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James Francis Cahill, 1926-2008


James Francis Cahill
(March 30, 1926 - February 28, 2008)

James F. Cahill, Jr., age 81, of Salem, Retired Salem Harbormaster and noted former United States Navy Frogman, died peacefully in Gloucester on Thursday morning. Born in Salem, the son of the late James F. and Mabel (Ellis) Cahill, he was raised and educated in Salem and was a lifelong resident of the North Shore. Mr. Cahill was an outstanding athlete in both high school and college, playing half-back on the football team at Holy Cross and Boston College. He subsequently served as a Lieutenant in the United States Navy in both World War II and the Korean War, and joined one of the first classes of the U.S. Underwater Demolition Team, code named the “Amphibious Rogers” which preceded the formation of the Navy Seals.

Cahill’s personal character and determination are best described by the selection criteria for this military unit, “extremely courageous, seeking adventure and willing to accept hardship. Must have the maturity, self-reliance, ingenuity, and deep sense of responsibility requisite for assuming command on vital missions under hazardous conditions. Should be psychologically prepared for hazardous duty.” He served as head of Boston Harbor security for the U.S. Navy, and was honorably discharged in 1954 with the rank of Lieutenant Senior Grade. At the end of his active Naval career, Cahill transferred to the Virgin Islands to participate in the filming of the motion picture “Frogmen” and took an active lead in developing the commercial and recreational scuba diving industry. Cahill is widely credited as being the first person to scuba dive in New England waters.

In the 1950s Cahill founded the Hui Kai scuba training camp on Children’s Island in Salem along with his business partner Buster Crabbe, the well-known original “Tarzan” actor. He also served as a consultant to the actor Lloyd Bridges during the popular television series of the late 1950s “Sea Hunt.” Cahill then founded and served as the president of New England Divers, Inc., headquartered in Beverly, which became one of the nation’s first chain of commercial scuba diving stores and training centers. Cahill expanded New England Divers’ operations to locations throughout the United States opening stores in Beverly, MA; Seattle, WA; San Diego, CA; San Francisco, CA; La Mesa, CA; Huntington Beach, CA; Hingham, MA; and Kendal FL. Cahill operated the Beverly location, on Water Street and then on Tozer Road, for many years where he personally taught scuba and swimming lessons – and maintained the largest supply of scuba equipment on the East Coast.

As a pioneer of scuba diving, he assisted many state and local police departments, as well as the U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard and Air Force in investigations, rescue missions and training sessions. One case that received broad headlines at the time, was the Clark murder case, where Cahill recovered the murder weapon that had been discarded in the Merrimack river. The Navy also hired Cahill to photograph the Texas Towers 100 miles off of the Atlantic Coast – and he was placed in charge of the recovery mission for the Texas Tower 4 collapse 200 feet below sea level, coordinating both Navy and New England Divers personnel in the mission. Cahill and his team made more than 25 dives to 200 feet below sea level for the mission. Cahill’s work also extended to assisting adventurers and treasure hunters in the exploration and recovery from shipwrecks in New England and Caribbean waters.

Cahill was also active in promoting scuba diving, serving as a member of the founding Board of Directors of the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI) along with Jacques Cousteau. He also served as Chairman of the Massachusetts Governor’s Committee to study scuba diving; served as a member of the Massachusetts Governors Marine Fisheries Advisory Commission; and as a member of the Massachusetts Governors Civil Defense Advisory Commission. In 2003, the industry acknowledged Cahill’s early leadership when the Academy of Underwater Arts and Sciences presented him with the distinguished NOGI award for Science. This elite diving award, which was first presented in 1960, is voted on solely by the surviving prior recipients. It was presented to Cahill for his reputation as a leader and innovator within the scuba industry. Among the many other awards and recognitions he received, Cahill was also particularly proud of receiving the Diver of the Year award by the Boston Sea Rovers in 1958.

James Cahill was a fixture on the waters of the North Shore and Salem Harbor for more than 50 years, and during his tenure as Harbormaster for the City of Salem from 1981 to 1991, he would daily patrol Salem waters aboard his tugboat the “Bob Sea.” Cahill is survived by his former wife Barbara Goff Cahill of Ipswich, MA; seven children, Maureen Cahill of Monticello ,NY; James Michael Cahill of Orlando, FL; Cheryl Cahill of Orlando, FL; Patricia Cahill Taft and her husband John Taft of Newport, RI; Robert Cahill and his wife Michele of Gloucester; Mark Cahill and his wife Elizabeth of Colchester, CT; Kristin Cahill Umile and her husband James of Ipswich, MA ; four grandchildren: Heather Cahill of Salem; Nora and Atlee Cahill of Gloucester; and Marina Cahill of Colchester, CT; two sisters in law Sandra Cahill of Celebration, FL and Ann Goff of Peabody; a niece Keri Cahill; and four nephews Daniel, James and Stephan Cahill and Edward Goff. He was predeceased by his brother, former Essex County Sheriff Robert E. Cahill; a brother in law Edward Goff and a nephew Peter Goff.

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