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With pending release of USS Thresher records, some families hope for answers

The nuclear-powered submarine USS Thresher is launched at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine on July 9, 1960. The USS Thresher sank on April 10, 1963, while conducting routine maneuvers southeast of Cape Cod, Mass. The accident, which took the lives of all 129 men onboard, remains the deadliest peacetime submarine disaster in U.S.

U.S. NAVY

By JULIA BERGMAN | The Day | Published: September 9, 2020

(Tribune News Service) -- Sixty-four-year-old Michael Shafer still thinks there’s more to uncover about the worst submarine disaster in U.S. history, which killed all 129 men aboard, including his father and uncle.

“I want to know the truth. I know there is more that the Navy has to tell us about what happened,” the St. Petersburg, Fla., resident said during a recent phone interview.

Last month, the Navy notified Shafer and other descendants of the crew of the USS Thresher that it is reviewing all of its records related to the loss of the submarine 57 years ago and is seeking to declassify and release as much information as possible under federal law.

“The Navy is committed to ensure the maximum amount of information is released, and we are devoted to you as family members of those lost to keep you up to date on the release,” Vice Adm. D.L. Caudle, commander of the Navy’s submarine forces, said in the letter to the Thresher families.

Though not explicitly mentioned in the letter, the Navy’s review was prompted by a lawsuit by a retired submarine commander, Capt. Jim Bryant, who has questioned the service’s official account of what happened.

“We want to learn about the mindset that allowed this submarine to be lost on what should have been a routine and well-planned deep dive test after a nine-month overhaul,” Bryant said in an April op-ed in The Day about his efforts.

The Navy has said the most likely explanation is that a ruptured seawater pipe in the submarine’s engine room caused catastrophic flooding and ultimately caused the submarine's nuclear reactor to shut down.

But Bryant has cited the analysis of naval acoustic expert Bruce Rule, who testified during the Navy's investigation into the tragedy. Rule believes there was no flooding because the sounds of high-pressure water hitting the inside of the submarine were not detected during the analysis of acoustic data.

Bryant first filed a Freedom of Information request to get unreleased documents about the Thresher’s sinking, including 1,700 pages of testimony presented during the Navy’s investigation, only 19 pages of which have been made publicly available.

When that didn’t yield any results, he sued the Navy in July 2019.

A federal judge ruled in February that the Navy had to begin releasing the documents, a process that was supposed to start in mid-March but was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Tim Noonis of Hampton, N.H., whose father, Walter “Jack” Noonis, was lost on the Thresher, said he’s probably one of the few people who’ve read the testimony that is publicly available from the investigation.

Noonis, 58, said he’s always been curious about what happened and has read as many books as he could find “that might shed some light” on the sinking.

“Does the Navy even know for sure? They could release every single page and we might still not know,” he said.

Noonis’ sister, Joy MacMillan of Brentwood, N.H., said any new information about the disaster that killed her father is welcome, and that family members have speculated about other possible causes at annual memorials and events honoring the Thresher.

Given the U.S. was in the Cold War and there was a great demand for submarines, MacMillan said, “it does seem to me that the push was on and that (the Thresher) wasn’t really ready for a dive that deep.”

Navy leadership at the time was aware that the design of the Thresher’s main ballast tank blow system, used to surface the submarine, “was inadequate when deep and was never tested at depth,” Bryant said in his April op-ed.

“That left the nuclear propulsion plant as the only way to bring the submarine to the surface in the case of flooding at depth,” he said.

At the time, there was a procedure being tested, but not yet approved, to respond to the emergency shutdown of a nuclear reactor by allowing steam flow to continue to the main engines to provide a few minutes of emergency propulsion. Adm. Hyman G. Rickover, then head of U.S. Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, allowed another submarine to use this procedure under certain conditions but not the Thresher.

Why this procedure wasn't allowed to be used by the Thresher's crew is one of the questions Bryant is seeking to answer with his lawsuit.

The Navy, around 2012, planned to release more documents on the Thresher's sinking but ultimately decided against it, saying the information was mostly technical in nature, didn’t contribute to any better understanding of the loss and would cause unnecessary trauma to the remaining descendants.

But descendants like MacMillan said they would like this information to be made public.

“As a 63-year-old woman that still longs to be a kid who had a father growing up, I still long for answers,” she said.

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