Thresher Revisited

As a nontraditional student who has enjoyed every moment of going back to college, I have always said that each semester takes on a life of its own, and presents not only new challenges, but new opportunities as well.

Here at UNH Durham, having completed my MFA in writing, I decided in September to update my 2019 article on the USS Thresher, which sailed from Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and tragically perished during sea trials off Cape Cod in 1963. Tragically, 129 sailors and civilians were lost.

The renewed interest on my part was sparked by retired US Navy Captain Jim Bryant’s lawsuit against the Navy, to get them to release long- held documents of the incident to the public. As someone who is still getting comfortable with social media, I surprised myself by connecting with Captain Bryant via LinkedIn. He provided me with the link for the documents, all now made public.

So not only were the first 300 pages of documents finally released this past September, but I had the good fortune of meeting an undergraduate student whose grandfather had an active role in the search for Thresher in 1963. Freshman English major Caroline Hanna spoke to me after I mentioned my interest in the submarine at an early Main Street Magazine contributing writers meeting in Durham this semester. Caroline told me about her grandfather, Ed Hanna, who is a Navy veteran and whose vessel assisted in the search for Thresher in 1963.

Caroline facilitated my interviews with Mr. Hanna, for which I am very grateful. And she spoke about her grandfather: “To get to know my grandpa, one must chip away at the layers to learn more and more about him,” Caroline said.

“He has plenty of stories to tell: being the navigator for one of the most important ships in the Navy (USS Gyatt DD712), searching for the USS Thresher, being a part of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and travelling the world. So, when Grandpa is telling a story, everyone becomes silent and listens to what he has to say.

“My grandpa is the smartest person I know. He got accepted into Notre Dame at age sixteen. He learned to drive a car while in college. He is an avid reader and consumer of knowledge. He still takes classes at Granite State College. I admire his passion for learning, and he has been one to support me and encourage me to write.

“He is understanding and open to ideas he doesn’t necessarily agree with. He has so much respect for people who are different from him. I try to emulate that in my life: to be more open, to be more understanding. My grandpa is the person I look up to most. I aspire to be like him every day of my life.”

Caroline reminded me of what I have discovered to be true in life. We are all connected in some way by acquaintances or common interests. What a rewarding experience to converse with her grandfather, who had firsthand experience with the Thresher incident.

Ed Hanna spoke about the vessel he was assigned to in the 1960s.

“My ship, the USS Gyatt DD712/DDG1, was a guided missile destroyer,” Hanna said. “The Gyatt was named after Marine Private Gyatt, who was killed in the pacific. We had about 15 officers and 300 enlisted. [The vessel] was about 300 feet long and 35 feet in the beam. It had five- inch guns forward. It ended life as an aerial target around 1980.

“I had been CIC officer and then Navigator,” Mr. Hanna said. “I left the Navy in 1965 for civilian life as an electrical engineer.”

In a recent phone interview, Mr. Hanna told me of how every Navy vessel in the Atlantic was recalled to search for Thresher.

“My vessel was based out of Norfolk, Virginia. When Thresher went missing, we made the trip to the location off of Cape Cod, along with the other available vessels. We did what we could, with sonar and other resources. The mood of our crew was somber; our thoughts were for those lost at sea.”

Assisting the Navy efforts, the bathyscaphe (manned deep-sea submersible) Trieste was alerted on April 11, 1963 and transported from San Diego to Boston. It was activated for two series of dives into the Thresher debris field; the first taking place from June 24 to 30, and the second from late August until early September.

The search for Thresher was paused in September, then reconvened in 1964. The new search included Mizar, Hoist, and Trieste II, Trieste’s successor. Mizar sailed on June 25, 1964 and located the wreckage in two days. Thresher’s hull, now in five sections, was located 8,400 feet below the surface.

I have always been intrigued by the stories of how oceanographer Robert Ballard discovered the wreck of the Titanic. The 1985 Titanic discovery by Ballard was especially exciting for me, since I was intrigued by the Clive Cussler thriller Raise the Titanic. This led me to pursue my scuba certification and also attend a trade school for commercial diving in City Island, New York, in 1985. Imagine my astonishment when I discovered recently – through articles by The Vintage News and Popular Mechanics – that Dr. Ballard received resources from the US Navy to search for Titanic. This was on the condition that he also locate Thresher, and another submarine that had been lost: the USS Scorpion.

Part of the lore of the Dr. Ballard Titanic/Thresher/ Scorpion mission in 1985 is that the Navy wanted the wreckage of the two submarines to be examined before the Soviets got to them.

I told Mr. Hanna about my attendance at the 56th Thresher memorial service in 2019 in Kittery, Maine. It was there that I met Kevin Galeaz of USSVI Thresher Base.

“My wife and I attended that service as well,” Mr. Hanna told me recently. “It was so nice and moving. It brought back a lot of memories for us both. Our first daughter was born just a few months before the Thresher was lost. Also, last summer I attended a Thresher base meeting in Dover with a number of old submariners. They asked me to introduce myself. And then last fall I attended the memorial ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery that Kevin was the inspiration/ leader.”

Galeaz, who is a family friend of the Hannas, worked long and arduously along with his Thresher base comrades to facilitate the Arlington monument and memorial to Thresher. (“Kevin was the driving force,” Mr. Hanna said). This monument is meaningfully located close to the Challenger memorial. NASA approached the Navy after the Challenger tragedy to collaborate on how to make their vehicles safer, in the same way that the Navy’s SUBSAFE technologies protect the lives of submariners after the Thresher and Scorpion incidents. The deep sea has often been called inner-space.

While I continue examining the initial document released this year, I aligned a lot of the interviews in 1963 plus eyewitness accounts from the incident with the comments of surviving family members who spoke at the 2019 memorial in Kittery. There were concerns amongst the contractors and sailors about sil-brazing techniques versus welding for the internal seawater pumps. (Submarines purify seawater when in service). The documents, as well as previous theories, indicate that Thresher might have had trouble blowing water from ballast tanks, and could not surface that way. A high-pressure leak might have created a loss of power, preventing the submarine from “driving” to the surface, another way of achieving positive buoyancy. Also, I found some ambivalence in the sworn testimony by workers who questioned the readiness of the vessel. (Iencourage readers to examine the documents and judge for yourselves). And I think back to the comments of Betty Stephenson, sister of EM2 (SS) Richard W. Jones.

“Richard was not scheduled to come home the weekend prior to April 10,” 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.”

And this from Lori Arsenault, daughter of ENCA (SS) Tilmon J. Arsenault.

“There comes a point when heart and soul take priority over science and technology,” Arsenault said. “The people who design machines for service members need to ask the question: ‘What cannot fail?’”

Dean Lane Axene, Commander, US Navy, was questioned on April 13, 1963 during the Thresher investigation. He was the previous commanding officer of Thresher and was asked about his opinion of what might have happened to the submarine.

Axene: “Well, I, of course, have thought about little else in recent days here. There is no way for me – or, I think, anyone else – to really know what happened out there. I have formed some opinions, yes. They are purely speculation. I do think that, whatever it was that caused the loss of the Thresher, it must have been associated with a flooding-type casualty, and I think it must have been of such a nature that it occurred almost instantaneously. Well, perhaps ‘instantaneously’ is not the right word, but in such a short period of time that the ship’s personnel were unable to react in the way that they normally would to let their escort know that they were in trouble. From what I have been able to determine, nothing was heard or observed by the escort to indicate that they were in trouble. Therefore, I conclude that, whatever happened, it happened rather quickly.”

When I question whether the Navy pushed the vessel out too soon to get ahead of the Soviets (at the time the USSR had some 36 nuclear submarines to our 10), others often point out the professionalism of the Navy yards, such as Portsmouth and Groton (which feature General Dynamics Electric Boat). As Mr. Hanna told me (and I appreciate his perspective from being a sailor during that time):

“I spent some time reading through the SECNAV report. I saw all those references to silver brazing versus welds. But I also reflected on the checklist comments and thoroughness to following work procedures. Just makes you wonder.”

Mr. Hanna continued: “About a year after the Thresher loss, my own ship went into dry dock in Portsmouth, Virginia, for the removal of the guided missiles and returning the Gyatt to DD712. As a 25-year-old naval officer, I was no judge to those procedures or quality control procedures, but I thought they were pretty high quality in the shipyard.”

I credit the Navy for allowing family members to speak at these memorials, and for producing these long-awaited documents. I sincerely hope that the continued release of the Thresher documents will bring a sense of closure to a local community that is still healing from this tragic incident of 1963.

  • Black Instagram Icon