In 1966, with the Vietnam War at its height, a US Marine called Maurice J. Jacques, a sergeant in the elite Force Recon Battalion, was issued with a new watch – a Tornek-Rayville TR-900. This is the story of the watches and the men who wore them.
The old saw is that generals always prepare to fight the last war, but that was not the case with the US at the end of the Second World War, when it found itself the world’s sole nuclear power. So, rather than developing new tanks, ships and planes using the lessons learned during the recent conflict, all effort went into methods of delivering nuclear munitions. The army developed new howitzers capable of firing nuclear shells and even a nuclear backpack for commandos to smuggle behind enemy lines. The air force brought forth bombers designed to carry the bombs and equipped its defensive fighters with nuclear-tipped air-to-air missiles. The navy, desperate to find a role, equipped some of its submarines with an updated version of the German V1 “Buzz Bomb”, called the “Loon”, which it planned to furnish with a nuclear warhead.
As these moves were going on, conventional weapons were being disposed of, the air force scrapped almost 80 per cent of its planes, whilst the navy decommissioned around two-thirds of its aircraft carriers. While this was going on with material, even more drastic cuts were being made to the manpower of the US forces. It was believed that in the new nuclear wars of the future there would be little need for large armies of men to physically conquer ground, nor would there be much use for the small special forces units that had been born during the Second World War.
Those special forces included the Navy’s UDTs (Underwater Demolition Teams), who had been formed because, for the Allies, the Second World War was a war of invasion; from North Africa’s Operation Torch in 1942, to Sicily the following year and D-Day in 1944 – to say nothing of the dozens of Pacific islands that had to be retaken. The war was all about the Allies putting troops ashore on occupied territory, which was heavily defended and, most likely, mined. So there came a need for divers to reconnoiter the beaches before the landings, mark the obstacles, disarm the mines and test the ground to see if it would support the vehicles which would be disembarking onto it.
The major problem was that the US Navy’s only divers were the old school “hard hat” kind, who wore heavy rubber diving suits, lead boots and brass helmets. They relied on hoses to provide air and they were normally employed by the navy in clearing barnacles from ships’ hulls and doing underwater repairs – almost always whilst ships were in dock. These divers were useless for beach clearance work, so a new cadre was formed. Instead of several hundred pounds of diving suit and weights, they wore nothing more than trunks, fins, a mask and a watch. The watch was vital as they would be dropped off at night by a submarine or canoe and would have to rendezvous for pick-up at a precise time.
No company in the world, at this time, other than Panerai, was making specialist diving watches, so the US Navy turned to their domestic watch manufacturers for help, and the result was the so-called “Canteen” watches; these were small sized watches, only 31mm in diameter and the winding/setting crown was protected by a screw-down cap fitted onto a protecting tube. This gave the watches their nickname, as this looked like the top of a water canteen. Most of the Second World War watches were made by Hamilton, using their 17 jewel 978 caliber, which was modified for the job by converting it to sweep seconds and the fitment of a hacking mechanism. The resulting calibre was renamed 987S. As late as the mid-1950s, the US Navy was still ordering these watches, and was issuing them to divers into the early-1960s.
Whilst the US was preparing for nuclear Armageddon, building up its Polaris submarine fleet and churning out squadrons of B52 bombers, two of its wartime allies were engaged in post-colonial conflicts on a much smaller scale. The joint chiefs of staff in the US saw the French defeat in Indochina where they had attempted to use Second World War tactics against an insurgent army and they also saw the almost simultaneous British success in Malaya where they used small scale counter-gangs to ambush the insurgents rather than indulging in big set-piece battles. Whilst looking at all this, they were aware of the spread of Communist insurgencies in the Middle East, Indochina and Latin America and realized that something had to be done.
In September 1962, President Kennedy made his famous speech committing the US to landing a man on the moon before the end of that decade. What is not so well-known is the speech he made three months earlier to the graduating class at West Point Military Academy. In it he said that it was no longer the Nuclear Age, rather it was the Age of Insurgency and that the US Armed Forces now needed more special forces. Over the next few months, that is what happened.
SEALing the Deal
The Navy’s UDT divers were reorganised and expanded and then renamed as the SEALs (Sea, Air Land teams), whilst the US Marine equivalent, the Force Reconnaissance Regiment, was massively expanded. The two units often worked together, with the SEALs surveying the beach and the tides, whilst the Force Recon guys would move inland to scope out enemy positions and entry/exit routes for the troops who would follow them.
With the expansion of the special forces came new equipment. The SEALs were amongst the first to be issued with the new M16 rifle, whilst the Force Recon personnel were early practitioners of HALO parachuting (high altitude jumping with low altitude opening of their canopies) in order to escape being spotted on the way down. Amongst the new equipment was a new diving watch, suitable for both the SEALs/UDT and the Force Recon, a modern diving watch with a self-winding movement, a rotating bezel to monitor dive times and a substantial depth rating.
The naval specification MIL-W-2217.6A(SHIPS) called for a watch capable of operating at depths of up to 400 feet, with an accuracy of at least 30 seconds a day and possessing absolutely no magnetic signature at all. Under the “Buy American Act” the specification went to all of the major US watch companies – Elgin, Hamilton and Waltham. However, as the initial request was for only 1,000 watches, none of them thought that the contract could be fulfilled profitably and that the challenges involved in the construction and testing were too demanding.
Whilst another firm, Bulova, did build several prototypes that were tested by the US Navy, they failed miserably. However, there was one American company that thought it had a chance. Allen Tornek was the US importer for the Rayville Watch Company, of Villeret, Switzerland, which made watches under the Blancpain name and also made watches for department stores and other retail jewellers who did not have their own manufacturing facilities.
Tornek and Rayville were interested for a couple of reasons: firstly, an order of 1,000 watches was substantial; and secondly, they had a head start over the other companies in that Rayville was already manufacturing a diver’s watch: the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms.
But the requirement to make the watch completely amagnetic (an anti-magnetic watch is one where the movement is protected from outside magnetic influences, whilst an amagnetic watch is one that has no parts in it that can be influenced by magnetism) was the major challenge. This required special steel for the case to be imported from Sweden, with a completely different composition to the stainless steel usually used for watchcases. The compromise that this entailed, was that the steel was nowhere near as resistant.
It took almost two years from the initial enquiry until Tornek delivered the first watches, firstly to the SEAL/UDT guys and afterwards to other naval and US Marine divers. The watch they received was quite different from the Fifty Fathoms – it did not bear the name “Blancpain” anywhere on the watch, the entire case was finished with a grained matte surface, making it completely reflection proof and the dial’s luminous compound was neither radium nor tritium – rather, it used promethium-147.
Using promethium meant that the luminous indices glowed brighter and longer, both underwater and at night. However, the downside was that its half-life is just two-and-a-half years, unlike tritium, which has a 12.4-year half-life, and radium, which has a half-life measured in centuries. Obviously, this short half-life would have been unacceptable in a civilian watch, but the navy had different requirements.
Sourcing the special steel used was a minor problem compared to making the internals of the watch amagnetic as this involved making the escapement from hardened brass rather than steel. Neither could the balance spring be made from steel, but I have not yet been able to discover what material was used in its place.
The initial order was for 780 watches (at $187.50 each) and the last of them were delivered in June 1965. A few months later another order for slightly fewer than 300 was received but that was it for the navy. Two years later, Mr. Tornek approached the navy asking if they needed any more watches, but as the Vietnam conflict was at its height, the powers that be had other things on their minds and told him that they didn’t think that they would need any more. So the special production line was dismantled, and the external suppliers (dial and steel companies) were told that their services were no longer needed.
But if you will remember, I mentioned that promethium-147 had a half-life of only two-and-a-half years. This meant that five years after the first watches were made they would have only around 25 per cent of their original luminous output. But when the navy approached Tornek about obtaining replacement dials, they were told that there were no more and that there was no chance of getting any more. So, as the dials became dimmer and the watches became less useful they were returned to the naval stores. And, once they got into the stores, they were doomed because the rear of each case had been stamped “DANGER Radioactive Material” with a large radioactive symbol.
Under Navy rules they were sent back to the Atomic Energy Commission in the US, where they were disposed of as low-level atomic waste. They were placed in containers with other low-level waste (uniforms, badges, pipework, etc.) and the containers were filled with concrete and then buried deep underground at sites in deserted areas in the US. As the watches were very low production items to begin with (just over 1,000 units made) and many must have been lost by divers while being used with most of the rest destroyed by the government, this means that the Tornek Rayville TR-900 may well be one of the rarest of all military watches. Current research suggests that there may be only around 20 examples left. In the early-1970s the very last of the TR-900s were withdrawn from service in the US Navy and went off for destruction.
But Sgt. Jacques’ watch was not amongst those destroyed by the AEC, he wore it through a further five years in Vietnam and then for a further seven years in the Marine Corps, by the time of his retirement in 1977, he had risen to the rank of Sgt. Major, the highest non-commissioned rank in the Corps. He wore the watch for most of his 10-year retirement, still keeping it on the issued nylon strap with a tiny liquid filled compass alongside it. During his retirement, a book, Sergeant Major US Marines was published detailing his 30 years of service in the Corps.
Unlike Sgt. Major Jacques, the Tornek has been almost forgotten, a minor horological footnote to a terrible time. I sincerely hope that this article will go some way to restoring it to its rightful place.