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Anchors Aweigh: On The Road With The H.L. Hunley
By Scott C. Boyd
(December 2008 Civil War News)
CHARLESTON, S.C. — A mobile exhibit about the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley has made more than 150 appearances at schools and Civil War-related events since 2004.
It has traveled more than 100,000 miles and has been seen by an estimated 250,000 people, according to the exhibit manager and one-man road crew, John Dangerfield.
The exhibit is a small business that Dangerfield, who owns the replica, runs on weekends.
The Hunley made history when it sank the USS Housatonic on Feb. 17, 1864, and became the first submarine to sink an enemy vessel in combat. On Aug. 8, 2000, it was recovered from the ocean floor just outside of the entrance to the harbor at Charleston, S.C. Today it rests in a 90,000-gallon water tank in the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in Charleston.
The origins of Dangerfield’s mobile exhibit go back to the 1999 Turner Network Television (TNT) movie “The Hunley.” The movie used several models of the Civil War submarine, including a full-scale mockup for underwater scenes.
After the movie was completed, TNT boss Ted Turner donated the full-scale mockup to the Friends of the Hunley.
The Friends are the non-profit group that raises money for the continuing conservation, study and display of the real Hunley. Dangerfield has been a volunteer for the Friends since 2000, and still spends time helping them when he’s not on the road.
When he started helping the Friends, he saw their old mobile Hunley exhibit and, along with a friend, came up with the idea to create a new and better one using the donated movie prop.
It was stored outside a building on the Charleston Naval Base and when Dangerfield checked it out he found it to be in very poor condition.
“It looked like a piece of junk by the time I got my hands on it. People had rummaged through it and taken a bunch of stuff off it. It was ugly,” he recalled.
His skills as a retired marine machinist came in handy as he tackled the job.
“It was so bad I had to completely take it apart and rebuild it from the ground up. The only thing left from the original mockup is the two ballast tank bulkheads,” Dangerfield said.
The replica is welded to the trailer that Dangerfield hitches to his Ford van when he’s on the road. Like the original Hunley, the replica is some 40 feet long, 4 feet high and 3.5 feet wide.
The entire right side of the sub is open. “It is functional. It will do everything but float,” Dangerfield said. So the hand-operated crankshaft turns the propeller, the tiller for the rudder moves back and forth, and so on.
Due to liability concerns, Dangerfield doesn’t let the general public climbed down the hatches into the replica. “But I do let reenactors get inside,” he said, and he also gets in the sub to explain its features at events.
Ironically, when Dangerfield first encountered the movie prop version of the Hunley, he was told he was too large to fit inside of it. He had applied to be an extra in the Hunley movie, but was turned down.
“They said I was too large to be a starving soldier.” Dangerfield recalled how some of his friends who were heavier than he was managed to get into the sub.
If the venue is a school in South Carolina, then Dangerfield’s Hunley exhibit will visit free of charge, he said. Otherwise, the sponsor has to pay for a motel for him and fuel for the van.
“I pay the insurance out of my own pocket,” Dangerfield added, “but it’s getting too costly. I’m adding a few dollars extra on every event to recoup that insurance cost.”
Besides publicity about the real Hunley, the Friends of the Hunley benefit by receiving all the money Dangerfield brings in from the Hunley-related merchandise he sells on the road.
While some venues charge an entrance fee for the overall event, Dangerfield said there is never a specific fee charged for people to see the sub.
Kids ask wacky questions sometimes, like whether Dangerfield fought in the Civil War or ever served on the Hunley himself.
They also ask some very basic questions that adults never inquire about, like how the Hunley crewmen “went to the bathroom.” This stumped Dangerfield the first time a student asked him, but then he thought about it later and was ready the next time a youngster wanted to know.
“I say they only spent so much time on the boat every day. They didn’t live on the submarine. They probably didn’t bring any food or eat on the sub. If they had to go real bad, they either had to hold it or went right where they were sitting on the bench.”
One perennial question about the Hunley is why the sub never returned to base after its successful attack on the Housatonic.
Dangerfield prefaces his comments on this by saying he is only giving his personal theory, nothing official from the Friends of the Hunley.
He believes the Hunley was so close to the Housatonic that the concussion from the torpedo explosion immediately killed all the sub’s crew. Then the sub was struck by the USS Canandaigua as it rushed to rescue the survivors of the Housatonic.
He theorizes the Hunley rolled over, filled with water and sank. The men didn’t drown because they had already been killed by the earlier concussion.
“That’s why the men were found at their stations and why they made no attempt to leave the sub,” he explained.
He never liked history as a child, Dangerfield said, because history was just memorizing facts in a book. He wishes he could have seen an exhibit like the one he shows now. “I probably would have learned a lot more in school.”
Now with the Hunley replica kids can “walk up and touch this thing. They can look at it. They can turn the crankshaft. It sparks their interest.”