ellsberg then started a school to train more divers, including himself,
thereby becoming the first Construction Corps officer to qualify
as a deep-sea diver. By the time the S-51 was raised, he
had overcome a series of unprecedented technical problems, redesigned
the lifting pontoons, and invented an improved underwater cutting
torch. He warned the Navy that its submarines were unsafe and its
salvage organization inadequate, and he wrote a detailed report
that served as a bible for future submarine salvage operations.
As a result of their work on the S-51, King, Ellsberg, and
Lieutenant Henry Hartley of the Falcon received the Distinguished
Service Medal, the first time it was awarded for a peacetime exploit.
The Navy Department, however, rejected King's recommendation that
the other two be promoted. Ellsberg's immediate superior, Captain
Henry T. Wright, complained to Congressman Emanuel Celler, who introduced
legislation to promote the officers over the objections of the naval
establishment. In the meantime, Ellsberg had decided to resign from
the Navy to work as chief engineer of the Tide Water Oil Company.
Unfortunately, this controversy and charges that his speaking activities
were some how improper (later dismissed by the Secretary of the
Navy) soured his departure.
Ellsberg had hardly settled in his civilian job when in December
1927 the submarine S-4 was rammed off Cape Cod. Immediately,
he was sworn back into the Naval Reserve and rushed to the scene.
The nation was horrified as six trapped men tapped their final messages
on the steel hull, while Navy rescue ships tossed helplessly, prevented
by storms from sending divers down. At the risk of his own life,
Ellsberg inspected the hulk once the weather abated. He continued
to warn that official complacency and political penny-pinching were
making further submarine disasters inevitable. The Saturday Evening
Post serialized his book, On the Bottom, a dramatic account
of the raising of the S-51, and legislation to promote him
was revived and linked with a congressional submarine safety investigation.
Over repeated Navy objections, Congress finally promoted him to
commander in the Naval Reserve, and Congress and the Navy adopted
a submarine safety program.
As chief engineer of the Tide Water Oil Company until 1935, Ellsberg
patented several inventions, including a method for increasing the
yield of high-octane gasoline and a process for removing water from
lubricating oil. And his writings on the side sold well: Pigboats
was made into the 1933 motion picture "Hell Below."
By 1935 Ellsberg recognized that the rise of fascism and Nazism
in Europe, as democracies continued to disarm, was leading inevitably
to war. He resigned from his job and struck out on his own as an
engineering consultant, adding preparedness themes to his repertoire
of submarine salvage speeches.
Ellsberg was also preparing himself for active service by requesting
Naval Reserve training without pay. On 23 May 1939 he was on board
the aircraft carrier Ranger (CV-4) when the submarine Squalus
(SS-192) foundered off Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Once again, Ellsberg
rushed to the scene, only to be dismissed brusquely by the Navy.
When war broke out in Europe, his outspoken criticism of British
mistakes and U.S. unpreparedness renewed publicity. After an address
at Chicago in February 1940, some naval officers complained that
he violated a directive "discouraging" service personnel
from speaking or writing about the military situation. The Chief
of the Bureau of Navigation, Admiral Chester Nimitz, demanded that
he explain his actions and future intentions. In response, Ellsberg
promptly submitted his resignation and continued to speak out in
support of aid to the Allies. Barely a year later, Nimitz wrote
again, urging him to apply for a new commission. Ellsberg then approached
the head of the Bureau of Construction and Repair, and was given
the insulting advice that he was better suited for a position in
public information or in the defense industry.
Undeterred, he hastened to Washington the day after the Japanese
attack on Pearl Harbor and was sworn in as a lieutenant commander
for the fourth time in his career, accepting a position under the
Army Corps of Engineers to assist a Lend-Lease contractor in restoring
the demolished Italian naval base at Massawa, Eritrea, and clearing
the harbor of scuttled ships. Ernest J. King - at this time an admiral
and the Chief of Naval Operations - wished him well but told him
he could expect no help from the U.S. Navy; the Red Sea was an area
of British responsibility, and the Navy had its hands full in the
Plunging into his new job with characteristic energy, Ellsberg
embarked on a hair-raising voyage to Lagos, Nigeria, in a hastily
chartered merchant ship with inexperienced or incompetent officers
and a surly and rebellious crew. From there he flew to Massawa,
where he took charge of a floating dry dock the British had towed
from Persia and started servicing supply ships from the Mediterranean.
He then declared Naval Base Massawa in operation, even though it
was under the Army, serving mostly British ships, and the only naval
officer was Ellsberg.
In nine days, he and his crew raised a big Italian floating dry
dock that had been written off as unsalvageable. The head of the
Army mission, Major General Russell Maxwell, was so impressed that
he got the Navy to promote Ellsberg to captain. When his little
salvage ships finally straggled in from the United States, Ellsberg
put them to work raising sunken ships. Through heat and humidity
that the British claimed Europeans could not stand, in eight months
he re-floated four cargo ships, another dry dock, and a floating
crane; refurbished more than 80 supply ships; and repaired three
British cruisers in an undersized dry dock by lifting one end at
a time. The British were lavish in their praise but laggard in providing
the needed manpower. The press hailed his achievements as "the
miracle of Massawa." But the U.S. Navy simply ignored his existence.
After the destruction of port facilities at Oran, Casablanca, and
other seaports in the November 1942 Allied invasion of French North
Africa, General Dwight D. Eisenhower called Ellsberg from Eritrea
to become chief salvage officer for the western Mediterranean. Rushing
from port to port, he raised two more scuttled floating dry docks,
salvaged several torpedoed British warships and troop transports,
and opened the blocked harbor at Oran to Allied supply ships. The
Navy's reaction was to deny him salvage equipment that had been
sent to Casablanca, on the grounds that it was needed more urgently
for the capsized ex-French liner I in New York Harbor.
Sent home after being diagnosed with incipient heart failure in
February 1943, he went to the office of the Supervisor of Shipbuilding
in New York, where he inspected and expedited work on warships.
While there he was awarded the Legion of Merit for his achievements
at Massawa. His work in North Africa escaped the Navy's attention,
however, until Admiral King nominated him for a second Legion of
Merit. The British Admiralty named him a commander in the Order
of the British Empire.
Ellsberg soon saw the stateside job too tame and in April 1944
asked Admiral King for something closer to the front. In a few days
he was in London, helping to prepare top-secret artificial harbors
for the Normandy invasion. With D-Day only a few weeks off, Ellsberg's
intervention was instrumental in breaking a deadlock between the
Admiralty and the Royal Engineers, which threatened to jeopardize
the invasion. By mobilizing the entire salvage resources of the
United Kingdom, the Royal Navy barely managed to get the artificial
harbor units ready on time. Had they not been available, General
Eisenhower might have had to postpone the invasion.
Ellsberg rode one of the caissons to Normandy and helped unsnarl
wrecked landing craft and vehicles on the beach. When a storm two
weeks later temporarily crippled the flow of supplies, he was called
back to assess the damage at Omaha Beach. Although he and the officer
in charge were confident they could restore operations in a few
weeks, the installation was cannibalized to repair its British counterpart
Ordered home in September 1944, he reported to Cleveland, Ohio,
as Supervisor of Shipbuilding for the Lake Erie area. Fatigue was
catching up with him, however, and ship construction was winding
down, so Ellsberg asked to be relieved from active duty. On 3 April
1945 he returned to civilian life.
Not one to idle long, Ellsberg resumed his consulting and writing.
His book about Massawa, Under the Red Sea Sun, was an immediate
success, as were his later Cruise of the Jeannette and No
Banners, No Bugles - the story of his experiences in North Africa.
Consulting work continued to occupy him until 1958, and his final
book, The Far Shore, was published in 1960. He divided his
final years between Maine and St. Petersburg (Ed: St. Petersburg
Beach) Florida, and received honorary degrees from Bowdoin College
and the University of Maine; the University of Colorado had awarded
him a doctorate in engineering in 1929. During the 1960s Ellsberg
was invited to present awards to graduating recruits at the Great
Lakes Naval Training Station, to address officers at the Navy's
salvage school, and to speak at the launching of the guided-missile
frigate Talbot (FFG-4). Even his old service seemed finally
to appreciate the salvage man. He died on 24 January 1983, and the
Navy gave him its final tribute with a memorial service at the Naval
Air Station in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, after which his body
was laid to rest alongside those of his wife and daughter (Ed: daughter's
ashes were scattered in the ocean at Southwest Harbor, ME) in the
cemetery at Old Willimantic, Connecticut.
Go to TOP