USS Thresher memorial approval celebrated by family members
By HADLEY BARNDOLLAR | The Portsmouth Herald | Published: February 9, 2019
KITTERY, Maine (Tribune Content Agency) — On April 10, 1963, 16-year-old Carol Norton was playing basketball with her brother and neighbors when their mother approached the group slowly from afar, shaking and sobbing.
"What Mama was to reveal to us was the unthinkable," Norton said Friday, while speaking at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard's museum.
Her father, civilian shipyard inspector Fred Philip Abrams and 128 other men were missing. Nuclear attack submarine USS Thresher (SSN-593), while conducting deep dive exercises 220 miles off Cape Cod, did not surface. The vessel imploded, and its shattered hull remains more than 8,000 feet underwater today. It was the worst submarine disaster the nation has ever seen.
The 129 deaths sent shock waves through the Seacoast community, and left families without husbands, fathers, sons and brothers. It also catalyzed modern day submarine safety, which today takes the form of the SUBSAFE program. Since its inception, just one submarine has been lost, the USS Scorpion in 1968.
"Our collective loss was devastating," Norton said. "Our families were torn apart. Life as we knew it would never be the same."
On Friday at the shipyard, Norton joined PNSY Cmdr. Capt. David Hunt, U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and USS Thresher ANC Memorial Foundation President Kevin Galeaz to celebrate the approval of a Thresher memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. A long-awaited remembrance, the process began in 2012, and last week it was announced Army Secretary Mark Esper had finally given the nod of approval.
For Norton, it was a "dream come true," she said.
"It means that my father did not die in vain," said Norton, who lives in Effingham, New Hampshire. "... We thank God that we have not had a similar tragedy thanks to the SUBSAFE program. It's very important people know the story."
Norton's father was a 1938 Traip Academy graduate, World War II veteran, and he "loved his country," she said. They lived in Kittery at the time of his death, the same town where he was born.
Last November, Shaheen led a bipartisan letter urging the secretary of the Army to consider the USS Thresher ANC Memorial Foundation's proposal. She was joined by Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Angus King, I-Maine, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
Shaheen said the foundation and Thresher family members have been "fierce advocates on behalf of their loved ones who perished."
Thresher was built and commissioned at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in 1961, and at the time, Shaheen said, was thought of as the pride of the shipyard and Seacoast. The tragedy, she said, led to "one of the most comprehensive military safety programs in the world."
"It has significantly affected how the Navy protects the men and women on our submarines," she said.
Hunt said the sacrifice of the Thresher crew "changed everything in the submarine community." Every day, Thresher is at the forefront of how decisions are made at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, he said.
Galeaz, a Cold War submarine veteran who has worked tirelessly to see Thresher remembered at Arlington National Cemetery while a generation of loved ones are still alive, said every time he dove, he surfaced because of Thresher. The men and women of today's submarines owe a debt to the Thresher crew, he said.
Arlington National Cemetery sees more than 3 million visitors a year, and the foundation will request a memorial location along a high-trafficked walkway, Galeaz said. He called the approval process "quite a journey" that required persistence, silent patience and rapid response when needed.
Galeaz said he has invited Shaheen to be the keynote speaker at the memorial's dedication this fall.