By D. Allan Kerr
A retired Navy captain has filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the U.S. Navy Department for additional information about the 1963 loss of the submarine USS Thresher – information he says is long overdue.
Former submarine skipper James B. Bryant is seeking to determine whether “the United States Government’s intentional or unintentional failure to use appropriate precautions” at the height of the Cold War may have contributed to the world’s worst submarine disaster, according to the suit filed at U.S. District Court in Washington D.C.
Bryant claims most of these documents should have been automatically declassified in 2013 after the 50th anniversary of the Thresher’s loss, but the declassification review still has not been completed. His request to expedite the process was previously denied.
The Thresher (SSN 593) sank during deep-dive tests more than 200 miles off the New England coast on the morning of 10 April 1963. She had just completed a nine-month overhaul at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, the same facility where she was designed and built, and commissioned in 1961.
All 129 sailors and civilian workers on board perished with the doomed submarine, including 13 local Navy yard employees.
A subsequent Naval Court of Inquiry later that year generated nearly 1,700 pages of testimony from witnesses and experts, but only 19 have been released to the public, Bryant says. (Editor’s Note: See download links at end of article.)
“Even some of the testimony in open court that was reported in newspapers was not released,” he noted this week. “I believe that having the information that was redacted or left out of an earlier release now made public will allow experts, historians and the public to study the facts and evidence about the loss of the Thresher and about the government’s subsequent investigation.”
To this day, the lost submarine lies in thousands of pieces on the ocean floor, about 8,000 feet below the surface. As there were no survivors of the disaster, and little evidence to examine, the disaster’s cause is largely a matter of conjecture.
The 1963 Court of Inquiry determined the most likely cause was a piping system failure in the engine room’s salt-water system, and “in all probability water affected electrical circuits and caused a loss of power.” Once the submarine’s nuclear reactor shut down, the Thresher sank below crush depth until she imploded from the enormous pressure of the sea at around 2,400 feet.
But the report also cited inadequate operating procedures and a deficient air system as possible factors.
Bryant said he isn’t trying to affix blame for what remains to this day the worst submarine disaster the world has ever known. However, he believes the public and in particular the families of those lost with the Thresher are entitled to all available facts relating to the tragedy.
Petty Officer First Class Julius Marullo Jr, a quartermaster and Korean War veteran, was among the Navy crewmen who died on the submarine.
His daughter Marcye Philbrook, a Kittery resident and business owner, is anxious to learn all there is to know about the tragedy that claimed her father’s life before her third birthday.
“Any further information disclosed to researchers and the public could help prevent any previously unknown causes from happening again,” said Philbrook, who is also president of the well-known non-profit boutique thrift store The Fabulous Find. “If the Navy was to blame for rushing trials before their time, we need to know that as well, as a cautionary tale.”
The 1963 court made a point of emphasizing in its report there was no evidence to suggest the disaster resulted from “the intent, fault, negligence or inefficiency of any person or persons in the naval service or connected therein.”
But Bryant points to the pressures of America’s Cold War with the Soviet Union as potentially a primary factor in the disaster. The standoff was at its peak during this time, just six months after the Cuban Missile Crisis.
He believes valuable lessons may be learned from these undisclosed documents.
“When this submarine was lost, we were in an intense geo-political competition with the Soviet Union that may have resulted in us using new technology without proper precautions to prevent us from falling behind,” Bryant said. “We recently returned to this type of competition with both Russia and China. Being able to analyze what caused the Thresher loss might prevent a similar failure and loss of life.”
Admiral Hyman Rickover, the larger-than-life “Father of the Nuclear Navy” who handpicked many of the Thresher’s crewmen, seemed to suggest the same in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy.
“The Thresher is a warning made at a great sacrifice of life, that we must change our way of doing business to meet the requirements of modern technology,” Rickover told a congressional committee in 1963. “We must correct the conditions that permitted the inadequate design, poor fabrication methods and incomplete inspection to exist, if we are not to have another Thresher.”
Bryant is a 1971 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, and during his career at sea served aboard three nuclear-powered fast-attack submarines which were part of the Thresher’s class. He commanded one of those vessels, the USS Guardfish (SSN 612), from 1987 to 1990.
The former captain, who now lives in San Diego, California, says there are several questions about the Thresher’s loss which remain to be addressed.
For instance, he points out that the Thresher, the first of her class, was the most advanced nuclear submarine in the world at the time – far ahead of Soviet technology – but sank during a routine dive test following an extensive overhaul period.
He also questions why 850 feet was the maximum depth a submarine crew could be rescued when the Thresher’s reported capability was 1,300 feet, and why accounts of a ballast tank test later performed on a sister submarine don’t match up.
Since he doesn’t even have access to the court’s list of witnesses and exhibits, Bryant can’t be sure what information is available. He understands some data may have to remain classified, but says he’s found no record of the Navy or Pentagon making such a request in this case. Such information may remain sealed for 75 years.
The demise of the Thresher, the first nuclear submarine ever lost at sea, had a profound impact both locally and nationally.
The incident led directly and almost immediately to the creation of SUBSAFE, an exhaustive safety process implemented to ensure the tragedy would never be repeated. No submarine has been lost after completing this procedure.
The shock also hit hard in the Seacoast region of southern Maine and New Hampshire, as numerous residents either knew someone who had died on the sub or a family member who had lost a loved one.
In Kittery, a 129-foot flagpole stands in the middle of Memorial Circle to represent the men lost, and a plaque at an adjacent park lists their names.
In September a small monument honoring those lost aboard the Thresher will be dedicated at Arlington National Cemetery. Bryant originally intended to gain access to the declassified info ahead of that event.
Now, having filed his lawsuit earlier this month, he says the Navy will likely respond by 8 August. The Navy has a reputation for being more resistant to FOIA requests than other military branches, he notes.
But the former skipper also points out the that 1963 court itself encouraged further exploration of the accident.
“Now 56 years later, we should be able to see most if not all of the information that has not been released, to do that additional study using the science and knowledge of today,” Bryant said. “I think the Thresher families deserve as much.”
U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps
(July 22, 2019)