By D. Allan Kerr
The month of April is usually considered a period of rebirth and renewal, but for a lot of folks in Kittery, Maine, it tends to be somber time.
It was 54 years ago this month the Navy submarine USS Thresher sank more than 200 miles off the New England coast. It remains the worst submarine disaster the world has ever known.
In the Seacoast area of southern New Hampshire and Maine, and especially in Kittery, the Thresher’s hometown, the tragedy still resonates on an intimate level. A devastating total of 129 Navy sailors and civilian workers were lost that morning of April 10, 1963, including local employees of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.
The Thresher disaster was worldwide front-page news when it occurred, and led directly to the creation of an enhanced submarine safety program to prevent similar accidents. But too often with historic tragedies, names and faces tend to be overshadowed by dates and numbers.
While it doesn’t seem fair to single out a couple of the 129 heroes lost when there isn’t space to mention them all, there seems to be a distinctly local flavor to this epic catastrophe. After all, the Thresher (SSN 693) was designed and built at the shipyard in Kittery during the early 1960s, and had just completed a nine-month overhaul here when it departed for that fateful sea trial.
On Saturday, April 8th, the annual Thresher memorial service will be held at Traip Academy for the surviving families of these Cold War casualties. Which is fitting, because two of the men lost aboard the Thresher were hometown boys and graduates of Traip, Kittery’s local high school.
Fred Philip Abrams, class of 1938, went on to serve in Europe with the Seventh Army during World War II, seeing action in Northern France and the Rhineland. He returned home after the war to marry his neighborhood sweetheart, Sherley, and went to work at the shipyard.
Abrams was aboard the Thresher as a mechanical system inspector when it sank, having been called in as a last-minute replacement. He took part in submarine sea trials despite claustrophobia and a fear of water because, his daughter Carol says, he felt it was his duty to do so.
The World War II veteran was 42 years old when he died during the Cold War, leaving his wife with a teenage daughter and son. That son, Jim Abrams, still lives in town, just a few minutes’ walk from the back gate of the shipyard where his dad worked.
Richard DesJardins grew up just across the street from that same shipyard entrance. He graduated from Traip in 1948 and served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, including a tour of duty in Greenland. Following his discharge he worked as an engineer at the shipyard, where his father had also worked for more than two decades.
DesJardins was just 32 years old when he went down aboard the Thresher, and his wife Elizabeth was five months pregnant with the couple’s only son. She raised their three children – including two young daughters – on her own, and still lives in Kittery Point today.
And if you want to make her day, just ask about her grandkids.
Julius Marullo Jr. was an Italian-American from Galveston, Texas, but he met and married a Seacoast girl while serving in the Navy. A quartermaster and Korean War veteran, Marullo was a member of the Thresher’s original commissioning crew.
He was a first-class petty officer when he went down with the doomed submarine, after almost a dozen years in the Navy.
His bride was widowed at the age of 22, and left with two small children under the age of three. Think about that for a moment.
Today, Debby Ronnquist lives in Kittery and seems nearly as spry as she must have been when Marullo – known to all as Buddy – fell in love with her. Their daughter, Marcye Philbrook, is president of Kittery’s non-profit resale boutique, The Fabulous Find, one of the most amazing organizations I’ve encountered in this or any community.
On Saturday, April 8th, the Kittery Historical & Naval Museum, which is normally closed this time of year, will hold special hours of operation from 10 am to 2 pm. There will be a discount rate for visitors in town for the day’s memorial service. The museum has a pretty cool USS Thresher display, including photos of all those who died that morning.
The museum has also graciously asked me to give a little talk about the men of the Thresher on the evening of the disaster’s anniversary. The April 10th event was organized in coordination with Kittery Adult Education.
It starts at 5:30 pm in Memorial Park, adjacent to Town Hall, and will then move to the nearby museum building. Registration is available thru the Kittery Adult Education website or by calling (207) 439-5896.
But even if you can’t make these events, at some point take the time to check out the park. It includes a bronze plaque listing the names of all the heroes who died aboard the Thresher, and an interpretive marker detailing the tragedy’s history.
Or view the display at the Kittery museum (along with the other remarkable exhibits housed there, of course.)
The main point is to take a moment to consider the sacrifice of these men and the loved ones left behind.
And then never, ever forget.
D. Allan Kerr wants to be like his mom when he grows up, as she is turning 76 this Sunday, April 2, and has more zip than a lot of 40-year-olds.
(April 1, 2017)