Naval History : How did that come about?
Cussler : Not being a member of the bureaucracy, I can only speculate. Part of the problem seemed to be that the University of South Carolina’s Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology put a fellow whose only credential was a degree in journalism in charge of the Hunley project. His staff had no qualification for such a job.
And so a big storm hit. The Navy was not happy, and it took the state to task. I know I certainly did. Our nonprofit foundation, the National Underwater Marine Agency (NUMA) had been ready to say “mission accomplished” and walk off to the next project. Then this fellow started talking about building a coffer dam—a totally ridiculous idea. So we came back into the picture and raised a little hell. I’m not sure where the Navy stands, but in talking with the GSA people, I know they’re not going to give it away, they want it, and they’re working now with the Smithsonian Institution.
Naval History : Did this happen before the announcement that she had been found?
Cussler : It was after. I had left Charleston and had been home for a week or so when all of a sudden articles started appearing in newspapers saying that the State of South Carolina wanted to mark the site with a buoy. The Navy and I threw up our hands at that. The last thing we want is to mark the site so people can come and rip it off.
This search had been going on since 1980, and we had run over 1,000 miles of bottom. The crew that made the actual discovery was not just a group of divers, as originally reported in the press. Ralph Wilbanks is a former state archaeologist; Wes Hall has been in archaeology for 18 years and has a Master’s degree; and Harry Pecorelli, the first man down on the wreck, is one grade point away from his Master’s in archaeology.
We eliminated all the sites around Breach Inlet and the back bay and ran an extensive expedition out to the Housatonic [the ship sunk by the Hunley in 1864] and beyond. Finally, when Ralph Wilbanks was working a bit farther east than we thought the Hunley would be, they hit on her.
When Harry Pecorelli made that first dive, he said he didn’t think it was the Hunley . Then Wes Hall went down. I guess they moved about a foot of silt and luckily came down on the hatch, which was raised about 18 inches. The sub was lying on its side, so they excavated a little area where they could see the hatch, the snorkel, and one of the diving fins and made the identification. That was it.
Naval History : Your organization is to be commended for not desecrating these sites.
Cussler : The agency tries to find lost ships of historic significance before they’re gone forever. When we find one, we turn over all our records and walk away. People who come by my house are amazed, because I don’t have one artifact—just a couple of ship models.
On only two or three occasions, when we worked with particular sites, did we bring up artifacts. In Virginia, I remember when we identified the Civil War ship Cumberland —even brought up the ship’s bell—and identified the Florida from other objects we brought up. We were supposed to split the cost of preservation with the state, so we soaked all the artifacts in kiddie pools, locked in warehouses. Suddenly, the state came and said, “Sorry, we’re too tied up with the York River. We don’t have the money to spend, so you’ll have to throw the artifacts back.” I said, “You’re crazy.” So the College of William and Mary took over the preservation work.
Naval History : What is your motivation for all this—and who finances it?
Cussler : Well, my wife is an accountant, who thinks I belong in a rubber room, under restraint. I do it because I enjoy it. All the money for the expeditions comes from book royalties. Certainly, nobody would give me a dime if I said I was going after a historic wreck and there’s no return. I’m sure if I said I was after treasure, I’d have people lined up at the door. I think I’ve spent about $130,000 finding the Hunley . But by God, it was worth every nickel. What can I say? Does that sound crazy?
Naval History : If the sky was the limit, what would you have done with the Hunley ?
Cussler : The Smithsonian would be a great source, because millions of people would see it there. Charleston could be a good choice, if they did it right and put it in a museum. They could put the crew in a marble sarcophagus on one side, and they could dig up H.L. Hunley and his crew from Magnolia Cemetery and put them in a marble sarcophagus on the other side. But that’s wishful thinking.
If the GSA decides to keep it, I would say the odds are that it will probably wind up with the Smithsonian.
Naval History : What’s your next project?
Cussler : We’ve got two, but we haven’t set dates yet. One of them is to go to Galveston looking for the Invincible , a Republic of Texas Navy ship. Yes, Texas really had a navy. It’s the only time in history that a sailing fleet ever competed against a steamship fleet.
Then I want to take one more stab at the French World War I ace who took off from Paris to New York in 1927 and vanished. Of course, Charles Lindbergh took off a week later and made it. It’s up there in Maine. It’s a long shot, but I want to go for it.
Naval History : So you go for aircraft, too?
Cussler : If it’s lost, we’ll look for it. We found the remains of the Akron and then we looked for a lost locomotive that vanished in a flash flood in 1876. We were looking for the Carondelet in the Ohio River, when the sheriff’s department there had us help find a car with a woman inside who had been missing for three years. If you say it’s missing, we’ll go look for it.