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Navy honors officer 50 years after voyage to ocean depths

Don Walsh is 78 and the only person alive who has been to Challenger Deep -- at almost seven miles the deepest place in all the world's oceans. He tells the tale of the bathyscaphe Trieste's dive as if it happened last week, with the wonder of a man who has been to a mystical place.

Walsh, then a submarine officer, heard about the Trieste when it was delivered to a Navy installation in San Diego, where he had a drab job aboard a sub tender. The Trieste needed sub officers to join Piccard's son Jacques, who came with the vessel as a key adviser. Walsh, sensing opportunity, volunteered. "I was a mariner," he said. "I was a sailor."

He first saw the Trieste disassembled on a barge. "It looked like an explosion in a boiler factory," he said. It didn't look much better assembled. It was essentially a stubby submarine but with the propellers topside and floodlights on the bottom.

In January 1960, the Trieste was towed to the ocean site above Challenger Deep, a hole in the Mariana Trench south of Guam. The "deep" is named for the British vessel HMS Challenger, which found it in 1951. Walsh, on a destroyer escort, rendezvoused at the site with Jacques Piccard, who was aboard the tugboat towing the Trieste from Guam.

But Walsh said the exact spot above the hole was uncertain, and "we didn't have any deep depth sounders."

So before the Trieste arrived, Navy scientists detonated explosives in the water to see how long it took the sound to echo off the bottom. "Basically, 12 seconds is deeper than seven seconds," Walsh said. Stopwatches were used to measure the time from the detonation to the moment the echo came back to the ship's fathometer. "Boom, it goes off," Walsh said. "Start the stopwatch. Then you hear the bang come back, and you stop it."

Descent into the deep

The descent began at 8:23 a.m., according to a book Jacques Piccard co-wrote a year later, "Seven Miles Down." The men had a change of clothes to replace garments that got wet and 15 chocolate bars for sustenance. The sphere, inside, was about 38 cubic feet, "which is the same as a large household refrigerator," Walsh said, "and about the same temperature."

The trip down and back, with 20 minutes on the bottom, would take all day, about 4 1/2 hours down and 3 1/2 back up.

When they started down, the light began to fade within a few hundred feet, Walsh said. "You go to shades of gray," he said, "and finally, it's just black." It was quiet. Piccard wrote of the hiss of oxygen and the hum of electronics. Walsh said the structure itself made noise. "It kind of groans and creaks as it's adjusting to the increasing pressure," he said.

There were minute leaks, Piccard wrote, that came and went. There was the peculiar "snowfall" of bioluminescent particulates, which seemed to flow up as the Trieste went down. "You're passing through them," Walsh said. "They're not moving -- you are."

The crack, in a secondary window, came with "a great big bang," he said. "Shook the whole thing." But nothing else happened, "so we decided just to continue."

As they approached the bottom, the water grew brighter from the reflection of their floodlights off the ocean floor.

Then a cloud of sediment began rising. But instead of drifting off, it lingered. Piccard spotted a flatfish that swam away. Walsh could see little. "It was like looking at a bowl of milk," he said. Gently, the Trieste settled on the floor of Challenger Deep.

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