By D. Allan Kerr
Motorists passing thru Memorial Circle in Kittery, Maine, most days can’t help but observe the huge American flag flying from the 129-foot flagpole in the center of the circle.
That flag, as noted on the stone markers bracketing the pole, is a permanent reminder of the crew of the Navy submarine USS Thresher, which tragically sank in 1963. The pole’s height represents each of the 129 men lost in the worst submarine disaster the world has ever known.
But now, just as the 56th anniversary of this tragedy is approaching, the USS Thresher Memorial Fund created to purchase and repair these flags has run dry.
Kittery’s Town Manager Kendra Amaral advised the Town Council this past Monday the privately-funded account now has a negative balance. (Editor’s note: see pages 5-6.) At one point its coffers included more than $200,000 in donations and in-kind contributions for installation of the flagpole, as well as Memorial Park behind Town Hall.
The fund, which is overseen by the town, achieved its purpose of providing for the flags thru April 2018, but now annual private donations have been outpaced by expenses. On Monday, Amaral told the council the account is more than $300 in the red.
“We actually have three flags,” she said. “Every time a flag needs to be taken down to be repaired, we have another flag ready to go up so that we don’t go for long stretches of time with the flag off.”
The flag is sometimes taken down during severe weather to protect it from further damage, she noted.
Expenses are about $2,000 a year, as each new 20-ft by 38-ft flag costs $720 to purchase and then $128 to repair, along with a $50 shipping fee. Flags are sent out at least a half-dozen times each year for maintenance. As it is, the town gets a discount from manufacturer U.S. Flag & Flagpole Supply out of Texas.
With the private fund now empty, the flags will have to become part of the town’s operating budget, Amaral said.
But as a member of the old Thresher Memorial Project Group, I always thought one of the highlights of that campaign was the way businesses, private citizens and the Navy community came together to get the flag flying in the first place. And I wonder if that effort can’t be duplicated to some small extent once again.
For more than a year, these various components worked together to have the Thresher flagpole installed in time to commemorate the milestone 50th anniversary of the tragedy. The memorable dedication ceremony inside the traffic circle in April 2013 featured Maine’s own Sen. Susan Collins as keynote speaker.
I can’t recall the town of Kittery and Portsmouth Naval Shipyard – where the Thresher was designed and built – working more closely together than during this time, except for those occasions when the shipyard was fighting for its very life during base closure rounds. Groups such as the National Association of Superintendents of U.S. Naval Shore Establishments stepped up in a major way.
Now, outside of the shipyard itself, the flagpole is our most visible reminder Kittery is indeed a Navy town.
One of the unintended consequences of the project seems to be how the Navy community now looks to the town to help keep the memory of the Thresher alive. Which is more than fitting, since the Thresher was almost literally conceived and born here at the Kittery yard. She is, in a very real sense, a hometown submarine.
Although she is mostly remembered today for her tragic end, the Thresher was quite renowned in her prime. Commissioned here at the shipyard in 1961, the nuclear-powered attack submarine was a key deterrent during America’s Cold War with the Soviet Union.
Able to dive deeper and more quietly than any sub before her, and equipped with the latest in sonar and weapons capability, the Thresher was considered the pride of the Navy. Her motto was “Vis Tacita,” Latin for “Silent Strength.”
In April 1963, the submarine departed Kittery for sea trials following an extensive nine-month overhaul. The crew expected to be back in time for Easter Sunday that weekend. Instead, the Thresher sank on April 10th during deep-dive tests off the coast of Cape Cod, and all 129 Navy sailors and civilian technicians aboard were lost with her.
A Navy board of inquiry faulted the disaster to faulty piping which caused the Thresher to lose power. She then sank toward the ocean floor until imploding from the enormous underwater pressure of the sea, instantly killing all aboard.
Family members have found some solace knowing the disaster directly resulted in the creation of SUBSAFE, an enhanced and meticulous safety program which has prevented similar tragedies. Because of the lessons learned in 1963, no SUBSAFE-certified submarine has ever been lost at sea.
Marcye Philbrook has lived in Kittery for 35 years, and like the Thresher came into this world at the shipyard, where she was born at the Navy hospital. After living within the Seacoast her whole life, she and her husband bought a home and raised their two sons here.
She has an interior design business in town and for years has served as president of the board of directors of The Fabulous Find. She’s also one of the founders of this remarkable organization, a boutique thrift store which donates its proceeds every month to other non-profits.
Philbrook sat right up on stage during that 2013 dedication ceremony, representing other surviving Thresher family members. Her father Julius Marullo, Jr. – known to all as Buddy – was a quartermaster and first-class petty officer aboard the submarine, and a member of the original commissioning crew.
She wasn’t even three years old when she lost her dad, a Texas-born veteran of the Korean War who had served aboard several ships and submarines during his twelve years in the Navy.
“The flag gives me comfort and I say hi to my father every time I approach the circle, which is quite often, being less than a mile from my home,” she said recently.
Her mother Debby Ronnquist lives in York now but resided in Kittery Point for 25 years. She loves the flag at Memorial Circle, she said, “as it is such a beautiful reminder of why my husband joined the Submarine Service to begin with.”
“He loved his country and our democracy which, if we are not careful, we will lose,” Ronnquist added.
Thirteen Shipyard employees also went down with the Thresher, including two native sons of Kittery.
Fred Philip Abrams and Richard Roy DesJardins both grew up near the back gate of the Shipyard, and graduated from Traip Academy 10 years apart – Abrams in 1938, DesJardins in 1948.
Abrams served in Europe with the Seventh Army during World War II; DesJardins was an Army lieutenant overseas in Greenland in the 1950s. Both returned home to Kittery and started families here, and both went to work at the shipyard. They were aboard the Thresher as civilian observers during that fatal final test dive.
Ken Lemont was part of the Thresher Memorial Project Group in 2013 and sits on Kittery’s town council today. He pointed out that the initial effort not only funded the flagpole and neighboring park but also provided $5,000 for upkeep in the years since.
“Going forward, the town will be budgeting and accepting private donations so that an American flag will forever fly honoring the brave men who lost their lives April 10, 1963,” he said.
Tax-deductible donations can still be directed to the USS Thresher Memorial Fund, care of Town of Kittery at 200 Rogers Road, Kittery, ME, 03904.
Ronnquist, who was only 22 years old when she lost her husband and was left with two young children, believes now in particular is a time for communities to come together.
“We need to all get educated about how our democracy works and be willing to participate in our local community in a way that is important to us,” she said. “It takes a village.”
D. Allan Kerr is the author of Silent Strength, a book about the men lost aboard the Thresher. All sales proceeds go to the Thresher Memorial Fund.
(April 2, 2019)