Saving the Squalus

In May 2014 the spousal unit and I paid a visit to the Iowa kin en route from Nebraska back home.  I was working a conference in Nebraska and it was a great opportunity to stop in, see family, and talk some genealogy.  They were gracious enough to let me photograph and scan some items in their care that belonged to my Uncle Frank.  I haven’t had a chance to write much about the Conwell side of my family because I’ve been concentrating my efforts on lesser-researched branches of my family and the spousal unit’s family.

I think the Universe is trying to tell me to start writing about them.

Rewinding to March 2014, I briefly wrote about Uncle Frank (who is technically my great-uncle) in Christmas Came Early in Genealogy-land when a gentleman from Oklahoma contacted me about some Conwell family items that had come into his possession.  Several of these items belonged to Frank.  So I devoted part of a blog post to the excitement of first contact but didn’t pursue writing about the Conwell side.

During our visit the Iowa kin mentioned they planned to take some of Frank’s items to Bismarck, North Dakota where Antiques Roadshow was going to be filming.  We thought that was pretty cool and shared their excitement about the trip but it didn’t really enter our mind that they would really make it on the show.  But they did.  So what did they take?  They took items from Frank’s Naval career.  A very basic explanation of a salvage diver is a Naval diver who assists with any type of salvage operation.  They also have other job duties like construction and demolition but Frank’s 10 minutes of fame related to his work in salvage.

On May 23, 1939 the submarine U.S.S. Squalus set out on her final test dive.  Her final dive began well but ended in disaster when she sunk with her crew aboard.  In an unprecedented rescue, 33 of the crew who survived the initial disaster were rescued from the Squalus, which rested 240 feet below the surface.  As with any heroic effort, there was a great deal of publicity about the rescue of the Squalus crew and the divers involved in the rescue operation.  It was an effort worth the recognition it received.  Much less publicized was the salvage of the Squalus after the crew’s rescue.  This is the part of the diving operation Frank participated in.  Diving in 1939 was a very dangerous activity.  The environment was unpredictable and the equipment was cumbersome.  Ascending to the surface too quickly meant serious medical complications for the diver.  An incorrect move or calculation by a diver or sailors assisting the diver could mean an untimely end.

Diving Suit
                 Diving Suit (Pixabay)

So what does any of this have to do with Antiques Roadshow?  Frank was awarded the Navy Cross for his participation in the salvage dive.  His Navy Cross and citation along with a photo album of the salvage of the Squalus, a wooden carving of a diver (hand carved by Frank while on ship), and Good Conduct Medal were pieces of the collection which the Iowa kin took to the Antiques Roadshow taping.

Frank never talked about his medals that I can remember.  I don’t recall him mentioning the Squalus, nor do I remember him ever talking about having saved the life of a bystander watching the Squalus salvage operation but he made the newspaper for both of those acts.  I heard about all of it from my grandfather.  I also heard about the medical issues Frank had because of his diving activities from my grandfather.  My uncle was a man who enjoyed the company of family and thought the world of my son, nicknaming him “The Boss” when he was just a toddler.  I always equated him with the carvings which held real estate in my grandparents’, and then my parents’ homes.  They’re absolutely gorgeous carvings and each one was hand carved by Frank while he was ship-bound.

Conwell Frank Russell Deep Sea Diving Suit Carving
Deep Sea Diver carving by
Frank R. Conwell

The episode of Antiques Roadshow featuring Frank’s items aired on February 16, 2015 and can be viewed here for you dear readers who are interested.  A follow up article entitled “Saving the Squalus” was posted after the episode aired.

The Universe’s final knock on the door came recently.  A fellow researcher contacted me through Find A Grave asking if I was related to Frank.  When she found out how I was related she generously offered to send me copies of the diving log from the Squalus rescue and salvage operations, which not only had entries made by Frank, but also contained his signature and an entry regarding his treatment in a decompression chamber.

Frank was born 1 August 1912 in Kansas City, Jackson, Missouri to Edward Bell Conwell, Sr. and Zella May McCabe.  He joined the Navy in 1931.  During his time in the Navy he completed training for Carpenter’s Mate Second Class, Carpenter’s Mate First Class, Deep Sea Diving (attaining a dive depth of 300 feet in 1939), was awarded numerous swimming medals, a Good Conduct Medal, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal, European African Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, Navy America Defense Service Medal and Naval Cross.  He re-enlisted several times and obtained apprenticeship training as a plumber.  Frank married Maybelle Victoria “Mabel” Boileau on the 19 November 1940 in Norwich, New London, Connecticut.  They didn’t have any children together but Mabel brought one child into the marriage.  Mabel died on the 27 May 1988 in Jamul, San Diego, California.  Frank lived several more years and died on the 13 April 2001 in El Cahon, San Diego, California and is buried in Greenwood Memorial Park in San Diego, California.

On my lengthy list of genealogical documents to obtain is Frank’s military service record.  I’ve seen some of the photos he took while in service and am very curious where he sailed and what ships he served on.

Christmas Came Early In Genealogy-land

This past weekend has been an absolute whirlwind of activity and discovery for me.  I had to travel to Fort Worth, Texas for work Thursday and Friday and I took the opportunity to go see the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza.  Dealey Plaza is where President John F. Kennedy was shot in 1963.  The Sixth Floor Museum is the former Texas Book Depository building where Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK from.  It was a very interesting site.  I also did the walking tour of Dealey Plaza and the surrounding area.  I highly recommend both.


The former Texas Book Depository Building, now known as the
Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza

 


Dealey Plaza as viewed from the Triple Underpass.  The
Texas Book Depository Building is on the left behind the
trees on the infamous grassy knoll.

As I was sitting in the airport waiting for my flight back Friday night and checking my email to see if there was anything interesting going on, I saw an email from the Registrar of the Daughters of the American Revolution chapter I had applied to join.  She was letting me know that my application for the DAR had been approved by National and I would be receiving my paperwork soon!  How exciting!!!!!  It only took me a few months to gather my documentation and complete my paperwork, from May to December.  Luckily my patriot had already been proven through a different branch of the family so I only had to prove back to the son of my patriot, Guian McKee.  Guian McKee was a Private serving under Captain James Montgomery and Colonel McKay, Colonel Brodhead and Colonel Bayard.  He was from Pennsylvania and most likely somehow related to Colonel McKay.  It seems that the name McKay may have morphed into McKee somewhere between Ireland, Scotland and America.

As if that wasn’t enough excitement, a few weeks earlier I had been contacted through my blog by a non-relative who had purchased a batch of my family’s ephemera from a flea market.  I was floored and couldn’t imagine how some family items could have ended up in a flea market in Oklahoma.  So I went to the only source I could think of that might have some knowledge of how this could have happened.  According to the maternal unit, a cousin who lived in Oklahoma had passed away and the children of this cousin had sold off all contents of the shed of the cousin’s property without looking through it.  And so, the items had ended up with someone unrelated who began researching my family.

I haven’t written about this part of my family much simply because I have been working on other parts of my genealogy.  Tombstone Tuesday afforded me the opportunity to touch on them briefly when I highlighted my grandparents, Edward Bell Conwell Jr. and Edith M. Brown Conwell.  My Tombstone Tuesday post on my grandfather, Edward Jr., is what caught the attention of the gentleman in Oklahoma.  What was it about the post that caught his attention?  It wasn’t Grandpa Edward but his relation to Frank R. Conwell that caught this gentleman’s attention.  Frank Russell Conwell was my great-uncle.  I remember meeting him when I was younger.  He was a widower who was living in a trailer in California when I met him.  To me, he was a distant relative whom my Grandpa Edward wanted to visit.  I was more interested in cool stuff we were seeing while we were traveling to visit Frank than I was in Frank himself.  And what a shame that was, since Frank had quite a few interesting experiences I didn’t learn about until later.

Frank was born 1 August 1912 in Kansas City, Jackson, Missouri to Edward Bell Conwell, Sr. and Zella May McCabe, who I’ve been using as guinea pigs in my posts about what you can find on the U.S. census records (so far we’ve looked at the 1930, 1920, 1910 and 1900 census records.  I’ve also used Zella as a guinea pig for a post on death records and Edward Sr. and Zella as guinea pigs for a post on marriage records).  He married Maybelle Victoria “Mabel” Boileau 19 November 1940 in Norwich, New London, Connecticut.  They didn’t have any children together and Mabel died 27 May 1988 in Jamul, San Diego, California.  Frank lived several more years and died 13 April 2001 in El Cahon, San Diego, California and is buried in Greenwood Memorial Park in San Diego, California.

So what makes Frank such an interesting individual that a non-relative would want to learn about him?  Frank was a Navy-man, as were his brothers, Edward and Milford.  He assisted in the salvage recovery of the U.S.S. Squalus, a submarine that sank off the coast of New Hampshire on May 23, 1939 and he was awarded the Navy Cross for his work on the salvage recovery.  And that is what made him such an interesting subject for research.  As a child I knew he’d been a Navy diver, but I was never aware that he’d helped salvage the wreckage of a submarine or that he had been honored with a medal.  I learned of it when I was older and of the fact that he saved a woman who had fallen overboard while watching the recovery of the Squalus.  My family never made a huge deal over these two instances that I can remember.  It was just a fact added to our genealogy and accepted as what needed to be done.  My family has always just done whatever was necessary to get things done without making a big deal out of it.

Which led me to this past weekend.  I made a trip with the most wonderful mother-in-law to pick up all the ephemera which the gentleman from Oklahoma so kindly sold to me.


Family items picked up in Tulsa, Oklahoma
this past weekend

I’m so excited about these items.  Some of them are about my cousin, some about my great-aunt and some about my great-uncle.  I’ve just begun going through and sorting the items but this is one of my favorite.


Hand painted picture of Zella May (McCabe) Conwell

This is a picture of my great-grandmother, Zella May McCabe (who was married to Edward Bell Conwell, Sr.)  It’s a picture I’ve never seen before; I’ve only seen her as an elderly woman in black and white photographs.  She was very beautiful when she was younger and I feel very privileged to have been able to bring this picture back into the family.  With all these goodies I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me to scan, share and preserve them.  It feels like Christmas in Genealogy-land!!!!  Stay tuned to see some follow up posts on Grandpa Edward, Uncle Frank, Uncle Milford, Aunt Edna and some of the other cousins who are intertwined with these individuals 🙂