April 06. 2013 9:19PM

Thresher memorial marked by love, tears

Sunday News Correspondent

Vicki Billings remembers her father, Lt Cmdr. John Hilary Billings, during a ceremony to honor the victims of the USS Thresher tragedy 50 years ago this month. John Billings was one of 129 men to lose their lives when the Thresher sank on April 10, 1963, off the coast of Cape Cod. (\GRETYL MACALASTER/PHOTO)

Vicki Billings had just turned 12 when her dad hugged her for the last time and boarded a U.S. submarine for deep-water test dives off the coast of Cape Cod in 1963.

On April 10 of that year, Lt. Cmdr. John Hilary Billings was one of 129 men who lost their lives aboard the USS Thresher when it sank to the depths of the ocean as a result of a piping failure.

On Saturday, those men were remembered by their widows, children, siblings and friends - as well as submariners who worked with them and came after them - during a memorial ceremony at Portsmouth High School.

More than 1,000 people attended the ceremony, including representatives from 63 families of the men lost aboard the nuclear-powered attack sub 50 years ago.

Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., spoke during the ceremony about the ultimate sacrifice made by the crew and the lessons learned by the U.S. Navy as a result of the tragedy.

Perhaps most moving, however, was the presentation given by Vicki Billings about her father and the effect his loss had on her mother, herself and her four siblings.

The children ranged in age from 3 to 12 when their father died. Their mother, just 33 years old when left widowed, loved her husband deeply, and Vicki Billings remembered the kiss her father would give his wife each night when he returned home.

She recalled the final essay her father helped her write, which would earn her a third-place prize but too late for him to see.

Her story, and the following musical performance by her brother, Blake, moved many in the crowd to tears.

Later in the afternoon, Margaret Cain and her daughter, RaeAnn Melvin, tossed a wreath from the Memorial Bridge into the Piscataqua River in memory of Cain's late husband, Douglas R. McClelland.

Cain was 21 when her husband was lost on the Thresher. RaeAnn was not born until two months after the tragedy.

Melvin said the stories she heard of her father growing up were few because the tragedy was too difficult to talk about.

The Thresher sinking led to the creation of SUBSAFE program and a re-evaluation of the methods used to build submarines.

To this day, the Navy has suffered no further losses of the kind that so tragically ended the Thresher's brief service.

Keynote speaker Navy Vice Adm. Michael J. Connor said the Thresher not only changed how submarines were built, but also changed the world.

He said descendants of the Thresher helped end the Cold War because the Soviet Union realized it could not prevail over U.S. Navy forces.

"So communism was pushed out and the world became a better and safer place, not just for submariners, but for everyone," he said.

Cain said her 5-year-old granddaughter may be here 50 years from now to remember her grandfather and that he, and the other 128 men on that boat, were pioneers - and heroes.

Saturday's memorial was organized by U.S. Submarine Veterans Thresher Base, which was chartered in 1989 to perpetuate the memories of the crewmen.