By D. Allan Kerr
Liz DesJardins was 31 years old, five months pregnant and the mother of two young girls when two men from Portsmouth Naval Shipyard knocked on her door the morning of 11 April 1963.
There in the kitchen of her home in Kittery Point, Maine, these men told Liz her beloved husband Richard was among the 129 sailors and shipyard workers who had perished aboard the submarine USS Thresher.
She was devastated by the news, but in that moment felt she didn’t have the luxury of tears, even as her husband’s colleagues wept openly.
She recalled years later, “I’ve never seen so many men cry in all my life,” as she did in the weeks following the loss of the Thresher.
Liz, however, felt she had to keep herself together for her daughters – ages 8 and 5 — and her unborn son. She was afraid she would miscarry if she caved in to her grief.
“I just kept it inside,” she once said. “I think when tragedy strikes, you have a God-given strength.”
Friday marks the 57th anniversary of the world’s worst submarine disaster, an epic event that altered the course of naval history.
Right around this time each year, I typically write a piece paying tribute to those who went down with the Thresher.
These patriots were casualties of our Cold War with the Soviet Union, serving on the front lines during perhaps the most dangerous era of our nation’s history.
Because of their unique collective talents, I usually refer to them as “men of genius and adventure.”
But I’ve always considered the family members left behind as being nearly as heroic as those who died in the service of their country – especially the wives who had to raise their families single-handedly, even as they battled their own grief.
There are dozens of such stories, but the DesJardins tale is one which has always particularly resonated with me.
Liz met Richard on a blind date in 1951. He was a dashing ROTC cadet and engineering student at the University of Maine in Orono, and he needed a date for the upcoming winter ball. She was friends with his cousin, Marguerite, who set them up.
Liz was smitten from the start.
Richard, known to friends as Dick, was a Kittery kid, a 1948 graduate of Traip Academy and son of a longtime Navy yard worker. He served overseas in Greenland as a U.S. Army lieutenant after college, then he and Liz married upon his return Stateside.
Soon after, he landed a job at the Portsmouth shipyard where his old man had worked from World War I up to World War II. He brought his young family back to his hometown and the couple raised two daughters here.
Richard worked his way up to supervisory mechanical engineer and branch head in the Navy yard’s Combat Systems Division, and was also president of the Supper Club at the local First Congregational Church.
Kittery’s own Dick and Liz (that’s an old Hollywood reference) used to go square dancing at the old Grange Hall in town, even though he wasn’t fond of dancing and, by her own admission, “We didn’t have much rhythm.”
The Thresher (SSN 593) was designed and built at the shipyard, and commissioned there in 1961.
She was the first submarine of her type, a nuclear-powered, deadly blend of stealth and speed specifically created to hunt and destroy Soviet subs. She was capable of diving deeper and more quietly than any vessel before her.
On the morning of 10 April 1963, following a nine-month overhaul at the yard, the Thresher headed out of Portsmouth Harbor for sea trials. This was to be a routine exercise, with all aboard expecting to be home by Easter Sunday.
But the Thresher sank during deep-dive tests, an incident the Navy later blamed on faulty piping. Once the reactor lost power, the submarine dropped toward the ocean floor until she imploded from the enormous pressure of the sea.
Richard and everyone aboard died instantly.
Occurring just six months after the Cuban Missile Crisis and at the dawn of the atomic age, the tragedy was front-page news all over the world. It was the first time a nuclear submarine had ever been lost at sea, and remains today the worst sub disaster in history.
Liz and other surviving family members received letters of consolation from President John F. Kennedy, who would himself die violently just a few months later.
“It is a sad fact of history that this price of freedom must be paid again and again, by our best young men of each generation,” Kennedy wrote.
Liz and the other Thresher families received a great deal of support from their communities and the nation in the months following the disaster.
But as often happens, the world carried on and eventually Liz was left to raise her children on her own, although she did receive help from Richard’s mother, Mary.
Remember, grief counseling was not a common practice back then. As her daughter Lynne later noted, “You just sucked it up and got through it, like a New Englander.”
Liz was no stranger to tragedy – she lost her own adored father when she was just 15 years old.
She gave birth to her son a few months after the Thresher disaster and named him after the father he never met.
She was always haunted afterward by her memory of the proud fathers who paraded thru to see their newborns, realizing there would be no such greeting for young Richard. She called it “one of life’s worst moments.”
She was sustained by her faith, she said. She remained an active member of the local church, where she sang in the choir and taught Sunday school and for several decades was in charge of the flower arrangements.
She raised her children in Kittery, and they all graduated from Traip Academy like their father. Young Richard followed his dad’s footsteps and upon graduation was awarded the Richard Roy DesJardins scholarship, created in his father’s memory for Traip alumni pursuing engineering studies.
Two months ago, Liz finally rejoined her beloved husband.
She was 88 when she passed away on 17 February, and had been in failing health for several years. But I was absolutely stunned when I got the voice message from her daughter, Susan.
I think it’s safe to say Liz never really got over Richard’s death.
She never remarried and right up to the end of her life her eyes would twinkle whenever she talked about him – swear to God. But she remained one of the most positive, optimistic people I ever met. She seemed like she would outlast us all.
She loved to travel, especially to the United Kingdom, which she visited more than a dozen times. She could – and often would – talk for hours about her amazing grandchildren.
I talked to her often about her life and husband when writing about the Thresher. Once, sitting at her kitchen table, she said, “I’ve never been bitter that he gave his life.”
Then she paused for a moment and added, “I guess I have to convince myself of that sometimes.”
D. Allan Kerr is the author of Silent Strength, about the men lost aboard the USS Thresher.
(April 10, 2020)
He can also be found on seacoastonline.com