By D. Allan Kerr
The 1961 Portsmouth High School yearbook features a Page 6 photo of USS Thresher — described as “a new attack-type submarine” — being launched at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard the previous summer.
Page 42 of the same yearbook includes a portrait of graduating senior Peter Joseph DiBella, who is described as an award-winning bowler. His future plans are listed as attending the New Hampshire Institute of Technology and then joining the Navy.
His philosophy of life, the yearbook declares, is: “Try not to let little things bother you, for they usually turn up for the best.”
In a cruel twist of irony, DiBella and the Thresher perished together two years later, along with 128 other men, in the worst submarine disaster in naval history.
Born and raised in the Port City, DiBella delivered the Portsmouth Herald as a boy and hung out at Moulton’s soda and ice cream shop in Market Square as a teen, across the street from North Church. He was a local boy who fulfilled his lifelong dream by going to sea aboard a local vessel, only to die about 200 miles off the New England coast.
Just 19 years old at the time, DiBella also has the tragic distinction of being the youngest man lost in the Thresher disaster. After basic training at Great Lakes, Ill., and graduation from the Navy’s submarine school in New London, Conn., he returned home to report for duty aboard the Thresher in January 1963.
The nuclear submarine went down less than three months later. April 2013 will mark the 50th anniversary of the tragedy.
‘She Was Never The Same After’
DiBella’s younger brother Frank says Peter was thrilled to be stationed at home aboard the Thresher (SSN 593), the era’s most advanced submarine. The first of its class, the Thresher was built to dive deeper and deadlier than its predecessors. She was a prime weapon of the Cold War, specifically designed to hunt and destroy Soviet submarines.
In a letter dated Oct. 1, 1962, announcing his assignment to his parents, DiBella wrote: “I don’t want you to get to (sic) happy yet because anything could happen and my orders could be changed.”
Like Peter, the Thresher entered the world here on the Seacoast. Her keel was laid at the Navy yard — across the river from where Peter grew up in Atlantic Heights — in 1958. Once construction was completed she was launched in 1960 and commissioned in 1961, the same year Peter graduated high school.
Like Peter, the submarine had returned home to the yard after extensive fine-tuning when she set out on her fatal voyage with 129 sailors and civilian workers on board for deep-dive trials.
And tragically, both Peter and the Thresher were on the very cusp of fulfilling their potential when they were lost on April 10, 1963.
His mother Barbara thought Peter would be safer on a submarine than on a surface vessel, Frank recalled in a recent telephone interview; she reasoned that the sub would be out of sight and a difficult target for enemy ships to track.
Frank was watching the old Western TV series “Wagon Train” when they learned about the Thresher disaster from a news report. The tragedy struck their mother especially hard.
“It destroyed her when it happened,” Frank said. “She was never the same after that.”
Their sister Elizabeth was playing up the street when her friend’s mother told her she had just gotten a phone call asking Elizabeth to come home. When she got there her mother was so distraught Frank had to break the news to his little sister.
Her father was working in Connecticut at the time and rushed home upon hearing the news. A staff sergeant in the 82nd Airborne during World War II, John DiBella could not contain his grief. A photo of the stricken elder DiBella being consoled by a friend ran on the AP wire after the tragedy; Elizabeth recently bought the photo on eBay, disturbed that her father’s anguish was being publicly auctioned.
Peter DiBella of Portsmouth died aboard USS Thresher in 1963.
“He would just break down and cry,” she remembered. “I could feel there was a deal of great, great sadness within the family.”
Five days later, tragedy struck again when Barbara’s mother Annie Dawson died in a horrible car crash in the Seacoast en route to a bingo game in Dover.
Frank was 14 years old when the incidents occurred; Elizabeth was 11.
A City Is Devastated
The Thresher’s loss was a terrible blow to the entire Seacoast community, where it seemed almost everyone knew someone touched by the tragedy, Frank remembered.
“It devastated the city when the Thresher went down,” he said. “It rocked the naval shipyard. Everybody was affected one way or another.”
But of course, the families were hit hardest of all. Frank, nearly 50 years later, believes the incident marked the end of his innocence. Five years younger than his brother, he regrets that they never got to hang out to drink beer and watch ball games together in their 20s and 30s, when the age difference would not have mattered. “It changed me forever,” Frank said. “It’s a huge loss that I’ll never get over.”
His siblings remember Peter as a happy, easygoing guy who served as a second father figure, especially for Frank. He had a box full of bowling trophies and was liked by all who knew him.
“He was the kind of person who would do anything for anybody,” Elizabeth recalled.
They also describe their brother as a hometown boy to his core. He often fished in the Piscataqua River along the docks near Atlantic Heights, and played baseball on the Little League field across the street. He worked as a stock boy at Scott’s jewelry store downtown, and he and his friends would stop off at Gilley’s hot dog stand after seeing a movie.
Peter DiBella, center, stands with his brother Frank, sister Betsy and the family dog, Patsy.
Whereas Frank and Elizabeth both moved away to California, where they now reside, Frank is convinced Peter would have stayed in the area after his Navy service.
“He would’ve never moved from Portsmouth,” Frank said. “He really loved Portsmouth.”
The Navy totally revamped its safety procedures as a direct result of the Thresher disaster, resulting in its SUBSAFE program. Since its inception, no submarine passing through the program has suffered a similar fate.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic tragedy, Kittery officials and citizens formed the Thresher Memorial Project Group to establish a permanent tribute. The site will be highlighted by a privately funded 129-foot flagpole erected at the local traffic circle, in recognition of the 129 men who died that day.
A separate group known as Thresher Base, a local chapter of U.S. Submarine Veterans Inc., will host surviving family members and guests at the Navy yard for the 50th annual remembrance service on April 6, 2013.
Elizabeth believes it’s important to honor not only her brother and his shipmates but all who fall in service.
“We will never ever forget the sacrifice they made to help our country improve and be free,” she said. “If they die, they need to know they will not be forgotten. It’s very important that Americans continue to do that.”