By D. Allan Kerr
In February 1963, just two months before the fatal cruise that would claim his life and 128 shipmates, USS Thresher skipper John Wesley Harvey wrote a letter to third-grader Beth Barfoot.
Harvey, a 35-year-old Navy lieutenant commander, had just taken the helm of the $45 million fast-attack submarine at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. The Thresher (SSN 593) was the first in a dynamic new class of vessels created to counter the threat of Soviet aggression at the height of the Cold War.
Thresher was Harvey’s first command assignment.
Beth was the daughter of Harry Barfoot Jr., a boyhood chum and longtime classmate of Harvey’s. And her class was eager to hear about Harvey’s experience during an historic Arctic cruise aboard the submarine USS Sea Dragon (SSN 584) the previous summer.
So Harvey took time out of his hectic schedule to pen a remarkably informative hand-written, four-page letter to Beth and her schoolmates in Mrs. Gosser’s third-grade Shelmire Elementary class in Southampton, Pa. In the process, he provided a unique perspective to this polar adventure.
Thresher skipper’s letter to 3rd-grader
And on the morning of April 10, 1963, Harvey died with his crew when Thresher sank during deep-diving tests about 220 miles off the New England coast. The loss of SSN 593 remains the worst submarine disaster in history, during either war or peacetime.
This Friday will mark the 52nd anniversary of the tragedy.
In the summer of 1962, Harvey was riding high. A 1950 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Harvey, known to family and friends as Wes, was second-in-command aboard the Sea Dragon, doing what he loved to do.
Like the Thresher, Sea Dragon was built at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. That July, she departed from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, for the North Pole. And on the East Coast, her sister ship USS Skate (SSN 578) headed north from New London, Conn.
The two submarines joined up under the ice and then continued on to the North Pole, where they arrived together on Aug. 2.
“Sea Dragon was not the first of our nuclear submarines to reach the North Pole,” Harvey wrote in his letter dated Feb. 11, 1963. “That was first accomplished by the USS Nautilus on August 3, 1958 and I was privileged to be on board Nautilus for that trip also.”
The new submarine skipper noted that along with those vessels and the Skate, USS Sargo (SSN 583) had also made the voyage.
“All four of these submarines have special equipment on board to enable them to operate safely under ice and to find holes in the ice, called polynyas,” he wrote. “However, these submarines are so constructed that they can surface through the ice in an emergency if the ice is not too thick.”
Harvey explained to the schoolchildren that while there are many polynyas in the arctic ice pack during summertime, the submarines have to crash through new ice during the winter freeze.
“We do not shoot torpedoes to blast holes in the ice because this does not make a hole big enough and it is easier to poke the submarine itself through the ice,” he noted.
However, the Sea Dragon and the Skate “shot many torpedoes at each other under the ice in order to evaluate the effectiveness of our modern torpedoes in the arctic environment,” he added. “All of us on both submarines enjoyed this very much.”
When the two submarines surfaced at the North Pole that August, the day was sunny and clear with temperatures in the low 40s, Harvey wrote. Sailors from both crews walked out onto the ice and met with friends they had not seen in years, since the vessels were based on opposite sides of the continent.
“Altogether last summer, Sea Dragon steamed over 5,000 miles under ice of which 2,500 odd miles was in company with Skate,” he wrote. “This was done in a 27 day period – 15 days with Skate.”
Elsewhere he described the living conditions aboard nuclear submarines of that era, noting that because of air conditioning and heating systems the crew was always quite comfortable in 70-degree temperatures and 50 percent humidity.
The submarines were also able to control their own air, enabling them to remain submerged for long stretches of time.
“This is very convenient since there are no waves under the surface and we never roll around and so do not get seasick,” Harvey noted.
He closed the letter by saying that since he was back on the East Coast perhaps the Barfoot clan could come visit so he could show them aboard his new submarine USS Thresher.
The letter is signed, “Uncle Wes.”
Harry Barfoot III said recently this letter was among items rediscovered by the family while house cleaning.
“Our dad, Harry Barfoot Jr., was boyhood best friends with ‘uncle’ Wes,” Barfoot stated.
The two were classmates from elementary school all the way through Frankford High in Philadelphia, where they both played on the city champion baseball team, and on to the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Engineering.
After one year there, however, Harvey received his appointment to the Naval Academy at Annapolis. Barfoot’s father graduated from Penn and also joined the Navy, before going on to a 35-year career at a company that is now part of DuPont.
But although Harvey’s naval career brought him all over the world, the two friends and their growing families continued to stay in touch.
“When Thresher went down, it was a very tragic and sad time,” Barfoot recalled. “After the sea trials were over, Uncle Wes was to become the godfather of my younger brother Tom.”
Instead, Barfoot’s father took on the task of organizing a memorial service to honor his old classmate at their alma mater, Frankford High. The family still has letters from Harvey’s widow Irene (also a Frankford graduate), expressing her appreciation for the June 1963 tribute, as well as a program from the event.
Barfoot’s father died a few years ago. Barfoot lives in New Hope, Pa., but works for Measured Progress in Dover. He stays with his son in Newburyport, Mass., when he has to travel to the home office about two weeks a month.
As children, Barfoot and his sister would bring photos and letters sent by Harvey — bearing genuine North Pole postmarks — to school for show-and-tell, but those items have been lost over the years.
Ironically, Harvey’s executive officer aboard Thresher, Lt. Cmdr. Pat Garner, was aboard the Sea Dragon’s sister submarine Skate during the Arctic voyage described in his letter. Commissaryman First Class Donald Nault, a Portsmouth native, served on the Skate during two prior polar expeditions before joining the Thresher crew in 1961.
Harvey, Garner and Nault were among the 129 sailors and civilian technicians lost aboard Thresher. The Navy later determined faulty piping had allowed salt water to spray inside the vessel, eventually causing its nuclear reactor to shut down.
As noted in his letter, Harvey was previously aboard the legendary submarine USS Nautilus (SSN 571) as reactor control officer when she became the first vessel to reach the North Pole, earning her crew the Presidential Unit Citation.
Harvey, who had two sons of his own, was considered a rising star in the Navy. Rugged enough to play lineman for the varsity football teams of both Penn and Navy, he also graduated first in his class at Frankford High and eighth among some 600 classmates at the Naval Academy. He also earned a full four-year academic scholarship to Penn.
He assumed command of Thresher in January 1963, following his stint as executive officer aboard the Sea Dragon. His last letters to the Barfoot children, written on Thresher stationary, make it clear how much value he placed on education.
“Good luck to you always,” he wrote in signing off, “and study hard.”