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"A Classic: U.S. Navy Mark V Helmet"

By Leslie Leaney, American Representative

The Historical Diving Society

    Of all the diving helmets manufactured, none commands more widespread public interest and attention than the United States Navy Mark V. It was the U.S. Navy's primary diving helmet from its creation in 1915-16 through to recent years, and many ex-Navy divers entered the commercial diving industry using it. It was the standard helmet for diver training in schools around the middle of the century, and it is also prized by collectors internationally.

The key man in the Mark V story is U.S. Navy Gunner G.D. Stillson. In 1912 he submitted a report to the Bureau of Construction and Repair soundly condemning the U.S. Navy's methods of diving and its equipment. Stillson suggested that the Navy could do a lot worse than follow the examples set by the Royal Navy who, in 1906-7, had undertaken a long series of diving tests, the results of which make "diving in great depths of water practical and safe." These tests also produced the 1907 Admiralty Diving Manual.

Fortunately the U.S. Navy authorities agreed with the Gunner, and in 1914 he assembled a group of U.S. Navy divers and various diving apparatus. His group then set about a series of tests, the results of which would eventually standardize diving in the U.S. Navy and produce the 1916 U.S. Navy Diving Manual. But prior to the publication of the diving manual, Stillson produced a comprehensive and landmark document: The Report on Deep Diving Tests 1915, and it is in the pages of this document that the Mark V is born.

At the time of Deep Diving Tests the Navy was using commercial helmets manufactured by Morse and Schrader. The Morse catalogs of 1904 and 1910 describe certain models of their equipment as "Navy Standard." Stillson was swift in addressing this issue calling it "misapplied" because "a standard diving apparatus for the Navy does not exist at the present time." He was soon to correct the situation.

In 1914, through trial and error Stillson and his divers test dove not only the Morse and Schrader helmets, but equipment from England's Siebe Gorman and Germany's Draeger. With the knowledge gained from these dives and input from various Navy and commercial divers, Stillson arrived at a set criteria that he felt was essential to produce the best all around diving helmet for the U.S. Navy.

A diagram of the helmet appeared in the report with the notation "helmet for diving apparatus." This was the embryo U.S. Navy Mark V and it is not known if any helmets of this particular design entered production. The design went through various modifications, and evolved into the helmet that appears in the 1916 U.S. Navy Diving Manual above the title "Diving Helmet Mark V." Some of these transitional modifications are as follows.

1. The bonnet of the original helmet had been designed slightly larger than the helmets in use at that time, primarily to accommodate the diver's communication headset. No external transceiver housing is mounted on the original design. Stillson used the diver's headset with two telephone receivers, one for each ear, and a diver's transmitter located at the lower left side of the faceplate. The spit cock would eventually be located in this area and the diver's transmitter would be moved up to a housing on the upper side of the face plate.

2. The placing of the spit cock next to the exhaust control handle gives the original design a very cluttered appearance. With the aforementioned relocation of the spit cock, the exhaust tube was extended to the front of the helmet.

Positioning of the exhaust control was a major item of concern among professional and Navy divers. Responding to Stillson's 1914 questionnaire, he found that they "were a unit in condemning the location of the regulating escape valve."

My favorite comment comes from one S. Jacobs of the Gunners Workshop, Washington Navy Yard. He suggests the location of the valve be at the front right side of the helmet, "So it can be operated by the diver without his trying to be an acrobat."

Barnum & Bailey's recruitment office may have been dealt a severe blow when Stillson incorporated Jacobs' very practical suggestion. As a means of consolation to the Navy divers, he delivered them a little something they could really sink their teeth into. The chin button.

3. The original design air inlet elbow and communication/lifeline elbow are set at an angle away from the center of the helmet so that the respective hose and cable would not cross at the back of the breast plate.

The Diving Helmet Mark V that appears in the 1916 diving manual has these elbows angled vertically to the helmet.

In actual production of the U.S. Navy Mark V, these elbows would exchange positions and be angled towards the center of the helmet, thus allowing the hose and cable to cross the back of the breastplate and pass under the diver's arm pits.

4. An extra protective bar was added both horizontally and vertically to the side view port guards. The protective grill on the face plate was rotated 45 degrees.

5. Stillson recommended "hinged circular fair leaders for hose and lifeline" be attached to the neck ring of the breastplate instead of "the present type of eyepads." These leaders look pretty flimsy in the original diagram and were one of the few of Stillson's recommendations that were not incorporated. The eyepads stayed.

6. The breastplate became deeper and apparently a little narrower at the shoulder. Also worth noting are the following items.

A. It is assumed that the Mark V dumbbell locking device was part of the original design as no other mechanism can be located.

B. A small brass bar was eventually located between the left side of the faceplate and the left view port. On later Mark V helmets it was apparently used to secure anodes or for securing the welding face plate retaining clip.

C. An elongated stud located at the lower front left of the breastplate was eventually used to secure the diver's air control valve.

D. The helmet was designed for use solely with a weight belt.

With these modifications incorporated, Morse and Schrader started production probably in 1916. The Diving Helmet Mark V, that appears in the 1916 Diving Manual is a Morse. It uses the standard Morse manufacturers tag of that time, not a Mark V tag, and is numbered 2178 on the straps.

Among the earliest Mark V's confirmed by the Society members are Schrader H20 (1917) (Lyons), Schrader H31 dated July 2, 1917 (Bauer), Schrader H58 dated August 1, 1917 (Lyons), Morse 2195 (Leaney), Morse 2289 dated February 24, 1917 (Leaney). There are no doubt some earlier models than these and it is hoped that readers will share in this Society helmet detective work by recording the numbers and dates of Mark V helmets of any vintage.

For more information about The Historical Diving Society, write 2022 Cliff Dr. #119, Santa Barbara, CA 93109, or call (805) 963-661

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Last revised: July 07, 2001