By D. Allan Kerr
“The future of our country will always be sure when there are men such as these to give their lives to preserve it.”
Those were the words President John F. Kennedy offered a grieving nation after the April 10, 1963, loss of the nuclear submarine USS Thresher (SSN 593) and all 129 men aboard.
Looking back half a century later over the lineup of Navy sailors and civilian workers lost that day, one is struck by how remarkable these men were. We can only imagine what they might have accomplished had they not perished in the worst submarine disaster the world has ever known.
When Thresher sank more than 200 miles off the New England coast during deep-dive tests, she was considered the pride of the Navy at the dawn of a new technological age. She was designed and built at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard at a cost of $45 million in 1960s dollars. Thresher was the first in a new class designed to be quieter, deadlier, faster and deeper-diving than any submarine before it. She was created specifically to track and kill her Soviet counterparts.
It stands to reason that such a prized vessel would be manned by “the best and the brightest” of the Cold War generation. These men lived their lives as ordinary neighbors who ultimately made an extraordinary sacrifice, but collectively were a fascinating mix of intellects and swashbucklers — men of genius and adventure.
Nearly every officer aboard SSN 593 that day was a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy — an impressive feat in itself. Several of the enlisted sailors — and many of the civilian workers — were veterans of World War II or the Korean War, or in some cases both.
Some of those lost aboard Thresher have been profiled in these pages over the past year. Unfortunately, it would take more than a decade to complete a monthly series of each Thresher hero. For now, here is a sample of those who manned the doomed submarine that April morning; their bios are culled from a special edition memorial volume published by the Navy in 1964
As we gather with our families this Easter morning, it’s worth noting this final cruise was intended to be an exercise lasting only two or three days. Many of the men expected to return home to their own families in time to celebrate the Easter weekend of 1963.
Lt. Cmdr. Pat Garner
At only 31 years of age, Garner was second-in-command of Thresher’s crew as executive officer. A graduate of Vanderbilt University, where he majored in psychology and participated in the Naval ROTC, he was commissioned an ensign in 1953.
Prior to his assignment to Thresher, Garner spent 4½ years aboard the submarine USS Skate (SSN 578), and took part in all three of her Arctic expeditions below the ice. He earned two Navy Unit Commendations for this service and was aboard the Skate in 1959 when she became the first submarine to surface at the North Pole.
Garner was promoted to lieutenant commander a full year ahead of his contemporaries, and was nominated by the New London, Conn., Junior Chamber of Commerce as one of the 10 most outstanding men in the country. He took over as Thresher’s XO in December 1962. He left behind his wife Alice and two daughters.
Lt. Cmdr. Robert Krag
At age 35, Krag was assigned to the staff of the commander of all Atlantic Fleet submarines. He was on Thresher as a representative of that command.
An Eagle Scout, Krag was co-valedictorian of his high school class in Minot, N.D., and president of the school symphony. He trained for 11 years on the violin. He managed the lacrosse team and was part of the drum and bugle corps at the Naval Academy, where he graduated in 1950.
After serving three years aboard the aircraft carrier USS Franklin D. Roosevelt, Krag attended MIT where he earned his master’s degree in naval engineering and placed highest in his class in electrical engineering.
He also won a 1955 essay contest with an entry that became required reading for an executive training program. Krag’s first submarine assignment, interestingly, was USS Albacore (AGSS 569), which sits on permanent display in Portsmouth.
At the time of his death, Krag represented the Atlantic Fleet’s submarine commander on all sea trials and had just been elected president of his local church. The church’s school building was later named in his honor. He left behind his wife Olga and three sons.
Lt. Cmdr. John Billings
At age 35, another Renaissance man, Billings was also part of the Naval Academy’s 1950 graduating class. He then went on to earn a doctoral degree in applied mathematics from the University of Maryland, and taught an accredited extension course on the subject at the University of New Hampshire.
Billings was an accomplished pianist, a German linguist, Russian translator, president of the Holy Name Society at his local church and a Korean War veteran. At the time of his death he was the assistant planning and estimating superintendent for new construction at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.
He was survived by his wife Deloras and five children.
Chief Steward Napoleon Garcia
Age age 35, Garcia was born in the Philippine Islands and captured by Japanese soldiers during World War II at age 15. He was subsequently rescued by Filipino guerillas, and enlisted in the U.S. Navy in November 1945.
During 18 years of naval service, Garcia served on various surface ships, submarines and shore stations. He earned letters of commendation from the commanding officer of the submarine USS Diablo (SS 479) and the commander of the Naval Air Station at Anacostia in Washington, D.C.
He had served aboard Thresher for more than two years before her fatal voyage. He left behind his wife Charlotte, a daughter, and nine brothers and sisters who remained in the Philippines.
Chief Torpedoman’s Mate Robert Johnson
Johnson, 37, was Thresher’s first and only chief of the boat, charged with overseeing the welfare of the crew’s enlisted personnel.
He entered the Navy in 1942, and after serving aboard the USS Denebola (AF 56) volunteered for submarine duty in 1944. He made two successful war patrols aboard his first sub, USS Torsk (SS 423). He proceeded to serve aboard several other submarines before reporting to Thresher in February 1961, and was the first to qualify aboard this new class of vessel.
Johnson was survived by his wife Rizalina.
In 2004, the newly constructed Bachelor Enlisted Quarters at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard was named in his honor, and is now commonly known as Johnson Hall.
Steward Third Class George Bracey
At age 43, Bracey was the oldest uniformed crewman aboard Thresher and one of the few African-Americans.
Bracey was serving aboard his 11th ship, and eighth submarine, when he went down with SSN 593. He enlisted in October 1942 and served aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ranger (CV 4) before entering the submarine service. He went on to earn three Submarine Combat Insignias during the war, among other decorations and commendations.
Bracey was an ordained deacon of the People’s Baptist Church of Portsmouth and a 32nd degree Mason of the D.G. Lett Lodge. He left behind his wife Letha and seven kids.
Lt. Merrill Collier
Collier, 31, joined the Navy as an enlisted man in August 1949, after graduating from Bethel-Tate High School in Ohio, where he was class president during his junior and senior years.
A superior officer who saw Collier’s leadership abilities recommended him in 1951 for the Naval Academy Preparatory School at Bainbridge, Md., where he proceeded to organize the school’s first drill team. Collier went on to the Academy at Annapolis and served as class president for three years, and brigade commander.
His roommate at the Academy and godfather to daughter Sherrill was Frank Kelso, who went on to become chief of naval operations in 1990.
Collier was commissioned as an ensign upon graduating in 1956. He served aboard the destroyers USS J.C. Owens (DD776) and USS Farragut (DLG 6) before volunteering for the “silent service.”
He reported for duty aboard his first submarine, the Thresher, just days before the vessel departed on her final voyage. He left behind his wife Helen and two children.
Lt. Junior Grade Ronald Babcock
Babcock had just turned 25 when he was lost in the disaster. Born and raised in Nebraska, Babcock attended a one-room schoolhouse for eight years. He went on to become Ord High School’s valedictorian, class president, National Honor Society president, and captain of the football team.
He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1960, reported for submarine training in New London, Conn., and went on to advanced nuclear power training. He received his first duty assignment — the Thresher — in March 1962. He left behind his wife Martha.
Donald William Kuester
At age 41, Kuester was aboard SSN 593 as a representative of the U.S. Naval Ordnance Laboratory, where he was chief of the Acoustics and Electronics Division. Kuester earned his bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from Iowa State College, and was president of Eta Kappa Nu Fraternity.
While with the laboratory, he received the secretary of the Navy’s Meritorious Civilian Service Award in 1951 for creating high-fidelity filters and transformers. He also received two Superior Accomplishment Awards, in 1956 and in 1959, for an original invention of a classified nature, and held letters of patent for two inventions in the field of low-frequency sonar equipment.
As division chief, he was responsible for the engineering aspects of electrical and electronic components for undersea weapon systems being developed for the Navy.
Kuester was on Thresher to conduct tests related to a new classified acoustical material he had invented, called “Kustecite,” which had been installed in the submarine.
He was the Sunday school superintendent, trustee and corporate secretary of the church he attended in Maryland and won several ribbons for raising and showing his roses. He was also a skilled photographer.
Kuester was survived by his wife Marion and three children.
Lt. Cmdr. Philip Allen
Allen, 39, was aboard Thresher as the shipyard’s assistant design superintendent and project officer for this new breed of submarine.
A 1945 graduate of the Naval Academy, Allen volunteered for the submarine service following a stint aboard the destroyer USS Ault (DD 698). Over the course of his Navy career he served on submarines USS Trumpetfish (SS 425), Requin (SS 481), Cavalla (SS 244) and Sea Cat (SS 399).
In 1952, he was chosen to pursue graduate study in electronics engineering and finished second in his class at the Navy’s Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. He also earned his master’s degree in applied physics at UCLA.
Before his assignment at the shipyard, Allen was on the staff of the commander of Submarine Squadron 4 and in the Sonar Branch of the Bureau of Ships in Washington, D.C. He was also designated qualified to command submarines.
He was survived by wife Jane and three children.
Yeoman First Class Wayne Lavoie
A Rochester, N.H., native, Lavoie died on his 28th birthday.
A 1953 graduate of Spaulding High School, he was president of the Student Activity Association and a varsity football and basketball player. At age 16 he was a 4-H counselor.
After joining the Navy he was assigned to the attack cargo ship USS Washburn (AKA 108) and the submarine USS Corsair (SS 435). He was also stationed at both Brunswick, Maine, and in Portsmouth.
Like Krag, Lavoie had the distinction of serving aboard both Thresher and Albacore, two submarines with distinctive ties to the Seacoast. He reported to Thresher two months before her final voyage.
Lavoie left behind his wife Gernie and five children.
In the days and weeks after the loss of Thresher in 1963, the first time a nuclear submarine had been claimed by the sea, it was left to a handful to put into words what had been lost.
“One could not mention the Thresher without observing, in the same breath how utterly final and alone the end is when a ship dies at the bottom of the sea …; and what a remarkable specimen of man it must be who accepts such a risk,” wrote the famous psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers.
Adm. Hyman Rickover, the legendary “father of the nuclear Navy,” hand-picked many of the crewmen assigned to Thresher, and took the tragedy to heart. “I knew them personally,” he told reporters. “It was a personal loss to me.”
And President Kennedy, who would be assassinated in the fall of 1963, described these Cold War casualties as brave pioneers: “The courage and dedication of these men of the sea, pushing ahead into depths to advance our knowledge and capabilities, is no less than that of their forefathers who led the advance on the frontiers of our civilization.”