Thursday July 21
I met with Eric Tidwell today at the shop. From there we drove to Bainbridge Quarry to do a prep dive and for him to try out the equipment he would be using. Steve and Sue graciously opened the quarry for us to do our dives. My son Sam came along to meet Eric, keep me company on the long ride and to do a dive.
Eric went to it with no problem. We dropped down to the brisk 42 degree thermocline and he handled it well. I guess it runs in the family. We talked about how his grandfather must have felt diving into the 39 degree water on that February night in 1942 with no thermal protection. In an open raft he laid in the icy water for more than 5 hours, until being picked up by a patrol boat. We did a few more descents and played with some adjustments on his harness and felt ready for the next step. Eric has solid diving skills and we look forward to diving the Jacob Jones together. Eric had to go to Philadelphia from there to pick up his dad. His dad is a long time musician from Jacksonville, Florida. He was good friends with and would often jam with Ronnie Van Zant and a little band called the One Percent later band members became Lynyrd Skynyrd. When I told John Copeland, safety diver scheduled for the trip, he remarked that this adventure just keeps getting better and better...
After Eric departed to pick up his dad Sam and I did a dive. Last time Sam was in the water was when he was 14. He is a natural and we had great time. It was exciting for Sam to meet a real Super Hornet commander pilot. On Thursday afternoon on the way back from the quarry Sam and I got stuck in traffic just outside Philadelphia for a few hours... We had some time to discuss the day and how people like Eric protect our country and how we owe our thanks to them for their great service.
Friday July 22, 9 a.m.
After discussing the weather with Rusty Cassway and Brian Sullivan on Thursday, we concurred that Friday would be the best opportunity to make it to the Jacob Jones. A light southwest wind was predicted for Friday and the rest of the weekend was very iffy. I made arrangements to move our dive date. Everyone was able to switch around their schedule and make the move on very short notice. A 9 a.m. meeting was planned for the departure.
At the dock in Utsch's Marina on Friday morning, we met up with Eric, his dad Jim and the crew for the tribute dive. On board the Cape May Explorer were Rusty Cassway and Brian Sullivan owners of the boat; and the following divers John Copeland, Steve Lagreca, Bart Malone, and Steve Gatto. Also on board was a writer from the Ocean City Sentinel Ledger, Cape May Gazette to record first hand the event. After departing the inlet with a loaded boat of crew, cameras and gear, we were pushed out to the Jones by a southwest following seas as predicted. All seemed to be working as planned and we were all excited to be a part of such a historic dive.
On the way out I set up a dive plan for the group. Brian Sullivan and John Copeland would tie in. Then they would run a navigation line on the wreck. This way Eric and I could travel around the site and I would not have to be preoccupied navigating. I could focus on Eric and make sure he was comfortable during the dive. After the signal, that all was secured the second group would go in. I would enter first and wait for Eric on the surface, Steve Gatto would go next and get his camera gear lighting set and the Eric would enter. Steve Lagreca, Bart Malone and Rusty Cassaway would get Eric ready, and clean up and pull the hook after Eric was done his dive.
Of course there was some good story telling on the way out to the site. We listened as Eric explained what is like to land a supersonic jet on a moving aircraft carrier and we gathered around the table closely as Jim Tidwell told us how he was an eyewitness to Jimmy Hendrix's first time playing of the national anthem in a small Jacksonville night club...
At the site, again all went like clockwork. John and Brian set the hook and lines, I waited, Steve entered with camera, Bart, Steve and Rusty set up Eric and away we went. Surface visibility was a good forty feet, but as we got down to the bottom it diminished to about fifteen to twenty. We did a nice tour around the mid section around the engine, boilers and then stopped by a disintegrated torpedo. Here Steve Gatto took several pictures of Eric. We moved to a collapsed boiler where a lobster was tucked back in the hole and I signaled to Eric to look where my light shone on it's large orange crusher and carapace. A few moves in and around the wreck gave us a good tour. At the final minutes of the dive I tossed a small lobster in front of Eric. He reached for the little bug as it quickly darted back into a crevice. It was time to call the end of the dive, so I signaled to Eric. We shook hands to the success of our visit and ascended to the warm waters to decompress.
The dive went off without a hitch. We safely documented the grandson of a World War II survivor returning to the site where his heroic grandfather battled for his life. It was very moving for all of us just being there.
Back on the Explorer, Brian grilled up some lobster and burgers as we enjoyed a nice ride in chatting over war, music and dive stories. All in all it was a fine day to pay tribute to the Tidwell family. Eric, Jim, their aunts, uncles, their children and grandchildren that appreciate life dearly because Joseph Paul Tidwell was able to survive that horrific sinking in February, 1942. We as Americans should never forget the suffering and ultimate price that others have paid for or freedom.