USS Thresher

The USS Thresher, seen here at sea before its commissioning in 1961, was the first of a new class of nuclear attack submarines. Built at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, it sank on a test dive 200 miles off Cape Cod in April 1963.

Last Wednesday April 21st would have been the 100th birthday of my father, Harold E. Ward PO1 USN ret. Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal (PH). But my smile of remembrance was dimmed by events of the day. Like the USS Thresher 57 years and 11 days prior, contact was lost with KRI Nanggala 402 of the Indonesian Navy after she submerged to exercise depth. And just like the Thresher, her hull imploded after exceeding her maximum dive depth. In each case the only evidence of their fate was some detritus and an oil slick.

They were dissimilar ships, one was a brand new nuclear submarine, the other a 40 year old diesel-electric. However they shared the commonality of all submersibles, every dive is a risk. It is their unquestioned acceptance of that risk that separates submariners from their surface-borne brothers.

From "The Colored Folks Ain't Gonna Make It" - A Sailor

It is a visual that would be recognized by a member of the Greatest Generation.

It is a visual that would be recognized by someone who had been in combat.

It is a visual that for many of us must be deduced, as a PTSD episode.

In mid-August of 2000 I was 48 years old. I had stopped in to see my parents. Mom was out for the evening. Harold, my dad, sat hunched over, stone silent, his face drawn tight, elbows on knees, gaze bore-sighted at the kitchen floor three feet in front of him. His eyes reflected horrors that had escaped from the vault in his memory that protected him from the past. A glass of Jack Daniels was held with both hands to keep it from shaking.

It was far too late in my life and after his ended, that I understood the meaning of that pose. I remember seeing it first when Medgar Evers was killed. Then I saw it during the 1964 "Mississippi Burning" incident and at several other junctures over my lifetime. But I had never deciphered its significance. But it was on that day after the Kursk, a Russian submarine was lost with 118 men undergoing sea trials, that I understood the pose, but not the name.

Among sailors there is no distinction between surface vessels or submarines, you are all men of the sea. And for a sailor, a ship does not sink. She dies, and often, her crew with it. Dad's anger and disgust with the Russian Government and Navy was monumental in proportion. But it was no less than what I remember as a young boy with the loss of the Thresher and her complement of 129, on her shakedown cruise out of Portsmouth in 1963.

He swore. “They keep sending them out in those boats for sea trials before they are ready. There's no reason for it, there's no war on. In the life of a boat, an extra week or month isn't going to matter. They keep showing off and killing us. That bastard Putin doesn’t give a damn about the boys in that sub. He just wasted their lives to make himself look tough.” He was talking to himself now, I no longer existed. He had entered a different dimension, a time tunnel returning him to WWII Pacific combat. A tear rolled down his face and stopped, frozen on his cheek.

In the world of men at sea, there are always two enemies, the ocean and your adversary. In all cases your opponent is secondary. The ocean must be conquered first, before you can defeat your adversary.

It is this that my father understood

It is this which rekindled his PTSD

It is this that reduced him to tears and shaking hands

When the Kursk was abandoned by her Navy and her country

For those who go down to the sea in ships it is thus

When a ship dies

All sailors feel her loss

And Harold was a sailor

Michael Cameron Ward is a retired software engineer and author of the book series “Sketches of Lee.” He lives in Lee.

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