By D. Allan Kerr
In the early days of the nuclear Navy, the best submarine officers tended to be both academics and swashbucklers — equal parts brains and guts.
As the crew of the most advanced seagoing vessel of its era, the men of USS Thresher (SSN 593) were especially reflective of this unique balance. Few personified the scholar-warrior better than their skipper, Lt. Cmdr. John Wesley Harvey.
Harvey was valedictorian of his class at Frankford High School in Philadelphia and earned a four-year academic scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania. His dream, however, was an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy. Upon achieving this goal, Harvey went on to graduate eighth in his class in 1950, attaining a degree in electrical engineering. He was said to have a photographic memory, but also devoted long hours to study.
He went on to submarine training after a stint aboard the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea (CVA 43), graduating third in a class of 77, and was selected for nuclear propulsion training at Westinghouse’s Bettis Laboratory in Pennsylvania.
In 1958, Harvey won $4,500 in prizes on the popular NBC game show, “Concentration.”
But he was also rugged enough to play college football in the trenches alongside Chuck Bednarik, one of the legendary tough guys in the history of the sport. When Harvey later suited up for the offensive line of Navy’s varsity team, he sometimes wore a special chain contraption to hold an injured shoulder in place so he could keep playing.
During his three years aboard the famed USS Nautilus (SSN 571), Harvey was reactor control officer in 1958 when the submarine became the first ship to reach the North Pole. In 1962, he returned to the North Pole as second-in-command of USS Sea Dragon (SSN 584) during its historic rendezvous with USS Skate (SSN 578).
Harvey was considered a rising young star in a new Navy entering a technological era in the midst of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. “People told me he would’ve gone as far as chief of naval operations,” Harvey’s son Bruce recently recalled.
Harvey took command of Thresher in January 1963 at age 35 — one of the youngest sub commanders in the Navy at the time, according to his son. The nuclear-powered, fast-attack submarine was the first of its class, designed and built at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard to hunt and kill its Soviet counterparts, if necessary.
Tragically, Thresher sank the first time Harvey took her out to sea, taking with her all 129 sailors and civilian workers on board for deep-dive tests following an overhaul at the shipyard. A Navy inquiry later determined faulty piping caused the vessel’s nuclear reactor to lose power. Thresher then sank toward the ocean floor until it imploded from underwater pressure.
April 10, 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of what remains the worst submarine disaster of all time.
Submarines and The Cold War
Harvey played center on his high school football team, according to Bruce. Although he went to Penn on an academic scholarship, he went out for the varsity squad there as well. However, an iron-tough young man named Chuck Bednarik also played center, and linebacker.
Bednarik would go on to be elected to both the college and pro football halls of fame, and is renowned as the National Football League’s last 60-minute men, taking the field for offense and defense. Today the nation’s best college defensive player is presented with the annual Chuck Bednarik Award.
Suffice to say, Harvey was moved to guard during his one year at Penn. But once he won his appointment to Annapolis, Harvey continued to play this position and took part in the historic Army-Navy game more than once.
“Unfortunately, he never beat them,” Bruce noted in a telephone interview.
In John Bentley’s book “The Thresher Disaster,” fellow Navy officer Raymond McCoole remembered that Harvey was quite proud of his football days. He wore his old jersey number 67 on his sweater and “had some good action photos of himself which he cherished.”
“In fact, when he wasn’t talking subs, he liked to talk football,” McCoole stated.
But make no mistake, submarines were Harvey’s true calling. He was handpicked by Adm. Hyman Rickover, the infamous and demanding “father of the nuclear navy,” to take part in the program. “Rickover liked him a lot,” Bruce said.
This was during an incredibly intense time, with the United States and Soviet Union poised to annihilate one another at any moment. Harvey’s son cites the observation of Adm. Eugene Fluckey, a famous World War II submarine skipper and Medal of Honor winner, that the main reason Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev didn’t initiate a missile attack was the existence of U.S. nuclear submarines capable of wiping the Soviets out.
The Navy invested $45 million developing Thresher as a Soviet deterrent, built to dive deeper, quieter and deadlier than any previous vessel. Harvey and his fellow submariners had no doubt what was at stake.
“Khrushchev was ready to fire and we were ready to fire,” Bruce said. “They were highly driven to defend the country during this Cold War. They laid the foundation for the submariners to follow.”
Back in a Couple of Days…
Submarine officers were schooled in nuclear propulsion, navigation and the like, but they were also required to command men. Bruce, who was only 8 years old when Thresher sank, takes pride in his father’s legacy of compassion. Harvey was known for treating his men with dignity and respect.
“I got a lot of really positive feedback from enlisted men,” Bruce said.
The most famous example of this trait was Harvey’s decision to order his old friend McCoole — Thresher’s reactor control officer — to remain behind during what turned out to be the submarine’s final voyage.
On the very morning Thresher was due to depart, McCoole’s wife Barbara accidentally burned her eyes with liniment and he had to rush her to the hospital. Once assured she would not suffer irreparable harm, the young lieutenant arranged for his sister-in-law to look after his wife and their five young sons.
Then he returned to the sub, eager to get back to sea if only for a couple of days. He was quickly advised that Harvey had ordered him to remain home to take care of his wife.
“In his mind my proper place was with Barbara, who, at that moment, was helpless,” McCoole recalled in Bentley’s 1974 book.
McCoole, who had previously served with Harvey aboard Nautilus, pleaded his case with the skipper. But Thresher was to have 21 Navy and civilian observers on board for this post-overhaul sea trial in addition to the regular crew, and McCoole’s berth had already been assigned to someone else.
Harvey was sympathetic but firm — the order stood.
“Tell Barbara we’re all thinking of her and wish her a speedy recovery,” Harvey told McCoole. “Take good care of her. We’ll be back in a couple of days, I expect.”
And those were the commanding officer’s final words to him.
A completely opposite fate awaited Lt. Cmdr. Robert Krag, a staff officer with the commander of the Atlantic Fleet’s submarine force. Krag, an Annapolis classmate of Harvey’s, made a special request to go out on Thresher in order to see his good friend, Bruce said. “That’s why he was on the boat.”
Krag was among the 129 men who perished with Thresher.
Devoted Family Man and a ‘Great Dad’
Leadership came naturally to Harvey. He was fraternity president of Phi Kappa Psi during his brief time at Penn and a class regimental sub commander at Annapolis.
An eloquent speaker, he was often called upon to conduct public relations for the Navy. He took part in two polar cruises under Arctic ice aboard the world’s first nuclear submarine, the Nautilus, and another as executive officer of the Sea Dragon.
The August 1958 passage of the Nautilus beneath the North Pole — a direct response to the Soviet launching of Sputnik — earned her crew the first Presidential Unit Citation issued in peacetime. The family still has a photo of Harvey and other crew members that ran in a 1958 issue of LIFE magazine.
But upon his return, Harvey told reporters, “I feel a little bit guilty about being told I am a hero. It’s much nicer under the water. We all like it better and feel at home there.”
He told his wife Irene that he wanted to go on one of the TV game shows popular at the time so he could win the family a new car. As these programs were eager to showcase heroes in uniform, he landed a spot on “Concentration” and proceeded to win a 1959 Ford Galaxie Skyliner hardtop convertible.
“That was really cool,” recalled Bruce, who now lives in Connecticut with his own family. His mother and brother live nearby as well.
Harvey also won a Swedish motor bike on the show, along with a mink stole, two tickets to “My Fair Lady,” a motion picture projector and a Flyer train set that Bruce still possesses. Later the family drove the convertible across the country to San Francisco en route to a new duty assignment.
His father was often gone for months at a time, but he was also a devoted family man and “a great dad” when he was home, Bruce said.
“He came from a time when people were devoted to country, God, hard work and doing the right things, as well as doing things right.”