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Kansan identified wreckage of the CSS Hunley submarine

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012, at 10:49 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, Nov. 19, 2012, at 9:23 a.m.

Ad Astra

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating Kansas history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: To the stars through difficulties.

For 131 years, the CSS H.L. Hunley and its crew went unrecovered.

The Confederate submarine was one of the most important naval artifacts in U.S. history. But its location was somewhere in the murky, dark waters off Charleston, S.C.’s outer harbor.

It was the first combat submarine to sink an enemy warship, before it, too, was mysteriously sunk, along with all her crew.

On May 3, 1995, a team of underwater archeologists from the National Underwater and Marine Agency were working and exploring a grid when they came across a blip, a magnetic anomaly on their screen.

Wes Hall, a Kansan from Jetmore who had grown up swimming in Cedar Bluff Reservoir and collecting fossilized shark teeth in a pit on the edge of his hometown, was the man who first identified what has since been called one of the most important American underwater archaeological finds of the 20th century.

Hall died Aug. 27 from heart failure. He was 59.

His reputation as a marine archeologist and his ability to find things earned him the nickname “Underwater Indiana Jones,” according to the Wilmington (N.C.) Star-News at the time of his death.

Besides finding the CSS Hunley, he helped locate the 1677 French fleet in Scarborough Harbour, Tobago, and helped conduct maritime heritage work throughout the Eastern Seaboard.

“The thing about Wes was that he was always a quiet kid,” said his childhood friend Scott Chipman of Dodge City and a member of the Jetmore senior class of 1970. “He always said when he was in high school; he was going to be an oceanographer. We all said, ‘Yeah, right.’ We were 1,500 miles from the ocean.”

Although Hall was born in Artesia, N.M., he grew up in Jetmore.

“As soon as he learned to swim, he was a water bug,” said his mother, Lola Hall of Wichita. “He liked the water.”

After graduating from high school, Hall joined the U.S. Marines and was stationed in the Philippines. It was there he learned to scuba dive. He served in the Marines until 1974. He received his bachelor’s from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and his master’s in maritime history from East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C. He then moved to Charleston.

In Charleston, he met Ralph Wilbanks – one of the two men with him the day the CSS Hunley was identified. The other was Harry Pecorelli.

“He was really good in the field in underwater archeology,” Wilbanks told The Eagle. “His real trade was he could see with his hands. He could go down where there was no visibility, feel something and realize what he was feeling.”

Hall founded Mid-Atlantic Technology and Environmental Research in 1992. His company specialized in remote sensing and marine surveys.

On the day the Hunley was located, another diver, Harry Pecorelli, dove first. He located the object but wasn’t able to identify it.

Hall then dove.

“Everything was buried. Wes went down and found one of the shallowest places to dig. He came up and said, ‘It’s got to be it.’ He then dug some more and pretty soon had dug out the forward hatch. He’d identified it. He came up. We had a couple of Coronas on the boat and downed them. We said it was the best it will ever get.”

Before they left the Hunley, the three men inserted a National Underwater Marine Agency letterhead signed by each of the men and wrapped in watertight baggies. They had written, “Today, May 3, 1995, one hundred thirty-one years and seventy-five days after your sinking. Veni, Vidi, Vici!, Dude.”

That night, when the three went out to dinner to celebrate their find, Wilbanks said they were afraid to think about what they had uncovered that day.

“We didn’t want to think about it for fear somebody would read our minds. In Charleston, there is a big model of the Hunley that was made in the 1960s by the tech school. We went down there that night and looked at the model and were able to point at places on it and say, ‘that’s wrong’ and ‘that’s wrong’ and know that we were the only people in the world who knew that.”

Adventurer Clive Cussler, who funded the discovery, said, “I was convinced it was here, and by God, it was here!”

He would later tell the Wilmington Star-News at the time of Hall’s death: “Wes was a great field archaeologist. He developed new techniques to get the job done more efficiently. He was a great guy to have on your side.”

Wilbanks said his Kansas friend never was one to brag or get excited over discoveries.

“He was a good, level guy who understood how to do things and got them done,” Wilbanks said.

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com.

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