Memorial for Thresher long overdue
D. Allan Kerr, Thresher Memorial Project Group, Seacostonline.com, April 8, 2012
This month, as they do every year, surviving family members will gather in Kittery, Maine, to honor the 129 men who perished in the sinking of the fast-attack nuclear submarine USS Thresher in April 1963.
The loss of the Thresher (SSN 593) during deep-dive trials off the New England coast remains the worst submarine disaster of all time. The tragedy particularly resonates here on the Seacoast, where it embodies the symbiotic relationship between local communities and Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Thresher was built and home-ported at the yard, and civilian employees working side-by-side with Navy sailors were lost when the submarine imploded that morning. They entered those unknown depths together on a shared mission, and they made the ultimate sacrifice together.
The families of these lost pioneers gather with local submarine veterans each April for a memorial service in remembrance of that sacrifice. On April 14, the ceremony will be held at Traip Academy. In the meantime, efforts are under way to establish a more permanent reminder in the town Thresher called home, to coincide with next year's 50th anniversary of the disaster.
Current plans call for the dedication of a memorial at the former Kittery Traffic Circle, to be highlighted by a 129-foot flagpole visible from Interstate 95 and showcased by floodlights 24 hours a day. The height of the flagpole will commemorate the 129 brave sailors and civilians who went down with the submarine.
The flag is to rise from a rounded black granite base, with cherry trees and appropriate ornamentation augmenting the memorial. Sidewalks, benches and other improvements are to be installed around the surrounding area as well. And in this corner at least, there is hope the site will be renamed USS Thresher Memorial Circle, but I suppose that's an issue for another day.
More importantly, a long overdue tribute will be paid to those lost aboard SSN 593. Members of Thresher Base — the local chapter of U.S. Submarine Veterans — and the families meeting here next weekend recognize that their loved ones are heroes, and it's time they be celebrated as such. They aren't heroes just because they died; they're heroes because they undertook a dangerous mission, they were fully aware of the possible consequences, and they went anyway.
In my mind, they're heroes the way astronauts are heroes, exploring the depths of the sea where few
others have gone just as their counterparts explore the frontiers of space. And they did it in defense of their country. Just imagine riding in an oversized cigar tube under a thousand feet of water. If something goes wrong, there's nowhere to go; you don't even have the option of jumping overboard.
The ongoing hype for this month's 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking serves as a stark reminder of how little the general public knows about the Thresher. The submarine fleet is at times appropriately referred to as the "silent service," but while stealth is an essential component of its success, it has also perhaps deprived submariners of the public acclaim they are due. Their accomplishments are invisible, taking place far below the ocean's surface and out of sight.
Thresher was the most advanced submarine of its day, the first of its class, created during the height of the Cold War to "hunt and kill" Soviet subs. During its fatal dive, the submarine was reportedly near its maximum test depth of 1,300 feet when its nuclear reactor shut down, causing the crippled vessel to plunge to the bottom of the sea. It was crushed by enormous water pressure as it sank, instantly killing all on board.
Today, Thresher rests in several broken fragments beneath 8,400 feet of water on the ocean floor. However, its loss served as a catalyst for major changes in submarine safety known as SUBSAFE, which has prevented similar catastrophes from occurring.
For more than two centuries, from sailing ships to nuclear submarines, the Navy yard and its Seacoast neighbors have worked together to keep our country safe.
The memorial targeted for next year's anniversary will pay tribute to a tragedy, but it will also serve as a celebration of what this partnership has been able to achieve in defense of our nation's freedom.
It will serve as a reminder of those aboard Thresher, and other lost submariners as well, who are Forever on Patrol, Never to be Forgotten.