The USS Thresher (SSN 593)
by Jim Braden, a Cold War Submariner
During the Cold War (1945 through I991) the United States developed a fleet of nuclear powered submarines that replaced our older, less-efficient diesel powered submarines. As tensions grew between the Soviet Union and the United States, these submarines became the secret weapon that kept the Soviet Union at bay as they sought to spread communism throughout the world. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cold War was ending, and General Colin Powell, remarked at the ceremony honoring the 3000th SSBN Patrol:
"But no one-no one-has done more to prevent conflict; no one has made a greater sacrifice for the cause of Peace than you, America 's proud missile submarine family. You stand tall among all our heroes ofthe Cold War."
Most Americans know little of the events of the Cold War-the years when the Soviets and the Americans had numerous secret spy missions, not to mention numerous collisions between their submarines and ours as we worked to maintain superiority in the seas. Few Americans know about the two nuclear powered submarines that we lost in those years, and even fewer know about the many nuclear submarines the Soviets lost during those years.
April 1Oth marks the 50th year since we lost our first "nuke" boat-the USS Thresher. She
was a new class of fast attack submarines that had been showing very impressive qualifications during her initial sea trials and her operations in 1961 and 1962-the Russians had nothing to compare with the Thresher class of fast attacks. Designed to provide anti-submarine torpedo and submarine rocket (SUBROC) capabilities, the Thresher was damaged by a tug boat in Florida and had to return to the shipyard at Groton, CT for repairs and some minor modifications. In the Spring of 1963, the Thresher left the yard and headed south for more tests and trials off Key West.
Following those tests, in company with Skylark (ASR-20), Thresher put to sea on 9April 1963 for deep-diving exercises. The first day out, she conducted normal diving operations and arranged with the Skylark to do the deep-dives the next day. In addition to her 16 officers and 96 enlisted men, the submarine carried 17 civilian technician s to observe her performance during the deep-diving tests.
On 10 April 1963, fifteen minutes after reaching her assigned test depth, the submarine reported to Skylark (by underwater telephone) that they were having some difficulties. Garbled transmi ssions indicated that-far below the surface-things were going wrong. Suddenly, listeners in Skylark heard what sounded like an attempt to perform an "emergency blow" of the ballast tanks, followed by silence, and then the noise of the submarine breaking up. She sank in silence, and now rests in 7534 feet of water, at 41°46' 16" N latitude and 65° 3' 31" W longitude . That location is approximately 220 miles east of Boston, MA. She is officially listed as "lost" at sea since April 1963. Submariners use the term "on Eternal patrol" and we hold special memorials for her as well as the other submarines we have lost over the previous century.
The wreckage was located and photographed on numerous occasions, and periodic checks of the ocean floor have demonstrated there has been no release of nuclear contamination due to the wreck.
Subsequent Court of Inquiry opinion states that the pictures and other data indicate the most
probable cause of the sinking began with a piping failure, causing electrical problems, which led to the reactor shutdown. With no propulsion available, an attempt to blow the ballast tanks was
hampered by piping problems-most likely the freezing of filter canisters in the emergency blow line. That prevented the ship from removin g the water from its ballast tanks, leading to its sinking below crush depth.
Thresher lies in six major sections on the ocean floor, with the majority in a single debris field about 400 yards square. The major sections are the sail, sonar dome, bow section, engineering spaces, operations spaces, and the tail section.
An interesting book entitled The Death of the USS Thresher was written by Norman Polmar and the newest edition was published in 2004. I highly recommend the book be obtained by the library and I hope our children will learn the story of the 129 crewmen and civilian technicians who gave their lives to keep us safe.