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Commissioned on August 30, 1961 at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, the USS THRESHER (SSN 593) was the lead ship of a new class of deep diving nuclear submarines that incorporated several new features. In addition to nuclear power, these included the optimum hydrodynamic hull form based on the USS ALBACORE tear drop design and an advanced, state-of-the-art integrated sensor suite — the AN/BQQ-2, designed and produced by the Submarine Signal Operation of Raytheon Company.

The new ship, which was named for the thresher shark, was the second U.S. submarine to carry the name. The first THRESHER (SS 200) had achieved a distinguished war record in World War II. The nuclear powered TIIRESHER chose “Silent Strength” as her motto; when she was commissioned in 1961, she was designed to operate deeper and quieter than any of her predecessors, including the NAUTILUS, the SKATE class, and the SKIPJACK class.

After commissioning, the TIIRESHER’s principal operational duties were to test and evaluate all of the new advances incorporated in her design so that modifications and corrections could be made to the THRESHER and her subsequent sister ships, starting with the USS PERMIT (SSN 594). Besides the crew, many people were deeply involved with these tests and sea trials, including officers and civilian technicians from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, and engineering and test people from Raytheon Company, Sperry Gyroscope Company, and the Naval Ordnance Laboratory.

On April 10, 1963, while conducting deep dive tests about 220 miles off Boston, Massachusetts, the THRESHER was lost with all hands. The complement of the ship that day was comprised of 129 men: 16 officers, 96 crew, and 17 civilian technicians. The nation and the naval community were stunned. At the time of the THRESHER loss, President John F. Kennedy said, “The future of our country will always be sure where there are men such as these to give their lives to preserve it …

On April 8, 1990, 27 years after that tragic event, a monument was dedicated to the memory of the THRESHER and her men at Albacore park in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. For those involved in the submarine business, the dedication ceremony brought back vivid memories of the loss of the ship, friends, and co-workers.

The writer, now the Marketing Manager for Raytheon’s Submarine Signal Division, was then a young naval officer about to start submarine school at Groton, Connecticut

“The completion of the nuclear reactor training in April was just the first step towards joining the submarine force. The start of submarine school meant signing up for base housing; so on the morning of April 11, 1963, I had driven from the SIC nuclear reactor prototype at Windsor Locks, Connecticut, to the submarine base. As I approached the main gate, the Marine guard waved me to the side of the road and a group of official Navy cars sped through the gate. I asked the Marine guard what was going on. He said that something had happened to one of the submarines and officials from Washington and Norfolk were meeting at the base. Later, on the evening news, the Navy announced that the THRESHER was missing after conducting diving trials off the New England coast. One of my friends from the Naval Academy, LTGg) John J. Wiley, had been assigned to THRESHER as his first submarine. Although John was a year ahead of me at the academy, he and I had taken the first nuclear engineering course offered there in preparation for entering the nuclear submarine force.”

Others remember that fateful day. Mark Chramiec, Raytheon Principal Engineer, was then the systems engineer responsible for the overall tests to validate the Retrofit 2 of the AN/BQQ2. He remembers the events preceding the TIIRESHER’s final sailing and his co-worker, Maurice Jaquay, who was aboard for the fateful trip.

“Sometime during the week preceding the scheduled trials, CDR Wes Harvey, the CO of the THRESHER, stopped by to notify us that no time could be spared on the first trial to conduct the scheduled formal sonar tests. Several of us knew CDR Harvey quite well, because he had been the Engineering Officer on the TULLIBEE, the submarine on which we had spent a lot of time installing and testing the second of the initial two lot BQQ-2 sonar suites. He did, however, add that one of us was welcome to check out the sonar faxes to get an idea of how things stood. Mo Jaquay, who was in the area, said that he would go. Mo then went home for the weekend, planning to return to the HoJo’s at which we were staying Monday night so as to embark Tuesday morning. The rest of us stayed to make sure that everything was working.

“On Tuesday morning the wake-up call service in HoJo’s called everybody late. As Mo left in a hurry for the TIIRESHER, he said, ‘You guys think anybody will mind if I miss this trip?’ The following Wednesday (I think), Jim Kyle and I were returning from an evening class when we heard on the car radio that the lliRESHER had not been heard from after a test dive and was assumed to be in trouble. Jim said, ‘It’s probably only a communication problem; and I remember saying, ‘Sure,’, but thinking that emergency communication to a nearby escort was relatively easy. Yet I was hoping he was right, because the other alternative was unthinkable:

Captain Art Gilmore, USN(Ret.), was then the operations officer for Submarine Development Group 2 (CSDG 2), and had responsibility for the sonars on the boats assigned to the Development Group. Later he made two dives on the TRIESTE, looking for any signs of the lliRESHER.

“I rode the lliRESHER several times between her commissioning and Post Shakedown Availability (PSA), and one was the roughest submarine ride into New London I ever made. That trip is worth a full page! LT Bob Ulman, the CSDG-2 engineer, and I both decided not to ride the Post PSA sea trials due to the crowd. The trial would not address the sonar and the ship was coming to New London within a month. A reluctant but good decision! “We were notified as soon as the rescue ship realized she had a problem, and the atmosphere in the CSDG-2 headquarters at the day was subdued, tense, and hectic. I was not involved in the early activity, but I knew something was up. Lt Ulman left with a set of plans (salvage plans) by a chartered airplane for Portsmouth, NH. CDR Sam Francis was on leave in New Hampshire and he was being located. I got involved later in the day when CDR Jim Bellah told me to call my wife and tell her I would not be home until late that night without giving her any specific reason.

“About 4:00p.m., CDR Bellah briefed me on the situation, essentially that communications had been lost with THRESHER and that if nothing changed, we were going to call the next-of-kin later in the evening. I don’t remember when we started; the list was split between New London and Portsmouth. Between the two groups we caiJed everyone we could locate, and most we called twice. The calls were simply to alert the dependents to the problem, assure them the U.S. Navy was doing everything we could to locate the ship and give them a personal point of contacl If they asked me what I thought, I told them that in my professional opinion the ship was lost. If they asked me what they could do, I told them they should pray; that was what I was doing. I’ll remember some of those calls the rest of my life. We fmished about 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. ”

‘The next phase was the long search to find the THRESHER. I was involved in that from shortly after the accident until Labor Day. The atmosphere was different; while it was a tragic event, it was a challenge to find the ship with what little technology existed then. There was a lot of work involved and a lot of time at sea. Things that stand out include:

  • The early search effort with lots of U.S. Navy ships with no real capability to search anything but the sea surface;
  • The arrival of the U.S. Oceanographic Community ships, early side scan sonars, bottom photography, deep magnetometers, and precision bottom profilers. A false alarm based on a bottom photograph sent me to sea as the onscene USN officer. After a good magnetometer strike and bottom photographs of some large submarine components, I returned to Boston aboard USNS GILLIS with no hat, five cents, and instructions to be in Washington, DC with the picture in the morning.
  • The plan to bring the bathyscaphe TRIESTE from San Diego to Boston was written on the back of an envelope in a bar in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, late on a Friday night. The next day we were asked by Captain Bishop, the CNO THRESHER Search Coordinator, for just such a plan; we read the back of the envelope to him over the telephone. He said to add ‘CNO concurs’ and send it as a naval message. We did. It was hard to change that plan, but somehow TRIESTE made it to Boston.
  • Of the two dives I made in TRIESTE in the search area, the second one, by luck, was the one when we saw what we came for — major parts of the ship. We photographed the sonar dome with the draft marks clearly visible and brought back a piece of battered pipe from the ship. It was an emotional experience. I trust the Almighty can receive prayers through 8500 feet of water better than we can communicate underwater.

‘TRIESTE dives in themselves were interesting. They were 14 to 16 hours long with three people (and no head) and five racks of electronics in a six-foot diameter sphere. You controlled the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels by the headache tolerance factor. Both the TRIESTE and the piece of pipe are in the Navy Museum in Washington, DC. “Other memories come to mind:

  • CDR Wes Harvey, the Commanding Officer in the THRESHER graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1950. My sister and a friend of hers (who is now my wife) attended the graduation ceremony. After the THRESHER was lost, my sister discovered that the midshipman’s cap that she retrieved that day had Wes Harvey’s card in it. We refurbished it with a new cap cover and new gold and gave it to his widow.
  • The Dolphin Scholarship fund was established for the THRESHER dependents and the Rhode Island Chapter of the Navy League presented the first major contribution at a Yankee-Red Sox baseball game in Boston. We were invited to the game with our wives as guests of the Red Sox. My wife, Nell, sat in a box seat with the Red Sox Manager’s wife, waving her Yankee Pennant. The Red Sox won 21-14; there were 42 hits in the game, and I think Yogi Berra got thrown out of the game for something he said that the umpire understood.
  • Mike Dinola’s widow and family stand out. They stayed in Rye Beach, NH, where his wife raised a super family on her own. Most of his submarine friends and classmates in the Washington, DC area joined them in Arlington a few years ago when a headstone was placed for Mike. I guess that sort of laid a lot to rest for all of us.”

The TRIESTE located the wreckage of the THRESHER during the summer of 1963 in 8,400 feet of water, 220 miles off Boston. The subsequent board of inquiry headed by Vice Admiral Bernard L Austin concluded that a flooding casualty in the engine room was the most probable cause of the sinking of the THRESHER. As a result of the TIIRESHER loss, significant improvements related to ship safety were made in the design, testing, certification and operation of submarines. These improvements were called the SUBSAFE program and were implemented on every nuclear submarine.

The years go by too quickly and there were special memories for each of the people at Albacore park on April 8, 1990, for the dedication ceremony. Mr. Robert Silberman, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy, delivered some remarks and read letters from the President and from Congressional and Naval officials. Reprinted below is the President’s letter:

April 6, 1990

I am delighted to send my warmest greetings to all those gathered for the dedication of the USS THRESHER MemoriaL It is most fitting that the memory of those who gave their lives aboard USS THRESHER (SSN 593) be preserved in Portsmouth, where so many of our silent sentinels of the deep have been built.

Almost three decades ago, 129 men were lost aboard the most advanced attack submarine of its day. These men knew the risks they would encounter in testing a new, untried vessel, but they pursued their duty with courage and unsel{tsh dedication. Their sacrifice was great, but it was not in vain. This tragedy resulted in significant advances in the design, testing. and operation of critical submarine systems that today go to sea in our STURGEON and LOS ANGELES class submarines.

The contribution that these brave men made to the defense of their country can best be understood by recalling the reason they were aboard THRESHER that fateful day in 1963. They were working to perfect a vital component of our detemnt forces -and, thus, safeguarding the great blessings of freedom and democracy that we and our Allies enjoy.

I salute the spirit of the men — both Navy and civilian — of THRESHER, and I commend the United States Submarine Veterans, the citizens of Portsmouth. and all others whose dedication and hard work have made this memorial a reality.

Barbara joins me in offering our best wishes on this special day of remembrance for the crew and families of THRESHER. God bless you.

George Bush

Rear Admiral William P. Bouley, Commander Submarine Group 2, made the closing remarks, and the granite and bronze monument was unveiled. The monument contains on the front side the names of all of the men lost on the 1HRESHER, including the civilian technicians. The ship’s plaques and the U.S. Submarine Veterans insignia containing the submarine dolphins are on the top of the stone.

Many organizations and individuals donated to the memorial fund, which was managed by the United States Submarine Veterans. Mrs. Curran and I represented Raytheon, one of the three corporate donors, at the ceremony. Also attending were Fred Korth, then the Secretary of the Navy and many families, friends, and fonner shipmates of those who were lost.

Because the funds collected exceeded the amount needed for the monument and the dedication ceremony, excess funds are being used to establish a memorial fund for the USS SCORPION (SSN 589) lost in the Atlantic on May 21, 1968. Donations for SCORPION may be made to: The U.S. Submarine Veterans/SCORPION Memorial P.O. Box 370, Tamworth, NH 03886.

[Ed. Note: The stipend for this article is being sent to the SCORPION Memorial Fund in the name of Dan Cu”an, Art Gilmore and Mark Chramiec.]

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