Book Review: June 2007

The Last New Guinea Salvage Pirate by Fritz Herscheid
ISBN 0 9586657 6 1, published by Barrier Reef Business Brokers, 500 pages, hardcover, colour and black and white photographs and maps. Cost $56.00 plus $9 p&p, available through: Peter Stone, Oceans Enterprises , 303-305 Commercial Road Yarram, Vic 3971 Ph: 03 5182 5108

This amazing book is a must-read for every diver. Older divers will re-live the crazy wonderful times of their youth, before bureaucrats and lawyers made risk-taking a crime and adventures passive and supervised. Young divers will have trouble believing it all. But here it is! Routine 300ft (90m) dives on air using primitive scuba, 150ft (45m) free ascents in dive training, power heads to blast troublesome sharks, and fortunes in copper, bronze and brass awaiting the courage and ingenuity of mostly self–taught salvage pirates whose “bible” was the revered 1963 US Navy Diving Manual.

In his book Fritz Herscheid, writing with a natural, lively, conversational style, describes his fascinating years of adventure in Papua New Guinea (with excursions to the Solomon Islands and Philippines). He moved to Rabaul as a young Automotive Engineer in 1967, but quickly evolved into a diver, businessman, ship’s captain, explosives expert and salvager of shipwrecks, mainly from World War 2. His research enables him to identify and tell the history of many of the wrecks familiar to tourist divers today. He then describes how and why they now exist without propellers, condensers and most of their non-ferrous fittings. He and his various rival salvagers were a band of pirates indeed, poaching from each other and all doing their best to avoid authority. At this time PNG was still a territory of Australia. When PNG became independent in 1975 the new nation became concerned about the preservation of its war history, salvaging rapidly came to a halt and Fritz had to find a proper job! Some will no doubt be mortified at the destruction caused by the salvagers but the truth is that no one in the 1960s really saw these wrecks as the historical treasures they are regarded as today.

Fritz’s hair-raising exploits, though high risk, resulted in few injuries and no fatalities, though he does describe fatalities of a few Rabaul divers from the same era. He confesses his own ‘near misses’ and tells the stories with good humour and sensible caution to others. He certainly made dives outside the limits – but this was not done without precautions, such as careful monitoring of depth, bottom times and decompression stops. I have to tell you, though, that you are going to lose some sleep – but only because this book is impossible to put down. Most of the personalities he encountered are still alive and willingly contributed memories to the book.
Original photographs of the ships, photos of the wrecks on the bottom and photos of the people and boats involved in the salvage, bring it all to life.
Bob Halstead

The above review is an edited version of that which has appeared in Skin Diver and Asian Diver magazines

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