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Frogmen salvage sunken treasure and stabilise space capsules

Posted in Historical articles, Sea, Space, Weapons, World War 2 on Thursday, 3 October 2013

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This edited article about frogmen originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 417 published on 10 January 1970.

Salvage frogman, picture, image, illustration

A frogman discovering the long-lost wreck of the Girona by Andrew Howat

What is the link between a frog croaking in a village pond and Apollo II landing in the Pacific after its trip to the Moon? The answer is a frogman.

Every time an American space capsule returns to earth, United States Navy frogmen are rushed to the spot by helicopter to fit a buoyancy collar on the capsule, which acts as a lifebelt round its base. This has been standard practice ever since 1961, when an invaluable capsule sank.

It would be claiming too much to say that frogmen owe their existence to the humble frog. Friends of the duck might be among the first to object, because the flippers, which are one of the trademarks of frogmen, were inspired by the webbed feet that so many animals use for swimming. Yet as the frogman swims swiftly underwater in his rubber suit, his legs and long flippers make him look very like a frog with its legs stretched out when swimming or leaping in the air.

The story of the frogman dates from the Second World War. Just before the war, underwater swimming as a sport, using “swim-fins,” was beginning to be popular where the water was warm enough. When war broke out in 1939, methods were considered for attacking enemy shipping in harbours by stealth. The Italian Navy experimented with midget craft of every sort, including “human torpedoes” and successfully damaged two British warships in Alexandria Harbour in 1941. Underwater swimmers were used by the Italians, but it was the British who invented the frogman’s distinctive suit.

They studied Italian successes. Flippers were clearly essential. Men using them can not only swim faster, but also can more easily dive down or shoot up to the surface. To combat bitterly cold water a suit of rubber sheeting was developed and, with new oxygen breathing apparatus the underwater gear was complete. It was given exhaustive tests in a closely guarded swimming bath. One look at the new costume left no-one in any doubt as to what its wearer’s name should be. The frogman was born! An extra bonus was that even very ordinary swimmers became really expert underwater because of the flippers.

Frogmen proved invaluable. They formed underwater demolition teams and destroyed obstacles in invasion areas. The invasion of Europe in 1944 would have been held up without them. They cleared minefields in advance, then cleared captured harbours. This meant that armies and supplies could be rushed to the battle zones. A thousand frogmen were in action before the American invasion of the Japanese-held island of Okinawa in 1945, working for three days in very cold water.

In peacetime, frogmen have added salvage operations to their other roles – and police work as well.

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