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Retired Capt. Walter Mazzone, a decorated World War II submariner who later became legend as a pioneering medical officer in deep dive experiments that captured the nation’s attention, died Aug. 7 in San Diego. He was 96.
Mazzone was best known for his work with the Sealab program, three experiments in the 1960s that validated saturation diving — a technique that reduces the risk of decompression sickness and greatly advanced deep sea diving and rescue.
The project, often called “the underwater Right Stuff,” centered on aquanauts who spent weeks in underwater chambers. This experiment offered insights into psychological and physiological strains humans can experience and endure living in extended isolation.
Mazzone, who conducted many of the experiments on himself, was awarded two Legions of Merit for this work, and many deep water diving protocols he established remain.
“Today’s Navy divers owe Capt. Mazzone a debt of gratitude for his out-of-the-box thinking and his dedication to moving diving forward, with new methodologies and new ideas,” said Rear Adm. Frank Morneau, the head of Navy Expeditionary Combat Command, in a statement to Navy Times. “The changes he helped foster in the diving community will continue on as his legacy,” said Morneau, who himself is designated a deep sea diving officer.
Retired Master Chief Master Diver Samuel Huss served with Mazzone in Sealab III. He remembers the man affectionately called “Uncle Walt” as someone who often checked up on the divers and was known to share sea stories. He had plenty to share.
Mazzone enlisted in the Navy in August 1942. He completed two war patrols on the submarine Puffer, to include surviving a 30-hour-plus depth-charge barrage — the longest in history. Mazzone completed five more war patrols aboard the sub Crevalle. During his World War II service he earned the Silver Star, Bronze Star with combat “V” and Navy Commendation Medal with combat “V.”
After the war, Mazzone finished a pharmacy degree from the University of Southern California, but after a stint as a pharmacist, he rejoined the Navy, entering the medical service corps as an officer. In 1957, Mazzone transferred to the Naval Medical Research Laboratory in Groton, Connecticut, which would soon be at the forefront of efforts to send Navy divers into the deep.
Mazzone began working for Capt. George Bond, the Navy doctor then heading NMRL, who was working toward revolutionary advances that would allow divers to stay at depth longer than ever.
By the mid-1960s, this culminated in the Sealab experiments, the first of which kept four divers in an underwater habitat for 11 days. Mazzone served as a medical officer who stayed on ships topside and monitored the divers’ health and safety.
Former divers remembered Mazzone as a visionary with resolve and unflinching attention to detail.
“A lot of times when he would talk to us, we were kind of lost because we didn’t know what he was talking about,” said Huss, who now works at the Naval Experimental Diving Unit in Panama City Beach, Florida. “The whole thing was a learning experiment. And lot of what we learned, we didn’t realize what we had learned until years later. But when he came up with ideas, no one blinked an eye.
“Some of it wasn’t fun — you always had something stuck in you. But we went and did it. That’s how much faith everyone had in him.”
A diver who served during all three Sealab trials recalled Mazzone as “a hard-nosed guy, but he was fair.”
“He would talk to you, not down to you. But you had to do your job or he would point out that you didn’t do your job,” said retired Chief Warrant Officer 2 Robert Barth, who has served 48 years in Navy diving on active duty and as a civilian.
“I got my ass chewed out by him probably better than it has ever been for not doing my job right. But he was a good man to work for, and he became my friend, and we have been friends all these many years.
“He stood out among all the people as somebody that you could depend on to look after you,” Barth said.