By D. Allan Kerr
Fifty-five years ago, the crew of the Navy submarine USS Thresher expected to be home for Easter weekend after deep-dive tests off the New England coast. Tragically, they never made it back.
On the morning of 10 April 1963, all 129 men aboard the Thresher – including civilian employees from Portsmouth Naval Shipyard – perished in the worst submarine disaster the world has ever known.
This was a monumental event at the very height of our Cold War with the Soviet Union – the first time a nuclear submarine had ever been lost at sea, and the largest number of lives lost in any submarine-related event. President Kennedy ordered flags around the country to be flown at half-mast. However, the true legacy of the Thresher isn’t measured by what was lost, but by what we gained.
This horrible tragedy led directly to the creation of SUBSAFE, the Navy’s enhanced safety program developed to ensure similar disasters would not occur. It is a rigorous, paper-laden process of checks and re-checks which add time and cost to submarine projects. Shipyard workers will tell you it’s a real pain.
But they’ll also tell you no submarine has ever been lost at sea after going thru SUBSAFE certification. Zero. Previously, between 1915 and 1963, the Navy had lost 16 submarines in non-combat accidents.
The relatives of those lost that morning have found great comfort knowing the sacrifice of their loved ones saved families of subsequent submariners from such anguish. A lot of people think it’s important to keep the legacy of the Thresher alive, and I don’t just mean surviving family members.
Some folks here in the Seacoast may be surprised to realize it was five years ago this month the 129-foot Thresher flagpole was dedicated in Kittery’s Memorial Circle. Maine’s own Sen. Susan Collins was the keynote speaker that day. Now that flagpole is one of the town’s most visible landmarks.
Kittery has a special reverence, and pride, for the Thresher because this was her home. The nuclear fast-attack sub, with its famous hull number 593, was designed and built here at the local Navy yard during the early 1960s. She was the first of her kind – a lethal and unprecedented combination of stealth and firepower. On that April morning in 1963, the Thresher was undergoing routine sea trials after a nine-month overhaul at the shipyard when she sank.
But SSN 593’s value extends far beyond the Seacoast, which is why there’s currently an effort under way to have the Thresher recognized at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
A group of retired Navy people, Thresher family members and others are waging a campaign to erect a relatively modest memorial stone along a walkway at the famous site. The USS Thresher Arlington National Cemetery Memorial Project plans to submit its application package right around the anniversary of the submarine’s tragic loss.
The group’s board of directors includes two retired admirals and a former Portsmouth Naval Shipyard commander, Joseph Yurso. Retired Rear Admiral John Clarke Orzalli, who is writing the introductory letter for the application, attended Kittery schools as a youngster when his father’s sub was overhauled at the shipyard.
And as vice commander of Naval Sea Systems Command, Orzalli once chaired the SUBSAFE oversight committee.
But the application is really just a preliminary step toward approval via a rigorous process. Another member of the group, Kevin Galeaz, acknowledges it’s an uphill battle, as the Arlington site is not only an Army cemetery but also has limited capacity.
Casualty count is typically one of the factors considered by cemetery officials when approving monument proposals, and in that respect the 129 lives lost aboard the Thresher seems modest. The group intends to counter this criteria by emphasizing the lives saved as a result of the Thresher crew’s sacrifice. SUBSAFE was launched just two months after the sub sank, and generations of submariners have since been taught the hard-earned lessons learned from the tragedy.
“We literally are alive because of those guys,” said Galeaz, another former submariner.
Orzalli points out on the group’s website that NASA cited SUBSAFE as a safety standard to be modelled following the loss of Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia.
The Thresher group is calling on those who support this effort to send letters to the cemetery’s executive director at the following address:
Ms. Karen Durham-Aguilera
Army National Military Cemeteries
Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington, VA 22211-5003
Those who might want help articulating their thoughts in writing can use a template letter found on the group’s website at http://threshermemorial.org. Maybe the Maine and New Hampshire congressional delegations can submit a letter as well.
The group is also in the process of incorporating as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization so fundraising efforts can get underway. Members have already designed a proposed stone monument, modeled after a recently approved marker honoring Vietnam helicopter pilots and crewmen. The helicopter monument is expected to be dedicated within a few weeks.
Once the fundraising process has started, the group hopes to raise a rather humble $10,000, which includes construction, upkeep and other associated costs. The proposed marker is less than two feet high and less than three feet wide, and would be installed along a walkway in a non-burial area of the cemetery. Doesn’t seem like too much to ask for, given the legacy under consideration.
Meanwhile, as you gather with your family to celebrate this Easter holiday, keep in mind those men who were looking forward to a similar celebration 55 years ago and never made it home.
D. Allan Kerr was a proud member of Kittery’s Thresher Memorial Project, which organized installation of the 129-foot USS Thresher flagpole.
(March 30, 2018)