MYSTIC — Capt. Bill Palmer is one of the most accomplished and respected wreck divers in the entire Northeast Atlantic, and certainly one of the most noteworthy of his generation. Chances are he would deny it and could list others more qualified, but that’s how Bill Palmer is.
He runs his fishing expedition and wreck diving business out of the Mystic Shipyard, and has done so for the last five years, but he’s been at the heart of the diving community for the last 40 years.
This past March, Palmer released his first book, “The Last Battle of the Atlantic, The Sinking of the U-853,” an account of the German submarine that sank 7 miles off the Block Island coast mere hours before the end of World War II in Europe.
The book is well researched and illustrated with historical photographs of the U-Boat and its crew, as well as color pictures of the wreck and the relics left behind.
“The book has been a quest of mine. I’ve started and stopped it many times but I finished it in March of this year. My aim is to let people know that German U-Boats were up and down our coast during World War II, just a few miles from here. Sometimes they don’t believe it,” he said. “The U-853 sunk a coal freighter 2 miles off the coast of Point Judith. If you were standing there you could have seen it.”
Sitting in 130 feet of water, the visibility is challenging but averages about 10 feet. On one of those rare lucky days it can reach 80 feet. Despite the depths, Palmer said he has never had a bad experience with getting caught in tight places or with recovering from water pressure; he considers such things an annoyance rather than a reason to panic.
Palmer is a historian, researcher, explorer, filmmaker and lecturer. Most important, he is a storyteller, someone who can sit down and recall a dive he made years ago as if it were yesterday. “I made my first dive in 1969 and I’ve been diving ever since,” he said.
Palmer was mentioned in a 2004 nonfiction book, “Shadow Divers,” by Robert Kurson. It tells the story of two men, Richie Kohler and John Chatterton, who attempt to identify a U-boat 60 miles off the coast of New Jersey in 1991. After many years and at the cost of three accidental diving deaths, the two are advised to seek Palmer’s advice on where to find tags that would indisputably identify the vessel.
“That book painted me as sort of a nut and a ‘hard living, cigar chomping’ guy,” Palmer said, laughing. “The author, who I never met, made me look a little crazy, like I was talking to mannequins and expecting an answer. But I know John and Richie and we get along fine. I was happy I could help.”
In 2000 a PBS “NOVA” show called “Hitler’s Lost Sub” was aired that followed Chatterton and Kohler in their quest to identify the sub, the U-869. The pair also hosted the series “Deep Sea Detectives” on the History Channel.
Palmer said, “They were on my boat a couple of years ago and I told them I was thrilled for their success. It goes to show that two guys like me can rise to national prominence doing what they like to do best.”
Ever the entrepreneur, Palmer has had his own production company, Thunderfish Video, for years and makes his own documentaries, 16 of which are for sale.
He would like nothing more than to be involved in a nationally broadcast show that would document some of the wrecks and their history. Breaking into such a tightly knit business, however, is difficult.
“I once met with one of the vice presidents at the History Channel,” he said. “She loved the films but said I had to work with one of the production companies that they knew. Things never materialized.”
His films are also proof that he has mastered his craft, telling the history of some of the most interesting vessels on the bottom of Long Island Sound.
“If you do the research there are some great wrecks down there,” he said.
Independently distributed, “The Last Battle of the Atlantic, The Sinking of the U-853,” can be found at the Submarine Force Library & Museum, Groton; Marine Consignment of Mystic; Mystic Army Navy Store; Bank Square Books; Other Tiger, Westerly; and the Block Island Historical Society and most Block Island book stores.
He can be contacted through www.thunderfishcharters.com and there are video clips at the YouTube channel captainbillpalmer.