It was 80 degrees yesterday, but I got a chill when I signed onto Facebook in the afternoon. Rick Spilman had posted a link to his wonderful Old Salt Blog.
The post was in honor of the USS Thresher on the day before the 50th anniversary of her loss with all hands
My father had wanted to be on that boat. My mother was a bride of less than a year (we celebrated their golden anniversary last fall). My sister was negative two years old. I was negative four.
My father was a career Navy man. He had first joined the Naval ROTC to get a scholarship at Cornell. The money came with a requirement to serve a certain number of years, nothing excessive, but as an extremely bright chemical engineer, my dad qualified for the Navy's still very new nuclear submarine program, headed by the legendary Hyman G. Rickover.
It was an exciting program to be part of. My dad doesn't have any good Rickover stories himself (his theory is that it was mostly the Anapolis grads that the vice-admiral liked to unsettle, especially in the initial interviews that Rickover had with all aspirants to the program - Rickover had a frequently contentious relationship with the Navy's top brass and may have been testing the Anapolis grads for the bureaucratic attitudes he'd had to fight so much, while graduates of civilian institutions were less suspect), but I think one of my favorite Thanksgivings in recent years was when my folks and I went up to Mystic, CT, and had dinner with very old friends of the family, another retired submariner and his wife. The two retired sub captains got to reminiscing and I think even my mom and Mrs. F were hearing stories they hadn't heard before. I just wish I'd taken notes. We listeners were all in agreement that my dad and Capt. F could write a book if they wanted to, but that's just not likely to happen, neither of them have a drop of publicity-hound blood in their veins.
Anyways - it was a great time to be in a great branch of the Navy, my folks found they liked it and they ended up staying in for good.
Submarines were going through a massive change. The submarines of the first half of the twentieth century looked very much like scaled-down surface ships, and in fact spent much of their time there, seeking the depths to hide and to hunt. In the fifties, they began a rapid evolution into something much more specialized, suited to extended underwater operations. The reshaping of the hull into something more fishlike was successfully carried out in a boat named the Albacore, launched in 1953. The very first nuclear submarine, the Nautilus, was launched in 1954. In 1959, the Skipjack was launched, that being the first sub to combine the fish-shaped hull and the nuclear power plant (and I think that was the boat that my father was serving on when my big sister was born in 1965).
These were all fine boats, but the Thresher was the boat that everyone wanted as the 50's gave way to the 60's (her keel was laid in 1959, she was launched in 1960 and commissioned in 1961). The lead boat in a new class that pulled together all of the research that had been done on the earlier subs, she was designed to be faster, quieter, harder to detect, more comfortable to live aboard, and the deepest-diving sub ever made.
My father was a fine and well-respected young officer, one of the best of the best (Rickover wouldn't take less for his boats), but he still didn't quite make the Thresher. He didn't miss by a lot - I think he was something like eighth on the list of those who missed the cut.
Sometimes it's best to not get what you want. I wouldn't be telling you this story if he had.
My baby cup. Navy-style, late 60's. "Wardroom Henry Clay". The Henry Clay was my dad's boat when I was born.
I wouldn't know, of course. That's the part that's really strange to consider. It wouldn't have been me carrying any of the grief - I would've either just not happened, or maybe I would've been someone else - who knows? It was those older than my sister and I who would have had to carry the grief - the wives, the children who were old enough to understand, the families and friends and colleagues of the lost crew.
As it was, my folks say that it was a terrible time for the submarine force, which was and still is a very close-knit community. Everyone knew someone, everyone mourned.
Here's to the memory of those who were lost. And here's to those who responded by saying that that could never happen again -- thanks to the efforts of the safety programs that were developed and put in place after the tragedy, I don't think we ever really worried when we sent my dad off to sea for three months at a time.
We missed him of course, but we always knew that the boat would keep him and his crewmates safe and bring them home again.
Well. That ended up being much more of a tale than I'd envisioned telling when I sat down to write tonight. Certainly a lot of the story is mine, but there would have been a whole lot more vagueness about the details of what was going on in submarines at the time without the information I found on some excellent websites. The timeline of the early development of the modern nuclear submarine is paraphrased from Submarine-History.com. I refreshed some of my recollections of Rickover's career over on the Wikipedia article about him. History.navy.mil had a good brief history of the boat, plus a link to the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, which in turn gave a link to a set of documents collected by the Navy Department Library, including original brochures touting the advances the Thresher represented, which really gave me a better sense of the excitement that the submariners of my father's generation felt about the Thresher. All really worth a visit if you found this strange departure from my usual style to be at all interesting.