Thresher submarine tragedy to be recalled 50 years later
PORTSMOUTH - Fifty years have passed since the attack submarine USS Thresher sank in the Atlantic with a crew of 129, but the organizer of this year's historic memorial service says lessons continue to be learned from the tragedy.
"In terms of safety, anyone who has served on a sub owes so much to the crew of the Thresher," said Kevin Galeaz, commander of USSVI Thresher Base in Portsmouth and chairman of the committee planning the 50th annual USS Thresher Memorial Service, to be held April 6. " . We haven't lost a SUBSAFE-certified submarine in an accident since 1963, and it's because of what was learned from the Thresher. The men lost that day, their deaths had meaning, and the families appreciate that."
The invitation-only memorial service will take place at 1 p.m. in the Portsmouth High School Auditorium. Galeaz said about 1,200 are expected to attend, including 612 relatives of crew members killed when the submarine sank April 10, 1963, during a sea trial about 225 miles off the New England coast. U.S. Sens. Kelly Ayotte and Jeanne Shaheen will speak at the ceremony; Vice Admiral Michael J. Connor, commander of the U.S. Navy Submarine Forces, has been invited to be the keynote speaker; and Blake Billings, son of the late John Hilary Billings, lieutenant commander of the Thresher, will perform "In Memory of You," which he composed.
Victoria Sallade of Sicklerville, N.J., whose grandfather Charles Wiggins served as a fire control technician aboard the Thresher, will also attend the event.
"This is the first year I'll be making the trip without my mother, who passed away last year," said Sallade. "She always told us how our grandfather died a hero for our country. An event like this is so meaningful for the families involved. It's a lot like a reunion because everyone shares a bond that most people will never understand. My mother would want me there for her and for my grandfather."
"The families are a very close group," said Galeaz.
Galeaz said members of Thresher Base, a group of submarine veterans chartered in 1989 to preserve the memory of those who perished on the Thresher and other subs, have been scrambling in recent weeks to relocate the service, after officials at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard informed him they would no longer be able to host the event due to Department of Defense spending cuts.
"We were almost a victim of sequestration," said Galeaz. "Now they've told me they don't have approval to print the programs either, so I'm on the way to get those taken care of."
The Thresher, one of the newest and most modern subs in the U.S. fleet in 1963, was on a training dive when the Navy lost all contact with it. At first, the Navy reported the Thresher was overdue and presumed missing, but changed the report to "appears to be lost" after an oil slick was sighted. The $45 million Thresher, built at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, had been commissioned less than two years earlier.
A report generated by a Navy inquiry into the accident said that while the exact sequence of events that sank the Thresher will never be known, the loss "in all probability" started with a seawater leak into the engine room from a faulty silver-braze pipe. The seawater then shorted electrical circuits, triggering an automatic shutdown of the reactor. When the captain attempted to release seawater from ballast tanks with blasts of compressed air, that system failed, as well, leaving the sub slowly sinking into the Atlantic.
When it reached a depth where the pressure was too great for its hull to withstand, it was crushed.
The Navy ordered changes and improvements in quality control at its shipyards after the accident. Submarine design and operating procedures for the vessels also changed.
The loss of Thresher was the genesis of the SUBSAFE Program, according to the Thresher Base website.
Galeaz said the memorial service will be filmed live and streamed over the Defense Video & Information Distribution System website at dvidshub.net.