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James Carl Bladh

On Friday, December 13, 2019, James Carl Bladh (Jim), 94, passed away on the 78th anniversary of the Office of the Supervisor of Salvage & Diving ( SUPSALV), United States Navy. Jim spent 28 years in SUPSALV, using his persuasive skills and extensive knowledge to successfully complete recovery and salvage projects from Hong Kong to Pago Pago. Colleagues might say that he managed every aspect of the military and civilian projects, including his supervisors.

Jim was born in the San Francisco Bay Area, to an enterprising Swedish father and an adventurous French mother, who had been a Harvey Girl (worth the google). Jim left home in his teens and spent his life roaming the world. Before joining the navy, he worked for a year or two in the oil fields of California; driving semi-trucks from Montana to California; and playing cowboy in Montana.

Jim joined the Navy in 1942, as a fearless seventeen-year-old sailor. He was assigned as a Gunner’s Mate to the USS San Francisco, a heavy cruiser, which was headed to the South Pacific to fight the Japanese. Jim participated in eight major engagements including the Battle of Guadalcanal, Gilbert and Marshall Islands; actions in the Marianas, Palau, and Leyte Gulf; and off Luzon, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. Those initial acts of patriotism led to a 30-year career in the navy and a final commission as Lieutenant Commander, not bad for starting out as a seaman recruit, without a bit of education past high school.

After retirement from active duty, Jim continued an active role in many major salvage operations, as a civilian member of the staff of the SUPSALV. He was frequently asked to do the impossible, because he had an ingenious way of getting things done. No one questioned how he did it; they just knew he would succeed, where others with a more conventional approach would fail. When the forces of bureaucracy were arrayed against him, he was at his best. When facing overwhelming bureaucratic resistance, often having been told “NO” in clear and concise terms, Jim seemed to sense they just didn’t understand. “NO,” from Jim’s perspective meant either he had not asked the right person or needed to rephrase the question. It certainly did not mean that the idea would not be implemented. Jim was a visionary, always thinking of new and better ways of achieving goals and improving performance. He dragged many of his supervisors into thinking the unthinkable and asking, “Why not.”

During his long career, the many adventures were exciting, colorful and became the basis for the sea tales that seemed almost unbelievable and endless. In the late 40s, he accompanied Admiral Richard E. Byrd on an ice breaker to the South Pole, which was the largest polar expedition at that time. He then graduated from EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) School in Indian Head, Maryland and Navy Dive School at the Washington Navy Yard. He supervised diving operations with Turkish divers in the Mediterranean, testing new diving equipment. At Port Lyautey, Morocco, he personally hauled munitions in unmarked trucks to the demolition range, to prevent munitions from falling into the wrong hands.

While on a seven month around the world cruise on the USS Canberra, Jim served as Ordnance Gunner and Diving Officer. The ship stopped at many ports including: Panama, Greece, Japan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Italy, and Spain. One night in Athens, returning to shore after dinner onboard, Jim met Rita Hayworth, who had dined at the officers’ mess. This encounter became a favorite sea tale he always included in his repertoire.

In July 1964, at the request of the FBI, Jim led a Navy dive team to Jackson, Mississippi, to search the river for the remains of two young African American men who had disappeared. The divers found a skull, human ribs and train track rails that were used to weigh down the bodies when they were tossed into the river alive. After the recovery, the FBI directed the team, for their own safety, to leave immediately without collecting their belongings from the hotel. Forty-three years later, Jim went back to Jackson to testify in the trial that found a KKK member guilty of murder.

In the mid-sixties, Jim was the diving officer for Sea Lab 1, an experimental underwater habitat developed by the Navy to prove the viability of saturation diving and humans living in isolation at the bottom of the sea for extended periods of time. Scott Carpenter, the well-known astronaut participated as an aquanaut in the experiment, which took place off the coast of Bermuda. Jim made several dives to support the habitat, including a 200 ft dive on air to identify for salvage consideration, a downed aircraft in the area near the habitat.

In the late 1960s, Jim was transferred to HMS Vernon at Portsmouth, England, to become the first exchange officer for diving to the Royal Navy. Jim quipped, “I’ll never forget my first morning at Vernon, when at 0600 there was a knock at my door and a very attractive WREN entered saying ‘Good morning Sir, your tea.’ I immediately thought to myself, Damn if I haven’t been in the wrong navy for twenty five years.” Jim is the only non-British Naval Officer to have a permanent mess number in HMS Vernon at Portsmouth, UK.

During his tour of duty at Portsmouth, he qualified to be the diving officer for the HMS Reclaim. He operated the ship’s submersible chamber to 225 ft on air to recover Air Lingus plane wreckage.

He worked with his British colleagues to define new diving recompression tables. He made an 800 ft chamber dive on a helium-oxygen breathing gas mixture. Something his own Navy probably would not have allowed a forty-two-year-old to do.

In 1972 Jim was in charge of salvaging the USS Regulus, a navy ship wrecked by a typhoon in Hong Kong harbor. While surviving the hardship of being a single sailor staying at the Hong Kong Hilton, Jim developed a risky, but feasible plan for removing the wreck that was obstructing the busy harbor. Although the harbor master told him he was not in favor of the plan, Jim proceeded with the plan anyway. Under cover of darkness the ship was moved; halfway through the tow across the middle of the harbor, he advised his boss of the progress. Jim said “if we don’t make it, I’m defecting to Red China”. The Captain solemnly replied, “That’s right Jim, don’t ever come back!” Needless to say, he made it across. It’s hard to argue with success.

Jim wasn’t about medals but he earned a few along the way. These awards of distinction included: Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal with eight stars, China Service Medal, Victory Medal (WWII), Philippine Liberation Medal, Combat Action Ribbon, Navy Commendation Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, and Vietnam Service Medal.
Jim deployed twice to Vietnam. The first time, was to research the success of anti-swimmer nets in the waters near Danang and Saigon. After weeks of experimenting, unfortunately, it was concluded that although the nets would block the Viet Cong swimmers, they would require too many boats to maintain them, thus putting the boats at risk. One of Jim’s many successes, during his time in Viet Nam, was his discovering a way to use the crank-type field-phone, which an army communications team installed in his temporary Danang headquarters. This allowed Jim to call anywhere in the world via the White House switch. He always said, “It’s all about communication.” He sincerely felt the state department wouldn’t mind sharing their phone line had they known, but some things are better left unspoken. This would come in handy in his next assignment in Vietnam, the search for missing in action.

In 1973, Jim’s next assignment was setting up and managing the Joint Causality Resolution Commission. He was responsible for locating the remains of Americans lost off the coast of South Vietnam, during our long conflict there. The effort involved coordinating the security of land-based mobile microwave stations that supplied navigation services to the offshore search and recovery vessel, as well as the security of the vessel itself. Jim’s relationship with the Vietnamese military, needed to support the effort, was critical. He often complained he had supplied new batteries, tires and fuel to more jeeps than the Vietnamese had, but it was key to keeping the support in place. The Viet Cong and offshore pirates were also there to add a little excitement to the effort.

During the middle of the operation, Jim came to the end of his 30 years of active duty service. Jim celebrated his retirement from active naval service, at the bar of the Majestic Hotel in Saigon. Not elaborate, just a few sailors and the usual bar girls.

He returned to Danang as a contractor, to finish the search operations for remains and downed-aircraft. In this environment, civilian garb was ineffective in getting the work done with Jim’s Vietnamese counterparts, so despite retirement, the uniform went back on. When General Kingston did an inspection tour, his comment to Jim was, “Jim, you’re a funny looking civilian in that rig.” Jim’s response was, “General, watch out; I might just put on more stars and outrank you.” A short time later, South Vietnam was overrun and Jim and his crew got out just in time.

Some of the salvage projects for which Jim planned and managed work while at SUPSALV were: The Oriental Warrior, USS Tortuga, and the USCG Cutter Blackthorne. Additional projects included the search and recovery of NASA Space Shuttle Challenger, South African Airliner, and TWA Flight 800.

Jim was responsible for starting the hull-cleaning and underwater welding program for the navy, which evolved into a much larger program of underwater ship husbandry and became a major initiative for SUPSALV.

In the mid to late 70s, Jim worked with the Suez Canal Authority, to establish communication and transportation plans, in advance of the salvage operation. The canal had been blocked from the wreckage debris of several wars and needed to be cleared to reestablish trade routes. In the process of managing the project from start to finish, Jim walked the entire length of the canal, from Port Said to Suez City, one hundred miles long.

Jim was the project manager for the book Mud, Muscle, and Miracles, published by the Naval Historical Center and Naval Sea Systems Command, documenting the history of marine salvage in the U.S. Navy. The book describes marine salvage as, ‘A science of vague assumptions based on debatable figures taken from inconclusive experiments and performed with instruments of problematic accuracy by persons of doubtful reliability and questionable mentality.’ That’s why marine salvage takes someone with endurance, humor and ingenuity to get the job done; that was Jim Bladh!

Another example of Jim’s amazing experience and expertise in Salvage was demonstrated when SUPSALV was advised of oil, spilling from The USS Mississinewa (a Navy Tanker in Ulithi Atoll) in the Western Pacific Ocean. This ship had been sunk in 1944, by the first successful Japanese secret weapon, the Kaiten, which was a Kamikaze human-torpedo water craft, used and built solely as a suicide weapon, during WWII.

The tanker sat dormant, submerged on the seafloor in the Atoll for 50 years, before starting to leak oil. This was a potential environmental disaster to the local inhabitants, who survived on fishing in the lagoon. Amazingly, Jim had actually witnessed the attack and saw the ship sink in 1944, while he served on a Navy Destroyer anchored nearby. Fifty years later, he helped in the planning and execution of the oil removal operation where almost four million gallons of oil were removed, with less than five gallons spilled. Jim was there when the ship sank and 50 years later, helped to prevent an environmental disaster.

Jim mentored a new generation of salvors and diving experts, inspiring them to appreciate the thrill of the job and the importance of successfully accomplishing the goals, no matter what it takes. He had a style that is reminiscent of the privateers who served our country so well in a different time. Like them, he became a legend.

At the time of his death, Jim was married to Rosemary E. Grubb. He has one surviving daughter, Patricia (Patty) A. Bladh and was preceded in death (2009) by his son James C.(Jimmy) Bladh Jr.

On Tuesday, November 17, there will be a procession led by the Patriot Riders leaving the Cunningham Turch Funeral Home, 811 Cameron Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 at 9:30 AM. A service will then be held at 11:00 AM at the Old Post Chapel at the gates of Arlington Cemetery followed by Internment with full Navy Honors. Please RSVP to the funeral home’s website if you plan to attend the funeral. SInce we will be on a military base, all visitors need to have identification to get on base. If you have military id, you will get on base without a pass

A Celebration of Jim’s Life will be in the summer of 2021 when we can gather again without fear of illness. We will keep you updated as things progress

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