Captain Walter Francis Mazzone, a veteran of harrowing World War II submarine patrols who later in his career became indispensable to the U.S.Navy’s SEALAB program, died today. He was 96 and had been in remarkably good health, living at his longtime home overlooking Mission Bay in San Diego and keeping up with lifelong favorite hobbies, like making works of stained glass and doing painstaking restorations of antique clocks.
Mazzone’s career took a fateful turn in the late 1950s when he was introduced to Captain George F. Bond, head of the Medical Research Laboratory at the U.S. Naval Submarine Base at New London, Conn., where Mazzone was working as a top administrator.
Captain Bond, the iconoclastic Navy doctor who would become the father the SEALAB program, was then starting a round of laboratory experiments at the base to figure out whether divers could stay down longer and reach greater depths than ever thought possible. Bond was aiming for historic breakthroughs in deep diving that would enable divers – “aquanauts,” as Bond liked to call them – to live and work for days at a time on the seabed in a properly equipped and pressurized base, something like the marine equivalent of a space station. This was revolutionary thinking at a time when conventional wisdom held that divers couldn’t go very deep, and their stays at any significant depth would have to be limited to a matter of minutes – not the hours, days, weeks and even months that Bond envisioned.
Fortunately for Bond, and for the history of diving, Mazzone was intrigued by Bond’s vision and by the physiological puzzles that would have to be solved. Not everyone was – indeed some in the Navy regarded Bond as somewhat of a crackpot. But Mazzone, an innately inquisitive man, got involved with running the early lab tests and would become Bond’s right-hand man throughout the 1960s until the final SEALAB came to an end in 1969. Without Mazzone, it’s unlikely that Bond would have gotten as far as he did with the SEALAB program or the advances in diving methods and technology that had a swift and lasting impact on military and civilian diving, and perhaps most notably on commercial diving operations.
Even before Mazzone met George Bond and got involved with the nascent SEALAB program, he had made his mark as a young officer on submarines during World War II. His first war patrol, aboard the USS Puffer, became renowned in the cat-and-mouse annals of sub warfare after the diesel sub and its crew endured thirty-nine hellish hours of near continuous depth charging by Japanese destroyers in the Makassar Strait, around the eastern side of Borneo.
Following a highly successful second war patrol on the Puffer, Mazzone transferred to USS Crevalle, on which he completed five more war patrols. One patrol was exceptionally noteworthy because it involved a highly classified mission to the Island of Negros in the Philippines to retrieve documents vital to the war effort as well as the rescue of 40 individuals who had been hiding from the Japanese.
Mazzone received the Silver Star, the third highest award for Valor, the Bronze Star with Combat V and the Navy Commendation Medal with Combat V for his submarine service in World War II.
So instead of heading to medical school, 23-year-old Walter was soon headed to war. He was among the first college graduates to be routed into an expedited three-month officer training program, bypassing the Navy’s traditional submarine school as part of an effort to speed up the process of getting officers onto boats, where they could then get the rest of their education on the job while at war. Mazzone did his officer training at Notre Dame and Columbia universities. He was commissioned as an ensign and assigned to the Puffer.
Pharmacy work made Mazzone restless and in 1949 he joined the Navy’s newly formed Medical Service Corps, just in time for the Korean War, and was stationed in Occupied Japan at the newly commissioned U.S. Naval Hospital at Yokosuka. In 1951 he was transferred to Brooklyn, New York, and within five years became a high-ranking manager in the Armed Services Medical Procurement Agency, where he was responsible for big budgets and vast supplies of blood, blood derivatives, drugs and chemicals.
Mazzone might never have gone to New London or met George Bond if not for a craving for a Nedick’s hot dog. One day at lunch, he and his boss left their office near the Brooklyn shipyard and hopped a subway over to lower Manhattan. While walking near the venerable hot dog stand Mazzone ran into a former submarine medical officer who wondered aloud why Mazzone was not working in some capacity for the Submarine Service, given his distinguished wartime experience and interest in the boats. Mazzone agreed, and the officer apparently pulled some strings because Mazzone soon received orders to head the School of Submarine and Diving Medicine at the U.S. Naval Submarine Base at New London, where most American submariners got their specialized training. The school trained medical officers and enlisted rates for independent duty aboard submarines.
From the SEALAB program’s very beginning to its tragic, premature end, Mazzone was at the center of it all, as is readily apparent in SEALAB. After retiring from the Navy in 1970, Mazzone settled in San Diego, which had become a base for SEALAB operations, and worked for the next decade at the Navy’s Ocean Systems Center at Point Loma. He then left government service and began work at Scientific Applications International Corp. At SAIC he was a program manager on several Navy contracts until 2002 – and finally retired at the age of 84. The garage at the San Diego home where he had lived since 1970 doubled as a workshop for his stained glass and clock repair hobbies. Only recently did Mazzone curtail his annual motor home trips.
His beloved wife, Lucie, died in October 2012, and he is survived by his son, Robert Walter Mazzone, a retired Navy captain who resides with his wife in Escondido, Calif. He is also survived by two grandchildren and their spouses, Margaret Pearl and William Clifford of North Hampton, N.H., and Michael Robert and Ashley Mazzone of Bristol, R.I., as well five great grandchildren – Carolyn Clifford, Josephine Clifford, Annabelle Clifford, Ely Mazzone and Callen Mazzone. He is also survived by his two sisters-in-law, Mary Schaffer and Sue Anderson, both of Los Angeles, as well as numerous nieces and nephews and cousins.
Donations in lieu of flowers can be made to the Man in the Sea Museum, 17314 Panama City Beach Parkway, Panama City Beach, FL 32413. One of the museum’s major projects is raising money to do a full restoration of SEALAB I. The original hull, rusting but repainted and still largely intact, sits just outside the museum.