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Capt. Lewis B. Melson, career naval officer

Waterway and Maritime TransportationShipbuildingManufacturing and EngineeringUnited States Naval AcademyOregon State University

Capt. Lewis B. Melson, a career naval officer who had worked extensively during the 1960s with the Navy's pioneering Sealab program that allowed divers to work at the bottom of the ocean, died Sunday of respiratory failure at his daughter's West Towson home. He was 100.

The son of Roy Melson, a farmer, banker and county commissioner, and Etta Melson, a homemaker, Lewis Byron Melson was born in Salem, Ore., and raised on his family's farm.

After graduating in 1932 from Salem High School, he earned a bachelor's degree in civil engineering in 1936 from Oregon State University.

Captain Melson earned a master's degree in mechanical engineering, also from Oregon State, and did postgraduate studies at the Naval Postgraduate School in naval architecture and industrial management.

He worked for the Oregon State Highway Commission from 1936 to 1941, when he joined the Navy.

He spent most of World War II stationed at the Charleston, S.C., Navy Yard where he worked in shipbuilding and ship repair.

While in Charleston, Captain Melson met his future wife, Katherine Melton, a Navy WAVE, whom he married in 1942. A former educator, she died in 1996.

Captain Melson was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal in 1946 in recognition of his ship repair work during World War II.

Captain Melson lived and traveled all over the world during his Navy career, including serving at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. In the early 1960s, he was commanding officer of the Naval Ship Repair Facility on Guam.

He then transferred to the Office of Naval Research in Washington in the early 1960s, where he worked with Capt. George Foote Bond, the principal investigator and senior medical officer for the Sealab program.

The program, which was known as the Navy's "Man in the Sea" program, was part of the Deep Submergence Systems project. It proved that it was possible for divers and aquanauts to live and work at the bottom of the ocean in specially designed steel chambers or habitats that were anchored to the seabed.

Captain Melson's work brought him into contact with famed undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau as well as Scott Carpenter, the astronaut and diver. He assisted in the development of Alvin, the underwater submersible that led to discovery in 1986 of the RMS Titanic by Robert D. Ballard.

Captain Melson earned a Navy Unit Commendation in 1965 and a second star in 1966 to his Navy Commendation Medal for his work on Sealab II.

The Sealab program was ended by the Navy after aquanaut Barry Cannon died during a 600-foot dive off San Clemente Island, Calif., in 1966.

After Sealab was shut down, Captain Melson was the technical adviser to the mission in 1966 that recovered a missing hydrogen bomb that fell in the sea off Palomares, Spain, after a B-52 bomber and a KC-135 tanker aircraft collided during a refueling exercise.

Non-nuclear explosives on two bombs ruptured on impact while another landed safely on land. The fourth bomb fell into the Mediterranean Sea, where it was recovered 80 days later in an effort that required 20 ships, minesweepers and submersibles.

The bomb was found at a depth of 2,850 feet by Alvin. Shrouded in its parachute, the bomb was eventually raised and placed aboard the USS Petrel, a submarine rescue craft.

The recovery mission cost the Navy more than $10 million, which was the most expensive salvage mission in the Navy's history at that time.

"A potential the Navy did not realize it possessed had been demonstrated," Captain Melson wrote in 1967 in Proceedings, a publication of the U.S. Naval Institute.

"Deep submergence vehicles were used in an operational situation off a foreign coastline on an assignment as improbable as any that could possibly be conceived," he wrote. "None of the major search systems employed to locate and recover the weapon had ever been previously assigned to a fleet task force."

Captain Melson, who taught engineering at the Naval Academy part time, retired from the Navy in 1968, and went to work as a civilian engineering consultant for the Navy in Frankfurt and later Munich, Germany.

In 1975, he retired a second time and purchased a home in Pendennis Mount near Annapolis, where he lived until moving to Towson three years ago.

Captain Melson began extensive work on his family's genealogy, which resulted in the publication of "The Melson Family in America."

In addition to his genealogical work, Captain Melson enjoyed flower and vegetable gardening and traveling.

Captain Melson's family will receive family and friends from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday at Ruck Towson Funeral Home, 1050 York Road. Graveside services will be held in October at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.

Captain Melson is survived by his daughter, Mary London of Towson; a sister, Evelyn Melson Franz of Keizer, Ore.; six grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. A son, Lewis Byron Melson Jr., died in 1981; and a daughter, Peggy Parsons, died in 1998.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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