Today is the 55th anniversary of the sinking of the US Navy submarine USS Thresher (SSN-593).
The first of its class, Thresher was supposed to be an innovative leap forward in submarine design and technology but several test runs uncovered technical problems and Thresher returned to Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine for repairs. By April 9, 1963 the repairs had been completed so the vessel departed for sea trials with 112 crew members and 17 shipyard employees who rode along to monitor the repairs in case additional work was needed.
The next day Thresher was 200 miles off the coast of Boston when she dove to test depth and reported to USS Skylark, the submarine rescue ship that was on the surface assisting her, that there was difficulty on board and the crew were attempting an emergency blow (this means the crew tried to blow all water from their tanks to lighten the boat which would force it to surface quickly). Tragically, the maneuver was unsuccessful and Thresher sank below crush depth and all hands were lost.
A few years ago we acquired a pillowcase stamped with Thresher’s name in one corner. The pillowcase had been acquired in 1963 by sailor Earl Welsh who was stationed at the New London submarine base. While on pier watch one day when a young man came down the gangplank of Thresher to throw away a bag of trash. They struck up a conversation and the young man, named Tommy, mentioned that he was afraid of going out on the ship’s upcoming cruise because the vessel had been experiencing problems. Mr. Welsh actually asked the young man why he didn’t just leave the ship if he was that scared (aka-go AWOL). Later, the young man brought Mr. Welsh a pillowcase from the vessel.
After reviewing photographs and biographies of the crew Mr. Welsh believes the crew member he spoke to might be Electronic Technician Third Class Thomas Edward Clements. Mr. Welsh remembers the young man as “a handsome guy” who was a few years older than himself who was also from New York.
The sinking became a turning point for the US Navy submarine force, which quickly began the SUBSAFE program which requires strict adherence to specific demands for the type and quality of materials and work used on submarine construction and repair. The idea was to use the best materials, the highest quality, and the most exacting standards so that a tragedy like the loss of Thresher never happened again. Since the program was instituted the United States has only lost one submarine, USS Scorpion (SSN-589) in 1968, which had been launched prior to the start of the SUBSAFE program.
(Thanks to Liz Williams for helping compile this post!)