Original Thresher Was World War II Hero

By D. Allan Kerr

While the doomed USS Thresher (SSN 593) left a tragic legacy that will resonate for generations of submariners to come, she was not the first vessel to carry the name.

The original Thresher (SS 200) was one of the most decorated submarines of World War II. Battle-tested through 15 war patrols, she was decommissioned in 1946 at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard — the same facility where the more famous Thresher was built and launched 14 years later. The first Thresher, a Tambor-class diesel-electric submarine, was built by the Electric Boat Company in Groton, Conn., and launched in March 1940.

The vessel derived its name from the thresher shark, distinctive for a tail that is longer than its head and body combined. As author John Bentley wrote in his 1974 book “The Thresher Disaster,” the submarine’s namesake was “a tough breed of shark equipped by nature to seek out and kill.”

“The Thresher derives its name from the supposed habit of using its tail to beat the water in a compact school of fish, stunning some and eating the injured ones,” Bentley wrote. “Perhaps the most ironical and tragic part of the Thresher shark’s description is that it is harmless to man.”

The original USS Thresher, following her initial shakedown cruise in 1940, operated along the Atlantic Coast for several months. SS 200 ultimately passed through the Panama Canal into the Pacific and pulled into Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in May 1941 — few months before the Japanese attack at the naval base there.

The submarine was actually returning to port from a simulated war patrol on the morning of Dec. 7 when the crew learned Pearl Harbor was under attack. During the following chaos, Thresher was twice repulsed by American forces upon her attempt to return home — first by a destroyer that mistook her for an attacking enemy vessel, and then by a patrol plane.

Finally, the USS Thornton destroyer arrived to safely escort the submarine back into Pearl Harbor on Dec. 8. From the very dawn of America’s involvement in World War II, the first Thresher was right in the thick of things.

The Fight Against Japan

Over the next four years, armed with 10 torpedo tubes, two cannons and a .50-caliber deck gun, SS 200 operated throughout the Pacific.

In March 1942, the submarine headed for waters just off the Japanese islands to gather weather information for the task force of Adm. William “Bull” Halsey. The force included B-25 bombers under the command of Lt. Col. James Doolittle, who was preparing to lead his famous air attack on the Japanese homeland.

En route for this mission, SS 200 sank the Japanese freighter Sado Maru near Yokohama harbor and had to elude enemy antisubmarine vessels. At one point, a depth-charge attack caused Thresher to drop toward crush pressure before the skilled crew regained control.

The submarine went on to run periscope patrols in advance of the task force to ensure no enemy craft could warn of the pending attack.

During the vessel’s fourth war patrol, in June 1942, Thresher sank the Japanese torpedo boat tender Shinsho Maru with two hits. As described in the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, it didn’t take long for the enemy to attempt revenge.

Depth charges rattled Thresher, “and 10 minutes later, a banging and clanking alerted the sub to the fact that the Japanese were apparently bringing a large grapnel into play in an attempt to capture the submarine,” according to the volume’s text. Eventually, after a high-speed run, the submarine managed to break free from the giant hook. “Thresher fought for her life,” the text states. “With a bending and twisting turn, the submarine left the enemy behind, with some 30-odd depth charges exploding in her wake.”

In July 1943, SS 200 delivered stores and ammunition under the cover of darkness off Negros Island to Filipino guerillas resisting Japanese occupation. According to the Dictionary, the sub’s crew chipped in personal rations of cigarettes, soap, candy and other personal items as well.

The guerillas, in return, provided intelligence documents.

On her 13th patrol, in July 1944, SS 200 attacked a Japanese convoy consisting of a large tanker, three freighters and two escorts. Blasting torpedoes at the first escort and a freighter, the submarine then wheeled 150 degrees to port and fired four more torpedoes at the second freighter.

Departing at high speed, Thresher reloaded and resumed its attack early the following morning. After launching torpedoes from the bow at the remaining escort and freighter, the sub swung to starboard 165 degrees to blast stern shots at the oiler. Although some of the kills could not be confirmed, SS 200 asserted the entire convoy had been destroyed.

For these actions, the submarine was awarded the Navy Unit Commendation. The citation hailed the crew for its “outstanding heroism” and “persistent and daring coverage of Japanese-controlled waters … striking fiercely at the enemy in a brilliantly-executed attack on the night of 16 and 17 July 1944.”

By the time the original Thresher was first decommissioned in December 1945, she was credited with sinking 17 enemy ships weighing more than 66,000 tons, according to author Bentley. She also earned 15 battle stars to go with her Navy Unit Citation.

Recalled to Action

The submarine was reactivated at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard the following February, to serve as target practice for atomic bomb tests in the Marshall Islands. However, after determining she had “deteriorated beyond economical repair,” the vessel was decommissioned for the final time in July 1946.

SS 200 was sold for scrap metal in 1948.

In May 1958, the keel was laid at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard for a nuclear fast-attack submarine that would share the Thresher’s name. This vessel was designed to counter the lurking threat of the Soviet Union rather than the Imperial Japanese Navy. SSN 593 was the first in a dynamic new wave of nuclear submarines built to do things far beyond the capabilities of their World War II forebears. For instance, while the test depth of SSN 593 — considered highly classified at her peak — is believed to have been around 1,300 feet, SS 200 had a test depth of only 250 feet.

Norman Polmar, author of the 1964 book “The Death of the USS Thresher,” described SSN 593 as the “most deadly weapons system in existence” during her all-too-brief career.

The new Thresher was launched on the Piscataqua River in July 1960, and commissioned here in August 1961. After returning to the shipyard for a major 9-month overhaul, SSN 593 was conducting sea trials when she sank more than 200 miles off the New England coast in April 1963. The tragedy marked the first time a nuclear submarine had been lost at sea. All 129 Navy sailors and civilian workers aboard Thresher perished in what remains the worst submarine disaster ever. April 10 marks the 50th anniversary of the Thresher disaster.

The Navy’s enhanced safety program, known as SUBSAFE, was a direct result of the second Thresher’s loss and remains in place today. No submarine passing through this program has ever suffered a similar fate.

(February 2013)

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