Men of Honor: Actors, navy divers and DIT staff
Written for DIT by Londi Gamezde
“Diving’s been around since man started getting stuff out of the water,” says John Paul Johnston, DIT’s Executive Director with a distinguished 30-year career as a Navy diver. Today, we’re a long way from just ‘getting stuff out of the water,’ and the state of commercial diving is indebted to the research and investment from the Navy over the years. The 2000 film Men of Honor is in part a tribute to the Navy’s diving history. John Paul, Bruce Banks and the late Richard ‘Rag Man’ Radecki of DIT played a major behind-the-scenes role in the film, helping prepare the actors for their parts in the film and getting them dive-savvy.
The film interprets the amazing true story of Carl Brashear, the US Navy’s first African American master diver and its first amputee diver. Brashear needed his leg amputated following a salvage operation and his story is one of incredible courage and fortitude in the face of many challenges. Initially applying to the Navy, he faced multiple rejections but persistently pursued his goal until finally being able to qualify as a master diver. After the tragic loss of his leg, Carl secretly started training to dive again, sending pictures of himself diving and working out to the Navy, to convince them he was in good enough shape to return as a master diver. This was a man with guts, passion and dedication. Brashear is played by Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Robert De Niro plays Master Chief Billy Sunday who trains Brashear in the film, a fictitious character based on many superiors encountered by Brashear in his journey through Navy diving.
I caught up with John Paul, who chatted to me about the Navy, Carl Brashear and DIT’s first brush with Hollywood… and the precious personalized gifts from Robert De Niro.
LG: How did you end up getting connected with the movie?
JP: I was the commanding officer on a naval base over on the Olympic peninsula, and one day, the producer Bill Badalato showed up and asked where they could possibly shoot a film. The base I was working on had a lot of historical significance but it housed a lot of explosives so we couldn’t film there. I asked what the movie was about and he said, “A one-legged black diver.” I knew immediately it was Carl! He was on set for all the filming and involved in the production, so I ended up going to work with them on the movie.
LG: So you already knew Carl?
JP: Absolutely. Carl Brashear was, what you call in the Navy, my ‘sea daddy’; he kind of looked after me as I came up through the ranks. He was an interesting guy – a spectacular athlete, very focused and driven and in great shape, even until his late 60s and early 70s, when the movie was underway. When I met Carl, he was already a master diver, in charge of the diving side of the Naval Safety Center in Norfolk, Va. I had just become a saturation diver and got paired up with Carl on an odd project that came up. We flew around Europe for 30 days, just the two of us looking at some problems – we went to Scotland, England, Spain and Italy – one of the most fun trips I’ve ever been on. From then on he looked after me and followed my career pretty closely.
LG: What did you do for the movie?
JP: I looked after the script mostly, working with the actors. At one point I picked up Cuba Gooding, Jr. and all the young actors who played the students and drove them out to a navy base on Whidbey Island where there’s a big naval air station where there was a big unit of divers. I took them just to get used to the scene, see what the divers were like, and talk to them about motivation. Even though we prepared them for their roles as divers in the film, the actors didn’t actually dive. During filming, the young actors would be all out there on deck but when it came time to put somebody in the water, it was one of the students who had just recently graduated from DIT. That’s the magic of Hollywood!
LG: What was it like to work with such high caliber actors?
JP: Cuba Gooding and Robert De Niro are both extremely approachable, but very different. De Niro is quiet, intense, and private in the way he approaches things. Cuba Gooding is a spectacular ball of energy! I remember a scene in the hospital where he gets upset about his leg. Before filming, he was kinda laughing, but as soon as they said, “Action,” he took on his character almost immediately. And then again, as soon as they said, “Cut,” he went back to that totally different person. It was amazing to watch that kind of ability.
Here’s a little story about De Niro – a gentleman, a classy human being to be around. One day a few months after the filming had been wrapped up, I came home and there was this big box sitting on my front steps. I open it up and inside is a what we call a gimballed ship’s chronometer, from Tiffany’s of New York. It’s beautiful. Later my phone rings and its Rag Man. He’s shootin’ the breeze with me and I’m thinking, I wonder why he’s really calling… I’ve known Rag since I was a young sailor boy. He was jawing and jawing and finally he goes, “Hey, did you get anything in the mail today?” and I just started laughing – he got one too, and so did Bruce. Inside of each chronometer was a personalized brass plaque that Bob De Niro had written to each one of us. So that is one of the most treasured items in my house and it speaks volumes to the gentleman that he is.
LG: You’re in diving, not film. How did you like the change to your routine?
JP: It was all great fun, but filming movies very slowly and is incredibly time-consuming. I don’t know that it’s something I’d do again but it was a great experience and I’m thrilled to have been involved.
“The Navy Diver is not a fighting man, he is a salvage expert. If it is lost underwater, he finds it. If it’s sunk, he brings it up. If it’s in the way, he moves it. If he’s lucky, he will die young, 200 feet beneath the waves, for that is the closest he’ll ever get to being a hero.” – Billy Sunday, Men of Honor.