Video: 1st black Navy diver dies

updated 7/26/2006 5:27:18 PM ET 2006-07-26T21:27:18

Carl M. Brashear, the first black U.S. Navy diver, who was portrayed by Cuba Gooding Jr. in the 2000 film "Men of Honor," died Tuesday. He was 75.

Brashear, a native of Sonora, Ky., died at the Naval Medical Center Portsmouth of respiratory and heart failure, the medical center said.

Brashear retired from the Navy in 1979 after more than 30 years of service. He was the first Navy diver to be restored to full active duty as an amputee, the result of a leg injury he sustained during a salvage operation.

In 1966, Brashear was tasked with recovering a hydrogen bomb that dropped into waters off Spain when two U.S. Air Force planes collided.

During the mission, Brashear was struck below his left knee by a pipe that the crew was using to hoist the bomb out of the water. Brashear was airlifted to a naval hospital where the bottom of his left leg was amputated to avoid gangrene. It later was replaced with a prosthetic leg.

The Navy was ready to retire Brashear from active duty, but he soon began a grueling training program that included diving, running and calisthenics.

"Sometimes I would come back from a run, and my artificial leg would have a puddle of blood from my stump. I wouldn't go to sick bay because they would have taken me out of the program," Brashear said in 2002 when he was inducted into the Gallery of Great Black Kentuckians. "Instead, I'd go hide somewhere and soak my leg in a bucket of hot water with salt in it — that's an old remedy I learned growing up."

Master diver in 1970
After completing 600-foot to 1,000-foot-deep dives while being evaluated for five weeks at the Experimental Diving Unit in Washington, D.C., Brashear became a master diver in 1970.

Brashear faced an uphill battle when he joined the Navy in 1948 at the age of 17, not long after the U.S. military desegregated.

"I went to the Army office, and they weren't too friendly," Brashear said in 2002. "But the Navy recruiter was a lot nicer. Looking back, I was placed in my calling."

Brashear quickly decided after boot camp that he wanted to become a deep-sea diver.

"Growing up on a farm in Kentucky, I always dreamed of doing something challenging," he said. "When I saw the divers for the first time, I knew it was just what I wanted."

In 1954, he was accepted and graduated from the diving program, despite daily battles with discrimination.

"Hate notes were left on my bunk,” he said. “They didn't want me to make it through the program.”

He went on to train for advanced diving programs before his 1966 incident.

Brashear married childhood friend Junetta Wilcox in 1952 and had four children — Shazanta, DaWayne, Phillip and Patrick — before their divorce in 1978. He later married Hattie R. Elam and Jeanette A. Brundage.

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