Cold War Casualties Aboard USS Thresher

By D. Allan Kerr

Fred Philip Abrams — better known as Phil — was born in Kittery, Maine, in 1920, went through the town’s public school system and graduated from Traip Academy in 1938.

After serving in Europe during World War II, he returned home, married a girl from the neighborhood named Sherley Astbury and started a family. He got a job as a police officer at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard just down the street from where he grew up, but eventually worked his way up to the position of ship’s mechanical system inspector.

A lover of nature, he often took his daughter Carol and son Jim on walks through the woods, pointing out various kinds of wildlife and collecting stones. If they came across a log, he would roll it over so they could examine the insects underneath. If they found something they couldn’t identify, they would look it up in the encyclopedia when they got home.

“He was a constant teacher, but he always made it fun,” daughter Carol Norton said recently. “He didn’t want us to have any fear of animals. He wanted us to love the animals like he did.”

Although he could be serious by nature, and a strict but loving disciplinarian, Abrams was also a jokester. At times, he would return home from a foray in the woods and engage his wife in conversation until a snake would suddenly poke its head up from his shirt pocket, startling Mrs. Abrams.

On one occasion, he came home with a pigeon he intended to keep as a pet. He released the bird only after his wife issued an “either the pigeon goes or I go” ultimatum. He also tended to bring home injured animals and birds to nurse back to health.

“You’d never know what you’d find in the bathtub,” Carol recalled. “Every day was just different and exciting with him.”

In April 1963, the fast-attack nuclear submarine USS Thresher (SSN 593), home-ported at the local Navy yard, went out for deep-diving trials off the New England coast. A neighbor who also worked at the yard was supposed to go out on the cruise, but Abrams wound up taking his spot.

On April 10, Thresher’s nuclear reactor shut down and the submarine sank toward the ocean’s bottom. As it reached the lower depths of the sea, the vessel was crushed by overwhelming water pressure, killing all 129 men aboard in the worst submarine disaster ever.

April 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the historic tragedy. Abrams was among those who died that day.

Growing Up Overnight

Abrams’ son, Jim, just last year moved out of the family home where he was born and raised, into a neighboring house his mother had built on the same Whipple Road property in the 1980s. For the past 11 years, he has worked for the maintenance department at Shapleigh Middle School in Kittery.

He still remembers playing at a neighbor’s house on Newson Avenue with his sister and friends when his mother appeared and summoned them home. She walked slowly, with her head down, and they could tell something was wrong.

She had learned of the tragedy from a television news report of a U.S. Navy submarine lost off the coast of Massachusetts, even before she was contacted by the Navy department. Once home, she shared the terrible information with her children.

“At that point they didn’t know if there were any survivors,” Jim said during an interview in the family den.

Jim was 13 years old at the time; Carol was 16. Their mother was only 39 and their father Phil 42 years old when he perished aboard the Thresher. There were indeed no survivors.

“It was devastating,” said Carol, who now lives in Milton. “Jimmy and I just about grew up overnight.”

Their mother, Sherley, who died last year at age 87, never completely got over the loss, Carol said. She attended every annual memorial service held to honor the sailors and civilians who died aboard the Thresher, except for one year when she was in the hospital for a heart condition.

During the week before each service, Carol said, her mother would become quiet and bring out old pictures to reminisce over. The gatherings were cathartic, but they also revived the terrible pain of their loss, she said. “You rip that scab off every year and live it over again.”

However, the three of them — Carol, Jim and their mother — became very close after the tragedy and for the remainder of their days together. They were sustained by memories of their times with Abrams, such as the weekly Friday night music gatherings at their home with other family members.

Abrams played the accordion; Sherley played the piano and guitar. Both came from close-knit families, and the kids grew up with both sets of grandparents living in the same neighborhood.

“Everyone who came played an instrument, or they sang and danced,” Carol said. “They didn’t go out to have a good time — they just had it right there.”

Abrams was remarkably engaged with his children for a father of the post-World War II era. Often tired from working overtime at the shipyard — sometimes for seven days a week — he always made a point of going over their homework with them and discussing their day over the dinner table.

He taught them how to swim in Spruce Cove behind their house, and brought them there to go fishing off a trestle. He took them to the Woodman Institute in Dover and in the summer would rent a cottage for a week at various lakes.

An avid photographer, he built his own darkroom at age 16 and during the war sent home numerous pictures, which the family still treasures. He also owned Indian and Harley-Davidson motorcycles, and after the war belonged to a Portsmouth-based club called Frank’s Riders until his wife persuaded him to sell the bikes.

The Abrams kids had an idyllic childhood before the tragedy, but by Carol’s own admission didn’t really understand what they had until it was gone.

“Jim also worked at the shipyard as a teenager for three summers in the late 1960s, in the transportation department. He still lives little more than a stone’s throw from the yard, but is now accustomed to the constant reminder of his father’s legacy.

“Time heals all wounds,” Jim said, “but it’s never really forgotten.”

‘Dear Sherley Honey’

In many ways, Abrams epitomizes the heralded “Greatest Generation.” He came of age during the Great Depression, and after the United States entered World War II he went into the Army to help defeat the Nazis in Europe.

As a heavy-truck driver and motorcyclist, he hauled ammunition, military personnel and other cargo for the Seventh Army; earned three battle stars for campaigns in Northern France and the Rhineland, as well as a rifle marksmanship medal; and also served in Scotland and Wales. He was discharged as a technician, fifth grade, in 1945 after more than three years in uniform.

Sherley, whom he affectionately called “Pugnose,” did her part during the war as well, making valve cores at the shipyard for U.S. submarines. The two of them were engaged six months before he was inducted into the Army but didn’t marry until January 1946, less than a month after his discharge.

Abrams saw comrades blown up right in front of him during the war, and although like so many of his generation he didn’t share details of his experiences, their effect was evident to his wife.

“She said it did something to him,” Carol said. “He was a different man when he came back from the war.”

The family still has a box full of hundreds of letters written between Phil and Sherley during the war. The letters written by Abrams begin, “Dear Sherley honey,” and the envelopes are stamped as “Passed by Army Examiner,” as military mail had to be censored at the time. In one letter written from France three days after Christmas 1944, Abrams noted that over the holiday “we spent the two eventful days watching for ‘Bosh’ paratroopers during their air raids.”

Abrams survived the war in Europe only to become a casualty of the Cold War as an employee of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. He participated in numerous sea trials aboard other submarines before the fatal 1963 cruise aboard Thresher.

The disaster resulted in a thorough overhauling of the Navy’s safety system, now known as SUBSAFE. Since its implementation, no submarine has suffered a similar fate after passing through this program. The family finds solace in knowing that other families have been spared the horror they endured as a result of lessons learned from Thresher.

“He’d be the first one to say that,” Carol said of her father.

(June 2012)

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