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Nuclear submarine USS Thresher was said to be America's best, then tragedy struck

USS Thresher's starboard bow view on July 24, 1961.

U.S. NAVY NAVAL HISTORY AND HERITAGE COMMAND

By MICHAEL E. RUANE | The Washington Post | Published: September 26, 2019

Tom Wiley was sitting in his dorm room at Purdue University listening to his transistor radio when he heard about the missing submarine.

The radio hadn't been working lately, but his roommate got it on just as the bulletin came about the USS Thresher. Wiley's big brother, John Joseph, "JJ," was a 23-year-old officer on the submarine. A Naval Academy graduate who had been handed his degree by President John F. Kennedy, JJ — one of the six children of a locomotive engineer from Altoona, Pennsylvania — was among the Navy's best. He was Tom's hero.

JJ was aboard a nuclear sub that was one of the Navy's latest, with 128 other elite sailors, officers and shipyard personnel. The Thresher was the first of its class of nuclear-powered attack submarines. It was undergoing deep-diving trials on April 10, 1963, when the Thresher went silent in 8,500 feet of water off the coast of New England. The last thing an escort ship had heard was an ominous rumble from far below.

On Thursday afternoon at Arlington National Cemetery, Thomas Wiley, now 75, a retired Secret Service special agent in charge, was to be part of a dedication of a granite memorial to the crew of the Thresher, the sinking of which is said to be the deadliest submarine loss in maritime history. 

Crew families, as well as friends, legislators, and current and former Navy officials gathered to honor the men who perished when the boat burst a leak and imploded under the pressure of the ocean as it drifted out of control past its "crush" depth.

Historians believe the implosion happened in milliseconds at about 1,500 feet, and that scattered pieces of the boat then drifted to the bottom more than a mile below.

No bodies were ever recovered, and their loss was front-page news across the country. The wreckage was found a few months later.

(In the 1980s the Navy and oceanographer Robert Ballard secretly teamed up to dive on the Thresher's sunken nuclear reactor, which in 1985 was found to be intact, according to the National Geographic Society, where Ballard is an explorer in residence. After the Navy mission, Ballard had 12 days left over. He used it to find the Titanic.)

"The guys on the Thresher were the cream," said Kevin Galeaz, a submarine veteran and president of the project and foundation that got the monument built. "You took the best, you took latest and greatest ship, gone, and it just stunned everybody."

Two members of the crew were brothers — Master Chief Electrician's Mate Benjamin Shafer, 36, and Senior Chief Electrician's Mate John Shafer, 33.

The boat's skipper, Lt. Cmdr. John Wesley "Wes" Harvey, 36, had served on the USS Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine, and had taken command of the Thresher four months earlier. But he had never before been to sea in the boat, according to John Bently, author of the book, "The Thresher Disaster."

Neither, apparently, had Lt. (jg) Wiley.

One sailor, Alan Sinnett, 29, had been on Thresher for only six days.

Fifty-five-year old Henry Charles Moreau, a World War II veteran and longtime employee of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, where the Thresher was built, was onboard as an air conditioning expert.

Thresher officer Raymond McCoole was ordered off the boat hours before its fatal trip. His wife had suffered an accidental eye injury, the boat was crowded with 21 observers, and the captain needed an extra bunk.

Afterward, to McCoole's dismay, he was hailed as the luckiest man alive.

Then there was Machinist's Mate 2nd Class George John Keisecker, 48, a World War II veteran who had been on a submarine that entered Tokyo Bay when the war ended. He was terrified of the Thresher, telling his wife the boat was troubled, not ready for sea, and was a "coffin."

The Thresher had been in commission only 20 months, and was beset with problems. It had spent the previous nine months in port for repairs. And Keisecker felt the fixes had been rushed.

"Honey, I have a feeling this will be our last trip," he reportedly told his wife, Lily, just before the boat sailed. "You will be a wealthy widow before the week is over."

The Thresher left the Naval shipyard at Kittery, Maine, at 8:05 a.m. on April 9, after a tedious nine-month overhaul, and headed for the open ocean to conduct test dives.

The boat's capability was such that its deepest diving test had to be conducted beyond the shallow water of the continental shelf, where the water is less than 600 feet deep. And after some initial tests in the shallow water, the Thresher headed out to where the ocean was 1,400 fathoms, or a mile and half, deep.

The sub was escorted by a rescue vessel, the 17-year-old USS Skylark. The Skylark carried special equipment and a submarine rescue chamber. But the chamber could only go down to a depth of 850 feet. It could work well in the waters of the shelf, but would be almost useless where the Thresher was headed.

It's not clear how far down the doomed sub intended to go on its main test dive, nor at what depth the boat would be destroyed by the enormous water pressure if it went too deep.

Naval historian Norman Polmar, in his book "Death of the Thresher," estimated that boat's test depth was 800 to 1,000 feet, and that its "collapse depth" was about 1,200 to 1,500 feet.

Collapse occurs in a split second, Galeaz, of the monument project, said.

"In one twentieth of a second, literally, it implodes," he said in a telephone interview. "Poof, like that. It is so fast [that] one of the small blessings of this is that even though the guys knew they were going down ... [the end] happened instantaneously."

On the morning of April 10, the ocean was calm, with a slight swell, a Navy inquiry found later. Visibility was 10 miles. An 8-mile-an-hour breeze was blowing from the north. No other ships were known to be around.

The Thresher was so crowded, with 12 officers, 96 enlisted men and 21 observers, that 30 temporary bunks had been set up in the empty torpedo room, according to Bently.

At 7:47 a.m., the submerged submarine told the Skylark via an underwater acoustic "telephone" that it was starting its deep dive.

The escort ship was about 2 miles away. The Skylark's captain, Lt. Cmdr. Stanley W. Hecker, later said he knew little about the Thresher. "I had no information as to ... her depth, speed and range," according to Polmar.

As the dive proceeded, the submarine reported its depth to Skylark.

At 7:52 it reached 400 feet, and paused to check for leaks.

At 8:09 it was halfway to its test depth. All seemed well.

Lt. (jg) James D. Watson, the Skylark's navigator, was on the "phone" with the submarine.

At 8:27 the Thresher started toward its test depth.

The sub checked in at 9:02 and 9:12.

Then, at about 9:13, the Thresher reported: "Experiencing minor difficulties. Have positive up angle. Am attempting to blow. Will keep you informed."

In hindsight, this was alarming, Galeaz said. It suggested something was wrong and the sub was blowing air into its ballast tanks to head toward the surface.

Two impulses were detected, from 9:09 to 9:11 and from 9:13 to 9:14, which might have been made by the sub blowing its ballast tanks.

At 9:14 Skylark lost contact with the Thresher.

Hecker, the Skylark's skipper, called the submarine and three times asked, "Are you in control?"

There was no reply.

Four minutes later, a "high energy, low frequency noise disturbance," was heard from far below, the Navy inquiry said.

It was the sound of the Thresher being crushed.

Back at Purdue, Tom Wiley hurried from his dorm room to find a TV. After seeing the television reports, he returned to his room. The radio was now off, he recalled. His roommate said it had cut out just as Tom had left the room.

"The radio never worked again," he said.

He called his mother, who confirmed the bad news, and caught a train for Altoona the next day.

It was a 12-hour trip: "Every train stop, I got off the train hoping to hear the good news that the submarine had been found and they were all safe."

"It never came out," he said.

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