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Original Issue

The Missing Link

After a lifetime high in the air, Edwin Link, America's inventive genius, has now disappeared into the ocean in search of long-buried clues to early maritime history

At age 52, Edwin Albert Link of Binghamton, N.Y. has 20-20 vision, crow's-feet in the corners of his eyes, a Roman nose and not much hair. Ed Link lives with his wife Marion and two sons in a 10-room stucco house on a residential acre of Binghamton. Outwardly he would pass as a local bank president or some such well-anchored pillar of the community. He walks, talks and drives a car with a slow ease that bespeaks a sense of permanence and well-being; but Link is not a banker, and he is not very well anchored. Functionally Ed Link is part fish and part fowl, a restless sort of aquatic bird with a habit of disappearing frequently into the sky or sea.

Link began disappearing 30 years ago. In the '20s he left his father's organ factory for a sputtering flying career, barnstorming and doing aerial mapping in the thin, chill air at 20,000 feet. Before he was 26, using the bellows principle of the organ and assorted scraps, Link had invented machinery and was developing training methods which helped catapult the air world through the next decade at double pace. Today, even in the air-minded Pentagon, when he is there on business visits, Link is rarely recognized. The Link face is not familiar, but everybody knows what a Link trainer is. In a quarter century about two million pilots—American and foreign—have been Link-trained.

As might be expected, Link's disappearances long ago prompted the nickname, "Missing Link." Friends now mirthfully point out that of late Ed, the missing Link, seems to be evolving in two directions at once. He still spends much of his worktime furthering navigation in the wild blue up yonder. But he now spends all of his free time in the blue underwater, groveling on the sea bottom for scraps of old ships whose navigators never made port. As an aeronaut, Link has been honored by colleges, societies and grateful governments. As chairman of the board of Link Aviation, Inc., producing flight simulators costing up to $1 million, Aeronaut Link prospers materially. Diver Link's yield on an average day of digging in an old wreck would not buy breakfast for a flounder.

Wreck hunting—a serious, exhaustive search—is necessarily slow and seldom more than intellectually rewarding. While Link has been at it only six years, it is doubtful if any explorer now works the bottom as fast and efficiently. Link has a constantly ticking mind that cannot dwell on anything without making improvements. He still grovels underwater, but it is now groveling of a mechanical, electronic, indeed, supersonic sort. He equipped his 65-foot shrimp trawler, Sea Diver, with radar, sonar, loran and echo-ranging depth finders, cramming into the engine room diesel generators supplying 110 and 220 A.C. current to run compressors, welders, a drill press, a metal lathe, a four-ton boom and an air-suction lift for clearing sand and debris from the wrecks. For a big hunt, Link carries on deck a 19-foot cruiser, the Reef Diver, and a 15-foot Wee Diver, both equipped with submarine ports. For closer searches right on the bottom, he uses an underwater metal detector and a one-man battery-driven underwater vehicle, the Power Diver, which he developed with Bludworth Marine, an affiliate of Link Aviation.

Ed Link's ears are ordinary enough in appearance, but they have, in the midst of all this throbbing machinery, developed remarkable powers. When the Sea Diver is on a wreck site, to other ears the mutterings of half a dozen motors and pumps fuse in a general hum, but Link, sitting on deck, will suddenly wince like a symphony conductor hearing a flute squeak. "That doesn't sound right," he will exclaim in the middle of a conversation, then quietly disappear—into the engine room, into the aft hold or into the sea—to fix whatever is throbbing out of tune.

Belaboring the sea bottom with all these machines, a Link expedition makes great progress. But there are still many slow hours when the only sure way is to pick through the silt by hand, sifting the rubble with the délicatesse of an archaeologist. For a man who also leads a fast life in the air, it should be exasperating, but Link gets a calm satisfaction from contributing both to the air future and naval history. The first Link air trainer is now in the Smithsonian Institution. Also in the Smithsonian, in a glass case hard by the scale model of the Bon Homme Richard, there is what looks like a rusty pipe. This pipe is an open-breech iron cannon of a crude fire-belching type that sometimes belched out the wrong end and carried away the cannoneer's head. The type went out of use about 1560; the Smithsonian's sample—probably the oldest known weapon recovered from waters of the New World—was dug out of a Bahamian reef by Ed Link. In a Haitian museum there is a long-shanked anchor of a type that went out of use shortly after Columbus' discovery. It was found by a Link expedition to Cap Haitien, where Columbus' crew ran the Santa Maria on a reef after a boozy Christmas Eve in 1492. The Link anchor is probably from the Santa Maria—it is with little doubt the oldest relic from western waters.

In the first boom years of diving, the cry, "I know where there is an old cannon," was a bombshell in any clump of sport divers. In smart diving circles today, an old-cannon announcement is the mark of a real square. As the traffic underwater gets heavier and heavier, a host of new divers now are seeing the same old cannons, or coral-crusted forms that look like old cannons. But what looks like the encrusted gun of an old wood ship may turn out to be a hawsepipe of the steam packet Annie B. Toat. On the other hand, what looks like a cannon may really be a cannon. It might, in fact, be a brass cannon. It just might be one of the few brass cannons that 17th century Spaniards alloyed with the curious new metal called platinum, in which case the finder is a rich man and the federal tax men will expect to take a cut that starts about halfway out the barrel.

For a hunter of Ed Link's experience, a cannon, just any cannon, is not enough. The hunt is a success only if it contributes in some way to history. This contribution is often a simple but important one. If by some relic—cannon or coat button—a wreck can be identified and dated, other relics on the site may take on value. These in turn may help date other wrecks and even relics found on land, where man has always been careless with his belongings.

History in a jumble

The recoveries from a single wreck site may be misleading. In the ruins of an old British warship, a hunter may come upon the rotted halves of a Yo-yo. This might mean that old British tars went for Yo-yos. It probably means some latter-day moppet in a latter-day Chris-Craft dropped a Yo-yo and fouled up the chain of history below. Several times Link's underwater detector has led him unerringly to the metallic heart of an old wooden ship, and the heart of the wreck has turned out to be a Spam can. "You have no idea," Link reports with a touch of despair, "how many Spam cans are down there." Over the centuries several ships may pile on a single reef and lie buried together in a chronological mess. It was while digging deep in such a mess of 18th- and 19th-century wrecks in the Bahamas that Link recovered the 16th-century open-breech cannon now displayed by the Smithsonian.

Link first went wreck hunting as a lark in 1951 on the Blue Heron, a tidy yawl of yacht club gentility which he raced on the southern circuit. After little more than a taste of diving, Link put the yawl on the selling block and bought his big Sea Diver. Hopefully contemplating greater hunts in the future, last winter Link put the Sea Diver up for sale and began making plans for an even bigger and better boat. "I have always liked the outdoors, and I have tried a number of sports," Link recently explained his affection for wrecks. "I took up golf once and put it back down very gently. I don't like to get my hands dirty, but I like to get them greasy. Wreck hunting seems to have the right challenge." Now in his seventh year at it, Link finds something more than a sharp curiosity impelling him to exploration—a desire now to "reduce the field of wreck hunting to sound facts by taking all the boloney out of it."

Assayed roughly, the lore of old wrecks today is half boloney, the powerful imaginations of adventure writers adding more boloney at a fierce rate. The seas are teeming with sporty fellows who duck underwater and bob right back up, empty-handed but full of the urge to write a book about their adventures among the untold treasures of the deep. After probing like a bank examiner through 50 wrecks from Florida south to Jamaica and east to Silver Shoals on the open Atlantic, Link has found much of significance and little of intrinsic worth: one jot of molten gold (worth about $15) and, possibly, enough usable silver to plate the annual trophies of the Binghamton Golf Club. He has worked among all the awesome sea creatures, at times with caution but always in utter peace. "A little sting ray once came and settled in the sand where I was digging," Link recalls. "Very cute, the little sting ray. But except for him, I don't seem to attract fish the way some of these underwater writers do."

It was Link's original pledge to himself that wreck exploration would remain a vacation escape to be enjoyed in the warm, clear, wreck-abundant Caribbean. Of late he has been backsliding. Last fall he disappeared into the Mediterranean and into the cold, turbid and tide-swept waters of Vigo Bay in Spain, where 11 galleons sank in 1702. He is just now in the middle of his biggest search in the harbor of Kingston, Jamaica, which scarcely qualifies as a vacation wonderworld—a silty, sluggish body of water unpleasantly cluttered with things not wanted by the town.

It was June a year ago on the Kingston harbor bottom that Link began slowly uncovering the lost city of Port Royal. Even stripped of fiction, Port Royal is story enough to wow the scenario captains on the poop decks of Hollywood. In the mid-17th century, Port Royal ranked among the first cities of the New World. Then it plummeted—literally. In two minutes of violent earth-shaking the city sank, drowning 3,500 people. Port Royal was never much after that, but it set quite a record for disappearances. It was destroyed by fire in 1704, by hurricanes in 1722 and 1744, by fire again in 1815, by earthquake again in 1907 and by hurricane in 1951. A blue-nosed moralist can say Port Royal deserved all this. In its prime it compared physically to a good section of London, but the moral tone was more like Sodom. It was a seven-night-a-week town of pirates, privateers, loose gold coin, wine, women and possibly song.

Since a sinking city usually sinks straight down, finding Port Royal does not seem a great task. However, like most such ruins, Port Royal has been in the middle of a running fight which has tended to obscure things. On one side there are the proper historians fighting to keep the record straight and, on the other, the treasure-loving romanticists kicking the facts around willy-nilly. Over a century ago it was a popular notion that the channel buoy off the present shriveled town of Port Royal stood over the church steeple of the sunken city. In 1859 a diver named Jeremiah Murphy went down to set the record straight. At the buoy, Murphy found not a church but a fort, with cannon still lying in some embrasures, and, stretching landward, the fragmentary brick walls of buildings. Diver Murphy was fast forgotten, and by popular acclaim the church moved again under the buoy. Five years ago an American diver, Alexis duPont, and a Dutch diver, Cornel Lumière, went down for a cursory look. They found part of a brick arch and, well buried in silt, what seemed to be bastions. Last year, Lieut. Harry Rieseberg, a diving writer and romanticist if ever there was one, reported that he had descended 180 feet and found a towering coral reef, a cathedral-like structure and, indeed, a ghost city stretching away into the azure depths. A giant spider crab challenged Rieseberg, so he withdrew.

Several layers of history

Three weeks after Rieseberg's latest account was drifting romantically through the U.S. press, Ed Link is found roving over the same bottom. The coral reef, the cathedral-like building and the giant spider crab seem to have disappeared. The bottom is silt-covered, the extreme depth about 40 feet. The only work of man immediately visible to divers of the Link expedition is a considerable number of wash basins and chamber pots, probably discards from a nearby hospital.

The proper layer of history obviously lies deeper in the muck. Just as obviously, this is a job for a whole platoon of diving diggers. For this hunt, Ed Link and his wife Marion are accompanied by Art McKee, a Florida diver of 15 years' experience on wrecks, by a Sarasota sports diver, Fred Logan, and by the Naval History Curator of the Smithsonian, Mendel Peterson. In three days, using Fathometers above and prowling through the murk below, the Link party traces the bastions of two Port Royal forts along the four-fathom line. Then they begin to dig, each man spending a lonely hour or two hanging onto the valve at the end of the air-lift pipe, to guide it as it sucks away the silt and as a precaution in case the pipe suddenly hits a soft spot and sucks the diver into a tangle of debris. In a nest of sea urchins on the fourth day Art McKee comes into a layer of brick and mahogany boards and, below the boards, the divers find bottles and bits of tobacco pipes proper to the century.

Twice briefly for a few hours the harbor water clears so the bottom can be dimly seen from above. In the clear water a nine-foot shark shows up and a 75-pound barracuda with mouth enough to fit a man's thigh. Since these visitors show up in clear water, it is reasonable to guess they are also hanging around in the murk. However, Link is such an unromantic sort of undersea man that the barracuda does not eat him. The barracuda is, in fact, so disdainful of the stolid, slow way in which the Link crew goes about its wreck hunting that it will not let any of the divers get within eight feet.

Persistency pays off

Lying on his bunk after a long day of uninspired digging, Art McKee remarks: "I always thought I was persistent, but Ed Link is the most persistent son of a gun I ever met. And you know why he likes it? He's got his hands in some kind of machinery. Look at this boat. On the way here the radar breaks. Ed flies a man in from Miami and then does 75% of the work himself. Out of Nassau an icebox line broke, so Ed repairs the whole icebox. At Great Inagua a bearing or something in the automatic pilot froze. Ed goes below and turns it down on the lathe. He made a new belt for the air conditioning. He made parts for the water pump and the main generator. By the time we got to Banner's Reef," McKee concludes, "I was in a sweat. I told Ed, I said, 'Ed, don't drown, because if you did, how the hell could the rest of us get home in all this floating machinery?' "

On the 10th day of digging, after 35 tons of silt have been moved (and 100,000 tons still lie over the city) they find under one hotspot, which Link picks out with his underwater detector, a 2½-ton nine-foot cannon. The crowned rose on the second reinforce of the barrel indicates it is an English gun. Expert Peterson judges its date at about 1650, just about right for the town sinking.

The next day Link must return to his business in the air world. So what does he do with the old iron cannon that confirms the site of the fort? He drops it back in the water. It can always be found when work starts again. Having set the record of Port Royal partly straight, Link is almost duty bound to return. If he does not, in a year or so, natives passing the time of day in the dying town will remember when Link came, brought up an old cannon and then put it back. Inevitably, someone will speculate, someone will suggest that perhaps he really found something a lot better. Inevitably the adventure crowd will get wind of it, and inside 10 years there will be stories of the American Ed Link who came and found the gold. In 50 years there will be stories of this American diver who came and found the gold altarpieces in the sunken church out under the channel buoy.

Before weighing anchor, Link takes about 20 bricks from the old lost city to build a sundial on his one acre in Binghamton. "Just a plain-looking sundial," Link says, "but I can tell you, figuring what this hunt cost, it will be the most expensive sundial in the world."



SUBMARINE RIDER on his one-man undersea vehicle, Ed Link searches Kingston harbor for traces of sunken city of Port Royal.