What happened to Sea Surveyor?
Editor’s note: This story is based on recollections of Walter Banzhaf and research by Scott Ritter and John Ruddy. Ritter, The Day’s production manager, is the son-in-law of Richard Carlson, Sea Surveyor’s first mate.
The mission was routine: Sail from Electric Boat, rendezvous with a submarine, conduct tests, return home.
Twelve men from an EB research vessel did return, eventually. But they left their ship at the bottom of the Atlantic and brought back only a question: What went wrong?
Fifty-three years later the mystery remains, and one of the survivors is seeking answers. He hasn’t found them despite searching for documents that have to be out there somewhere.
What he has done is resurrect a tale of peril and survival on the high seas in which he played a part. He’s lucky he lived to tell it.
And southeastern Connecticut is lucky to reclaim a chapter of maritime lore after decades in which the story was all but forgotten.
* * *
A thin crust of ice coated the Thames River on Sunday, Jan. 5, 1969, as the 118-foot ship Sea Surveyor prepared to depart from EB. There were seven in the crew, and one by one, five passengers, or “observers,” arrived and boarded.
Three were company employees, and two worked across the river at the Navy Underwater Sound Laboratory, a sonar research site at Fort Trumbull. Their job was to send radio signals to an antenna on a nearby submarine.
At 10 p.m. Sea Surveyor sailed, crunching through the ice as it moved south into Long Island Sound and beyond.
Twelve hours later, the USS Greenling (SSN-614) left State Pier and followed a similar course. If all went as planned, Greenling and Sea Surveyor would meet at sea and test the antenna.
The Sound Lab employees were John Groppelli, 33, of Pawcatuck, an electronics technician; and a 22-year-old electrical engineer named Walter Banzhaf.
* * *
Two years ago, Banzhaf, now 76, discovered an old pad of paper in his Simsbury home. On it was his handwritten account of Sea Surveyor’s end, set down just after the fact. The story broke off mid-sentence:
“Two people were on watch, and …”
Summoning recollections from a half-century earlier, he finished the thought:
“… nothing was seen except waves and spray for several hours.”
Between the halves of that sentence lay most of Banzhaf’s four years at the lab; a stint as a high school teacher; 29 years as a professor at the University of Hartford; and a lengthy retirement.
He added a few paragraphs and set the pad aside. Then, last December, he found something else: an album of photos and news stories about Sea Surveyor.
“All of that stuff brought back memories,” he recalled, “… and I said, ‘This is a good story.’”
Banzhaf decided to write something for family and friends who hadn’t heard the details. He produced a 28-page booklet and made 80 copies.
The enthusiastic response led to a PowerPoint presentation called “We Are Very Likely to Die,” which he has given several times. His next presentation will be Wednesday for the Noank Historical Society.
He also tried to learn how many of his fellow survivors were still alive. He found two: Ernest Maxwell, who lives in the Philippines; and Groppelli, now 87, who spent 37 years at the lab and is still in Pawcatuck.
* * *
The first day at sea was no fun for Banzhaf and Groppelli. Both were seasick and mostly stayed in their cabins. As the ship headed south, the wind picked up and the swells increased. Eventually, Banzhaf was well enough to have dinner, but Groppelli doesn’t recall eating on the ship.
At 11:40 p.m., Banzhaf was awakened by a loud, metallic sound.
“It was a big noise, a large piece of something hitting a large piece of something,” he said. “I don’t know what it was.”
Groppelli didn’t hear it, but he noticed vibrations as the ship’s propeller rose from the water.
The captain, Adrian Lane, heard the engines speed up from his cabin and went to the bridge, where he learned the ship wasn’t responding to the helm. With Sea Surveyor listing to port by 40-45 degrees, Lane ordered a life raft launched. The wind was howling.
Banzhaf heard the ship’s bell ring 12 times, and a chart told him that meant “abandon ship.” Someone was yelling for everyone to put on life vests and go to the raft.
“A wave of extreme fear caused a choking feeling to impair my breathing for a moment,” Banzhaf wrote.
Wearing a light ski jacket, he found the port side of the deck awash and the starboard side high in the air.
One by one, the men jumped into the raft, which was level with the port rail. Lane missed and had to be pulled from the water. Then the line to the ship was cut, and the raft started to drift.
The emergency had unfolded in just 20 minutes.
With its port side already submerged, Sea Surveyor slipped beneath the surface at 12:20 a.m. Jan. 7. Its lights were still ablaze, and for a moment they gleamed underwater in the dark.
Then they faded and disappeared.
* * *
When it was built in Canada in 1939, the motor vessel Rimouski didn’t seem destined for an Atlantic grave. It spent years as a ferry on the St. Lawrence River.
EB bought the 290-ton ship in 1965 for research on underwater technology. A crane was installed to lower submersibles, hydrophone arrays were added, and oceanographic surveys were planned.
With accommodations for 16 scientists and technicians, the vessel was given a name reflecting its new role: Sea Surveyor.
Its captain had impeccable credentials. Adrian Kingsbury Lane of Noank had made a career of commanding research vessels, most recently the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Atlantis, later the namesake of a space shuttle. He had also been captain of the schooner Brilliant at Mystic Seaport.
The first mate was Richard Carlson of Groton, a Merchant Marine Academy graduate and yacht designer who was working as a naval architect at EB. Rounding out the crew were two engineers, a bosun, a cook and an able-bodied seaman.
Over four years, Sea Surveyor logged 25,000 miles and completed 75 missions. The 76th ended in disaster.
* * *
Cold, wet and stunned into silence, 12 men sat in darkness in a rubber life raft enclosed by a canopy. With a flashlight, Banzhaf found a manual and started to read.
“Your situation is not hopeless!” it began. He wasn’t cheered. Amid waves 15 to 20 feet high, he and the others passed a bucket and took turns vomiting.
There wasn’t much to say, but Lane had relevant information he kept to himself: All along the East Coast, longshoremen were on strike. That meant fewer potential rescuers in the shipping lanes.
But in the early morning dark, a ship did come along, so close it almost ran over the raft. By the canopy light, the men could make out rivets on the hull. Then the vessel steamed away, its crew oblivious.
With daylight, the seasickness ebbed as the storm worsened. The wind roared when the raft was atop a wave and ceased when it was in a trough. No help arrived.
“Each of us became increasingly aware that our chances of surviving were, at best, slim,” Banzhaf wrote.
Darkness fell, and after 24 hours, the men spotted the lights of a distant ship, visible only when a wave crested. Crewman Stanley Olado opened the canopy and waved the flashlight.
The ship seemed to change course, and Banzhaf was told to fire their only parachute flare, which would hang in the air and mark their position.
But just before he could, the wind flipped the raft upside down, spilling most of the men into the ocean.
* * *
There are aspects of the story that remain unresolved. Sea Surveyor sent a distress call, so why wasn’t the raft found by a search? Banzhaf said a 10-degree error in longitude may have been reported or heard, the equivalent of 530 miles.
A Navy report says that when Greenling notified EB the ship had failed to reach two possible rendezvous points, the shipyard “did not consider it unusual.” And the Sound Lab told the Navy none of its personnel were aboard.
The biggest question: What happened to Sea Surveyor? No one had any idea.
When the news broke, Groton radio station WSUB placed a long-distance call and reached Carlson, whose family has a recording of the broadcast.
“The information we can give you is zilch because … we don’t know what happened ourselves,” Carlson said with frustration in his voice. “The ship simply filled up with water and sank.”
Speculation filled the void. One theory was that hull plating had failed. Another was that a piece of equipment left behind during maintenance caused damage when the seas turned rough.
Three weeks after the sinking, all 12 survivors testified in a Coast Guard hearing. Lane said the ship may have struck an underwater object, but he wasn’t sure. Banzhaf said the crash that woke him “physically shook the vessel,” yet only one or two others heard it.
On March 5, 1970, The Day reported the Coast Guard had released “findings of fact” that only hinted at the cause; the investigating officer’s conclusions were withheld. No punitive action was taken against the crew.
Banzhaf has been chasing those documents for months. He’s sent many inquiries, and The Day has also searched, but nothing has turned up.
“I don’t actually believe I’ll ever get it,” he said.
* * *
Without answers, Banzhaf may never know why he had to stare down death at a young age. In the life raft he had sad thoughts about leaving behind his wife of six months and his cat’s newborn kittens.
“The strange thing to my recollection is … I just had a whole bunch of dental work done … and I said … ‘What a waste of money, thousands of dollars. … It’s going to lie at the bottom of the ocean.’ Strange how the mind works, I guess.”
If Lane and Carlson had similar thoughts, they never shared them. Lane’s son Chris, and Carlson’s widow, Mildred, said the two, both professional sailors, were typically mum about their experiences.
Carlson’s ship was torpedoed in World War II, and “all he would ever say is, ‘I went for a rowboat ride,’” his wife said. Lane offered little even as he hosted parties for the survivors. In a 1980 profile in The Day, he reduced his thoughts to five words:
“Damn lucky to be alive.”
* * *
Struggling in the water, the men somehow righted the overturned raft and climbed back in. Banzhaf tried to shoot the flare, but it was soaked. There was fear they had lost their chance to get the distant ship’s attention. Olado, who had held onto the flashlight, again waved it.
When a signal lamp lit up on the ship, the meaning was clear: We see you.
Soon a large freighter arrived and put itself between the raft and the wind. But the raft blew out of reach anyway. The ship then maneuvered so the wind would bring the raft alongside.
Still, waves tossed the ship so much that one minute its crewmen were in handshake distance, and the next they were out of sight. A line was dropped and the raft towed to the ship’s leeward side, where a cargo net was lowered.
After drifting 30 miles in 26 hours, the men happily abandoned the raft. Ten climbed the net; two, including Groppelli, were so weak they had to be carried.
They learned they were aboard the Essi Kristine of Norway, 825 feet long and carrying coal from Hampton Roads, Va., to the Netherlands. They were offered dry clothes and fortified with Scotch.
Banzhaf used the ship’s radio to give the Coast Guard word of Sea Surveyor’s fate, and the call launched a postscript to the drama.
The cutter Vigilant was nearby, en route to assist with a man overboard on the Bluenose II, a famous schooner from Nova Scotia. But the Coast Guard diverted it to collect the Sea Surveyor survivors and bring them home.
At 3 p.m. Jan. 8, Vigilant met Essi Kristine in still-heavy seas. The transfer would be by breeches buoy: One man at a time would be placed in a harness and pulled along a line suspended between the rocking vessels.
“I wasn’t about to do that,” Groppelli said.
Neither was anyone else, and the idea was scrapped. Vigilant left empty-handed.
With that, the men settled in for a 10-day trip to Rotterdam. It was blissfully uneventful except for pingpong, dinners with the officers and a Hopalong Cassidy movie with Norwegian subtitles.
Upon their arrival, they were met by EB officials who had flown over and brought fresh clothes. A banquet was held where gifts were given and gratitude expressed.
The next day, Sunday, Jan. 19, the men of Sea Surveyor boarded a flight to New York, where the national media photographed their arrival. They quickly transferred to a General Dynamics plane for the short hop to Groton.
At Trumbull Airport, as they stepped into joyful embraces from family members, they fulfilled the most important part of their mission.
Two weeks late but alive and well, they were back home.
IF YOU GO:
Who: Walter Banzhaf, Sea Surveyor survivor
What: “We Are Very Likely to Die: The Incredible True Story of the Sinking of the R/V Sea Surveyor”
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 21
Sponsored by: Noank Historical Society
Where: Noank Baptist Church, 18 Cathedral Heights, Noank
More information: www.noankhistoricalsociety.org/calendar.html