Ralph Berry, who would later become the US Coast Guard’s first black diver, dates his interest in diving to an old TV show.
“On Saturday there was going to be a show called Sea Hunt,” Berry, who grew up in Manteo, said Tuesday. “It was with actor Lloyd Bridges.”
“Sea Hunt” aired from the late 1950s to the early 1960s and featured Bridges as diver Mike Nelson. That was at a time when the history of diving was still quite young.
Berry recalled seeing Bridges, decked out in his scuba gear, going on undersea adventures and thought diving was something he’d like to try.
“I thought it was neat,” he said. “I said if I ever get the chance to try it, I will.”
Berry would do more than “try it out”. In 1979, he would blaze a trail as the US Coast Guard’s first black diver.
On Tuesday, the US Coast Guard paid tribute to Berry, honoring his legacy, at an hour-long event at the Aviation Training Facility of the Aviation Technical Training Center. Those in attendance included more than a dozen current Coast Guard divers in addition to members of Berry’s family.
Born and raised in Manteo, Berry said he had hoped to play basketball at Elizabeth City State University. Instead, he enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1974 and went to school to become a machine technician.
Before his first contract ended, he learned that the Coast Guard was looking for candidates for scuba training. Still inspired by the adventures of diver Mike Nelson, Berry applied to a diving school and after reapplying, received his orders at the United States Navy Diving and Salvage Center in Panama City, Florida.
“I didn’t do it just to be the first black diver,” he said. “I did it because it was something I wanted to do.”
Berry spent several more years with the Coast Guard, participating in several diving operations, including a dive on the Coast Guard’s Cutter Blackthorn. The Blackthorn was a 180-foot buoyancy tender that sank in Tampa Bay after colliding with a 600-foot tanker in January 1980. Twenty-three members of the Blackthorn were killed in the accident.
Berry said on Tuesday that working deep underwater had always been much easier for him than speaking in public.
“I’m more comfortable 60 feet under the ocean than talking to you now,” he said.
Captain Brian Hopkins, the ATTC’s commanding officer, spoke shortly before Berry was given a certificate thanking him for his service.
“Today we’re going to commemorate a piece of Coast Guard history and, quite frankly, a piece of American history,” Hopkins said.
Hopkins recognized several Coast Guard divers in the audience, many of whom are assigned to ATTC.
“Now I call these individuals by name because they are the epitome of what I would call the Coast Guard diving community,” Hopkins said. “And Mr. Berry, they embody a culture that you helped build.”
The Coast Guard diving community is a culture of dedication, professionalism and courage, the captain said.
“And Mr. Berry, you’re part of that diving community,” Hopkins said. “And I assure you that the character you have displayed in your career and the culture you have shaped through your commitment, through your professionalism and, most importantly, through your courage, that culture is still very much alive today in this service employees. Your legacy lives on and we thank you for that.”
Also on Tuesday, retired Coast Guard Capt. Dwight Meekins, who spent his career in aviation. Meekins said he believed Berry’s family taught him the values that made him successful with the Coast Guard.
“I believe that honor, respect and devotion to duty were cultivated in Ralph even before he started diving training,” Meekins said.
Coast Guard dive training was tough when Berry was there, Meekins said.
“It was 13 weeks long when he went on,” Meekins said. “Thirty-five candidates started the program with Ralph. Thirteen finished.”