Wednesday, April 10, 2013

USS Thresher - gone 50 years

Note: I'd originally posted this thinking that the anniversary was the 9th. The title on links still reflects that but the actual date was 50 years ago today. 4/10/1963.

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 I refreshed some of my recollections of Rickover's career over on the Wikipedia article about him. 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.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting and compelling story. I was a high school senior when the Thresher went down, and I still remember the feeling of desperation when I thought of the trapped crew, and my optimistic belief that somehow they would be rescued. When they weren't, I made the decision that I would never be in the Navy. Then, seven years later, when a large majority of men of my generation had to rethink a lot of their earlier decisions, I found myself joining the Navy. My naval experience was much different and much shorter than your father's (I was an enlisted man who spent most of his time at a Naval Air Station in the Philippines), but the one common thread we have is that we met many remarkable people. The CO and XO of my base remain two of the most outstanding people I have come in contact with, before or since. Sorry to ramble on so, but you opened the portal to a lot of memories with your post.

bonnie said...

Thank you, Ol' P. Apology profoundly uneccessary. I'm glad you enjoyed this odd departure and I'm glad you shared your own story.

The funny thing for me is that I didn't know this until a get-together with my family a few years ago. We were driving somewhere, I can't even remember where but it was a longish drive. I guess we got to reminiscing and at some point my mother, I think it was, said something about how my dad had wanted to be on the Thresher, but it was a very popular boat and he was about 8th from being aboard.

There was a moment of quiet and then the conversation went on to cheerfuller topics (my dad's stories tend to be more about the fun aspects of the boat, swim calls, kangaroo courts, shellback ceremonies, the rituals that made the months at sea go by - he doesn't talk much about the heavier aspects).

I couldn't remember when the boat had gone down but the next time I got in front of a computer I looked it up and found that it was well before I was born.

Pandabonium said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Don said...

If you haven't read it, "Blind Man's Bluff" is an interesting history of post WWII subs, particularly the weight of intelligence missions vs the traditional "hunters vs boomers"

bonnie said...

I don't even know what to say. Your poor father, your fortunate father.

To paraphrase what Old Salt said to me when I first left a comment over his post that led to this one, I'm glad we both made it to the positive years.

bonnie said...

Oops, btw my comment was in response to Pandabonium's story. Don, I haven't read it but I'm glad you mentioned it, I have heard that's a good one!

Pandabonium said...

I really need to proof read my comments.

I was 12 when this happened and remember conversations I had with my dad about it in the years that followed. My brother in law's brother worked at Newport News Shipbuilding at the time and though they did not build the Thresher, they built plenty of other subs and were much affected by this accident.

Ironically perhaps, my father just missed a being part of a tragedy himself before I was born. In 1943 he was doing engineering work on the XB-32 Dominator aircraft for Consolidated at Lindbergh Field, San Diego. He was to be aboard a test flight, but as he was walking out to the plane, he got an important long distance call (wartime, 1943) and they decided to fly once around the field and come back for him. The plane crashed at the end of the runway, plowing through an adjacent Marine Corps barracks, killing several people. I was minus seven at the time. My two sisters were also not yet extant and my brother was just nine months.

Now I'm getting chills and half expecting to hear Rod Serling's voice...

Thank your father for his service (I know that has become a little trite, but I mean it). God bless the lost souls of the Thresher. Thank you for reminding us of this important event and your connection to it.

Anonymous said...

i was 11 at the time thresher sank and we had no TV at the time, but radio coverage of the event moved me. i remember the story of loss and lingering hope . . . and then national sadness . . . quite vividly, even though at the time i lived far from the ocean.

san blas panama said...

The interesting point is there was first rescue of its kind, the Squalus incident was later called the “greatest submarine rescue in history” by author Peter Maas.

After the rescue an equally impressive and successful effort was launched to raise Squalus and tow it back to port. The sub was eventually overhauled and recommissioned as Sailfish and served safely throughout World War II.

bonnie said...

Thanks SBP. For anyone who isn't familiar with it, Peter Maas's book about that rescue is called The Terrible Hours and it is a TERRIFIC read. I read a lot of books but I read most of 'em once - that's one of the ones I can read again and again. Click for more info.