Under the Sea

When Commander Derek Peterson ’99, USN, was in high school, his father’s sailboat sank. “[It] was hit by lightning which blew out two fiberglass plugs,” said the Cocoa, FL, native. “We went underneath it, manually lifted the hull, pumped all the water out, and got it floating.”

ADM Samuel J. Locklear III ’77, USN (Ret.), administers the Oath of Office to CDR Derek Peterson ’99, USN, during the latter’s promotion ceremony in Tecumseh Court on 11 December 2015. ADM Locklear was Peterson’s sponsor during his time as a midshipman. Photo by Barbara Hendricks

That was one of Peterson’s first salvage experiences, but far from his last. Growing up in Florida, Peterson spent all of his free time building, fixing, racing, maintaining and bringing aged boats back to life. Only recently he’s realized that these were challenges and stepping stones in the life of a young naval officer.

The Navy football lineman, surface warfare officer, engineering duty officer and Navy salvage diver has made a career of bringing broken vessels back to life, retrieving ships and infrastructure from the ocean floor and responding to disasters both natural and man-made. He has spent his career operating warships, serving at naval shipyards, operating as the Seventh Fleet salvage officer, managing maintenance at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Maintenance Center and now serves as an inspector for the president of the Board of Inspection and Survey, based in Norfolk, VA.

As a midshipman, Peterson’s grades and struggles with the Physical Readiness Test (PRT) came all too close to ending his Navy dreams, yet these struggles ultimately shaped his future.

“I was a big football player—six-foot-seven and nearly 315 pounds,” said Peterson. “But first class year, USNA holds everyone to the same standard of an outstanding score on the PRT. All midshipmen must run one and a half miles in under 10.5 minutes along with attaining a maximum push-up and sit-up score. In order to run that fast, I needed to drop at least 40 pounds. Plus, I had the added stress of my less-than-average GPA. In late February of my senior year, the head football coaches came to me and said ‘Derek, we know your PRT and grades are suffering. We have a plan to extend you so you can help us out with the team over the summer.’ My immediate response was, ‘Thank you sir, but no. I’m going to pass the PRT and get my grades together. I’m going to graduate and go out with my classmates.’”
So, that’s what he did.

“It has not been an easy path, but little did I know it was just a stepping stone in a life full of lessons. It taught me that whatever you want in life … no matter the odds, you can make it happen. You will have to work for it and have great mentors to support you,” said Peterson, who stays connected to the Academy and Navy football through his involvement in the Navy Football Brotherhood, an organization of former players, coaches and managers committed to supporting the Navy football program and providing mentoring and networking support to each other.

That’s the mantra Peterson has always followed. Raised on the waters of the Indian River and a boat builder since childhood, Peterson was born to be a surface warfare officer, Navy salvage diver, engineering duty officer and mentor to prospective young officers. “Plus, at my size, I’m not flying anything,” he said.

At the advice of his sponsor, former Commandant and now-Admiral Samuel Locklear III ’77, USN (Ret.), in whose backyard Peterson rebuilt a 16-foot fishing vessel as a plebe, Peterson selected Barry (DDG 52). “It was a great experience—they put you immediately on the deck plates, and ensured you get to know her bow to stern,” he said.

After a few years and a mechanical engineering degree from the Naval Postgraduate School, Peterson set his sights on becoming a Navy salvage engineering diver.

“I had to bring back my Navy football roots and start seriously working out again,” he said. “To be a Navy diver, you do the special operations PRT: a 500-meter swim, push-ups, sit-ups and pull-ups, then a mile-and-a-half run. It took me about a year-and-a-half, but I was in the best physical shape of my life.” During dive school he used his lineman motto, “there are strong and smart football players (position/talent dependent). In dive school smart divers go around problems, strong divers move or suffer through the problem. I tend to be a strong diver.”

During Peterson’s tour in Singapore, the Seventh Fleet salvage officer was responsible for the entirety of the Seventh Fleet (C7F) operational areas. “That op area comprises everything from the International Date Line to India. So, anything that goes underwater in C7F … we are responsible for helping or salvaging,” he said. “I got there at the end of February and by 30 March I was on a plane headed to Korea for my first introduction to Navy salvage.”

Peterson’s top salvage assignments:

• The South Korean warship Cheonan which split in two and ultimately sank near the sea border of North Korea: “The bow and the stern were five miles apart, and throughout the operation I was on multiple ships, both from the U.S. Navy and Republic of Korea, going back and forth between wreckage sites in freezing cold weather.” 

• Big Blue, an 850-foot dry dock that sank in Guam: “We couldn’t let it sit. In addition to leaking oil, this was a national asset used for ship maintenance.”

• The 2011 Japanese Tsunami: After working with the Japanese to set up pumps to pour sea water to cool the Fukushima reactor, Safeguard moved on to clearing harbors: “It took me back to Florida, being in the hurricanes. That’s exactly what it was like—major disaster all over the place. In Misawa, they had no heating oil, much needed with the freezing cold temperatures. The team had to dive in snowy conditions to clear a route to bring a tanker in for support and supplies.”

• Guardian (MCM 5), which struck a reef in the Philippines: “In the two days it took me to get there from Palawan, the ship had shifted and was being lifted up and slammed back down, puncturing the hull. The 10- to 15-foot waves were hitting the hull, throwing water up 50 feet in the air day in and day out. Working in that environment, I usually had to either swim into the reef, or, depending on the tide, crawl up the side to determine the situation as the ship was breaking apart.” 

“Salvage is very difficult and not cheap,” said Peterson. “There are many different ways to lift objects out of the water. The hard part about salvage is bringing it up in one piece. It’s doing it with enough grace to be able to investigate or possibly reuse the vessel. I definitely enjoy this work because it is very challenging and always changing. No two salvage jobs are the same, each salvage job has a different challenge.”

These days, Peterson’s finding his excitement back in the United States. First, at Navy’s Mid Atlantic Regional Maintenance Center he was involved with underwater ships husbandry and surface ship repair. More recently, he has served with the Board of Inspection and Survey as an engineering inspector. 

“The work I’m doing now builds on a skillset I’ve been developing since I was a kid on the water on Florida. It’s interesting to look back on the fundamentals I learned back then and see how they’re continuing to shape me today,” he said. “I can only hope to be as good of a mentor and leader to the new naval officers and the fellow Brotherhood football players I meet as I’ve had.”

Source: January-February 2016 Shipmate


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