The Journal of DIving History is the official publication of the Historical Diving Society.
In this issue
The Books of Rear Admiral Edward Ellsberg
The aim of this article is to publish a guide, although incomplete, to the books of Rear Admiral Edward Ellsberg, who was a major figure in United States Navy diving and salvage operations from the 1920s to 1940s. It is not a detailed accounting of Ellsberg’s career, but records various events in his career at the time some of his books were published.
The motivation for publishing this guide comes from the increasing volume of antique and vintage books that are being resurrected by Print-On-Demand and other methods.
With these new systems of publishing older titles, the original books, complete with original dust jackets and in good condition, seem to be more desirable among collectors
So, although I do not have an original example of every different title of Ellsberg’s books that were published domestically, I have a fair representation, which I am happy to provide in the spirit of international collegiality
All the book jackets and covers shown here are from editions or printings as noted, and are part of a 2020 donation of The Books of Rear Admiral Edward Ellsberg to the Leaney – Brooks Diving History Archive at the Special Collections Library of the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Ellsberg’s early books were published during the challenging times of the Great Depression. His first book was published in 1929, the year of the Wall Street crash, and following titles appeared all through the 1930s as the nation, and world, recovered. His books on diving all seemed to have sold well with some of them extending to numerous printings. Many have been republished in recent years, and their formats and covers may be different from what I am presenting here.
As we are an historical organization, I have attempted to record the First Editions of each title, and add relevant notes where I felt necessary. The focus is on Ellsberg’s books on diving, but I have briefly noted his non-diving titles also. There may be a few errors in all this and, as always, I am happy to publish any corrections or relevant information in future issues of this journal.
Edward Ellsberg was born in New Haven, Connecticut, on November 21, 1891, to Jewish-Russian immigrants. He entered the Naval Academy in 1910, and rose to prominence during the salvage operations on the submarine S-51, which sank on September 25, 1925, after being rammed in a collision with the steamer City of Rome.
The first salvage operation took place in the fall of 1925 and the second in the spring of 1926. Ellsberg worked with two groups of navy divers and the crew of the USS Falcon. The Falcon was a Lapwing-class minesweeper that had been specially fitted for navy diving operations, and would feature in many of the Navy’s salvage operations during the first half of the 20th century.
For their work on the salvage, Lieutenant Commander Ellsberg, Captain King, and Boatswain Hawes were recognized by the awarding of the Distinguished Service Medal, which was the first time it had been awarded for service during peacetime.
Ellsberg also compiled a report on his work, which was published by the Navy Department, Bureau of Construction and Repair in 1927 as Technical Bulletin No. 2–27. Report on Salvage Operations Submarine S–51, by Edward Ellsberg, Lieutenant Commander, Construction Corps, United States Navy Salvage Officer.
He resigned from the Navy in December 1926, and took a position with the Tide Water Oil Company of Bayonne, New Jersey. In its October 1926 issue, Scientific American magazine published an article by Ellsberg on his salvage of the S–51, giving encouragement to his early efforts as an author. But he would soon be back at sea.
On December 17, 1927, the submarine S–4 was rammed by the Coast Guard destroyer Paulding (CG 17) off Cape Cod, and sank. Ellsberg was swiftly sworn in as a Lieutenant Commander in the naval reserve and was back at work. Once his services were no longer required, he returned to his civilian position as chief engineer with Tide Water Oil Company in January 1928.
From his experience on the S-51, Ellsberg had developed a patented underwater cutting torch, and had partnered with the Craftsweld Company for its manufacture and distribution.
The Technical Bulletin that he had written for the S–51 salvage inspired Ellsberg to try his hand at writing an actual book for the consumer market. Three major publishing houses rejected his manuscript, but his work on the S–4 raised his public profile and the Dodd Mead Company agreed to publish. By the time his first book was published, he had been promoted to the rank of Commander, and it was under this rank that many of his following books were published. The title of the book was On the Bottom, which was published in 1929, and which was also serialized in the Saturday Evening Post magazine.
The book was hugely successful, and apparently every future Ellsberg book, except one, would be published by Dodd Mead. To build on the success of On the Bottom, the company suggested that Ellsberg write a book on the adventures of deep–sea divers for the juvenile market.
He undertook this opportunity, and the following year, 1930, the company published Thirty Fathoms Deep. The story centered around the search by Bob Porter and his shipmates – divers, sailors, and fighters aboard a modern salvage ship – for the treasure-laden wreck of the Spanish galleon Santa Cruz. Ellsberg named their fictional salvage vessel, Lapwing, almost certainly to connect to the USS Falcon, which was the Lapwing-class vessel he and his divers had served from during the S–51 and S–4 salvages. The book established the theme and characters for a future three diving novels that would follow.
However, his next book was not one of them. Pigboats, published the following year in 1931, tells the fictitious story of the sunken submarine L–20. Drawing on his knowledge of trapped submariners and their conditions, Ellsberg combined their story with a wartime duel between L–20 and the German submarine U-38.
Pigboats elevated Ellsberg’s civilian–life fortunes when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer acquired the screen rights, wove a love story into it, and re-titled it Hell Below. Produced by the legendary John Ford, and directed by Jack Conway, the cast of Robert Montgomery, Jimmy Durante, Walter Huston, and Robert Young were joined by Madge Evans, as the newly-added romantic interest. According to John Alden’s research, Ellsberg received a flat fee of $25,000 for the movie, which was reportedly the highest payment for any film before Gone with the Wind. The copy of the book featured here was published by Grosset & Dunlap, and not Ellsberg’s customary publisher, Dodd Mead.