On April 9, 1963, the USS Thresher departed the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard for sea trials (deep diving exercises) en route to an area approximately 200 miles East of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Lieutenant Commander John Wesley Harvey was in command. The lead boat in her class of nuclear-powered attack submarines, Thresher had 112 crew members and 17 technical observers on board.
Accompanied by her escort ship USS Skylark, Thresher began her final mission in the early morning of April 10, 1963. Tragically, one hundred and twenty-nine sailors and civilians were lost when Thresher unexpectedly plunged to the sea floor, more than 8,400 feet beneath the waves.
As a child I was intrigued by submarines; I read Clive Cussler’s Raise the Titanic in junior high school, and received my scuba certification in 1983. Between military enlistments I went to a trade school in New York for commercial diving, and worked briefly in two related jobs. Living on the New Hampshire seacoast off and on since the 1980s, I always enjoy viewing the USS Albacore in Portsmouth, by the Piscataqua River.
I cannot recall the first time I had heard about Thresher; however it always seems to be on my mind. Through tragedy and darkness can come a ray of light; the sacrifice of the 129 sailors and civilians was not in vain, as submarine technology is now safer and more efficient.
On the morning or April 13, 2019, I was privileged to be able to attend the 56th Anniversary Memorial Service for the USS Thresher. It took place at Traip Academy in Kittery, Maine. Visitors were greeted by members of United States Submarine Veterans (USSVI) Thresher Base, and veteran submariners of years past. Outside the entrance all could view a scale model of Thresher, with volunteers answering any questions.
The USS Thresher (SSN-593) Memorial Float on display in front of the R.W. Traip Academy. (Photo by Peter J. Koester)
Inside the packed gymnasium, those present were greeted by Gary Hildreth, the former commander of USSVI Thresher Base. (The current commander is Kevin Galeaz.). The National Anthem was led by sisters Deb Arsenault Henderson and Lori Arsenault, daughters of ENCA(SS) Tilmon J. Arsenault. Navy Chaplain Nathan Ferrel, from Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, was on hand for the initial Invocation, and subsequent prayers. There was a question and answer period where the audience interacted with former Thresher crew members.
These veteran submariners related the story about a trip to San Juan, prior to the final mission. Thresher had lost power, and had to connect with a power cable attached to another vessel in port there. The sailors were returning from shore leave, and after a night on the town were told they had to sleep on the dock because repairs were being done below decks in 135 degree temperatures.
Betty Stephenson, sister of EM2 (SS) Richard W. Jones, read from a Milford, NH article entitled “Pride and Sadness”. She then articulated a moving description of her brother’s duties, and what it was like when she was notified of the tragedy.
“On February 4, 1963, my brother, Richard William Jones EM2, was assigned to the USS Thresher,” Stephenson said. “Unfortunately, all of us here today share in the ‘rest of the story’ in one way or another.”
“Richard was not scheduled to come home the weekend prior to April 10th,” she said. “When my mother asked how he was able to come home, he answered, ‘We did mock (sea) trials, and if we’d been at sea, we would have sunk.’ None of us really gave that answer a second thought, because after all, the USS Thresher was the newest, the biggest, and the best.”
“April 10th was an ordinary day for me,” Stephenson said. “I was twenty years old, without a care in the world. I imagine my biggest concern at that time was whether I had a date every night of the week. In fact, I did have a date that Wednesday night. After supper, I sat waiting for him while my mother and sister sat opposite me reading. My father was at a police department meeting in town, so when the phone rang I assumed it was my date explaining he would be late…again. This was not the case. At 7:00 pm, the phone rang, and it was a stranger telling me that the USS Thresher was ‘overdue.’ I chose not to tell my mother, because I didn’t want to worry her. Twenty minutes late, my friend Barbara Courage called and asked me, ‘What submarine is your brother on?’. After answering her three times and listening to her awkward pauses, she said, ‘It’s at the bottom of the Atlantic.’ Barbara had her television on that night. My family did not.”
The keynote speaker on this day was Commander Brent Spillner, of USS Springfield (SSN 761). He acknowledged the surviving family members.
“After the tragic events with Thresher,” Spillner said, “the Navy has SUBSAFE technology in place to ensure that sailors serving in harm’s way are protected to the highest degree possible.”
“In the past equipment and technology was tested to see when it would fail,” he said. “Now there is a standard in place that makes failure unacceptable.”
One of the submariners on site this day explained to me that SUBSAFE is a way of ensuring a submarine’s positive buoyancy, at all times. Also, it prevents invasive seawater incidents and casualties.
In the 50 years since the inception of the SUBSAFE program, there has not been a loss of a SUBSAFE certified submarine. The SUBSAFE program has also been utilized as a safety standard when analyzing the loss of both Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia. It should be noted that the deep ocean is referred to as Inner Space by many scientists; it shares many of the physical challenges of Outer Space. Fittingly, one of the proposed sites for the Thresher Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery is located near the memorials for Challenger and Columbia.
While attending the ceremony, I spent a moment conversing with Lori Arsenault. She told me how she used a crowd source choir to help with the day’s music events. Also she spoke with passion about the importance of SUBSAFE technology.
“There comes a point when heart and soul take priority over science and technology,” she said. “The people who design machines for service members need to ask the question: ‘What cannot fail?’”.
The tragedy of the USS Thresher came during the Cold War. There was competition with the USSR in regards to submarine technology. In the early 1960s, the Russians had 36 nuclear submarines compared to 11 produced by the United States.
Thresher had a displacement of 3700 tons surfaced, and 4300 tons submerged. With a length of 278 feet 6 inches (84.9 meters) and a beam of 31 feet 8 (9.45 meters), it was capable of speeds over 20 knots. Armament included four torpedo tubes.
The following are entries from USS Skylark Ships Log for 10 April 1963. Skylark communicated with Thresher via an underwater telephone during the deep diving sea trials. (Courtesy of thresherbase.org).
0747: USS Thresher begins its descent the test depth.
0752: USS Thresher levels off at 400 ft (120 m), contacts the surface, and the crew inspects the ship for leaks. None are found.
0825: USS Thresher reaches test depth.
0902: USS Thresher announces to USS Skylark she is turning to "Corpen [course] 090." At this point, transmission quality from Thresher begins to noticeably degrade.
0913: ( USS Thresher Captain) Harvey reports status via underwater telephone. The transmission is garbled, though some words are recognizable: "[We are] experiencing minor difficulty, have positive up-angle, attempting to blow." Officers on Skylark could hear the hiss of compressed air.
0915: Skylark queries Thresher about her intentions: "My course 270 degrees. Interrogative range and bearing from you." There is no response, and Skylark's captain, Lieutenant Commander Hecker, sends his own gertrude message to the submarine, "Are you in control?"
0917: A second transmission is received, with the partially recognizable phrase "exceeding test depth...."
0918: Skylark detects a high-energy low-frequency noise with characteristics of an implosion.
On April 12, 1963 President John F. Kennedy ordered that flags across the country be flown at half-staff to honor the lives lost aboard the Thresher.
After an extensive underwater search conducted by the oceanographic ship Mizar and others, Thresher’s remains were located in 1964 with the aid of the deep-submergence vehicle Trieste 2.
A Court of Inquiry investigated the incident. With the use of deep sea photography, recovered artifacts such as O-rings, and an evaluation of Thresher’s design and operations, it was determined that Thresher probably lost positive buoyancy due to a piping failure, subsequent loss of power and inability to blow ballast tanks rapidly enough to avoid sinking.
Over the years since the Thresher tragedy, the Navy has returned to the site of the wreckage six times to monitor radioactivity in the area. This was done most recently in 1998. A 2011 survey reported that the Thresher wreckage “had no discernible effect of radioactivity” on the surrounding environment.
Another intriguing aspect of the Thresher story was the circumstance of the wreckage survey. Some of the submariners and volunteers at Saturday’s memorial ceremony confirmed it when I asked. In 1985 oceanographer and Naval Reserve commanding officer Robert Ballard shocked the world when he found the Titanic. (The ocean liner that struck an iceberg on April 15, 1912.) According to a CBS article in 2018, how he did it remained a highly-classified U.S. government Cold War secret for decades.
In 1982, when Ballard, who had performed a number of top-secret Naval missions during the Cold War, was developing his own remotely-operated underwater vehicle. In need of financial help with for his work, Ballard asked if the Navy would help fund his project.
Deputy Chief of Naval Operations Ronald Thunman agreed, but with one condition. The Navy wanted Ballard to also survey the wrecks of two U.S. nuclear submarines – the Thresher and the Scorpion – which had sunk in the Atlantic in the 1960s. Scorpion had sunk in the Atlantic in May 1968, with a loss of 99 crew members.
According to the CBS article, the focus of this mission was to find the Scorpion. The Cold War was still going on; the Navy didn't want the Russians to find either submarine. "It was very top secret," Ballard said. "And so I said, 'Well, let's tell the world I am going after the Titanic.'"
When Saturday’s ceremony concluded, a wreath was placed in the waters of the Piscataqua River, near the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. The Honor Guard fired three shots, and taps were played. It was a meaningful salute to the courageous sailors and civilians of the Thresher. They will always be on eternal patrol.
Former crewmen Owen Johnson and Ira Goldman toss the memorial wreath into the Piscataqua River.
(Photo by Peter J. Koester)