April 10, 1963 – Loss of USS Thresher
In the late summer of 1984, I was finishing up my Submarine Qualifications aboard USS Michigan SSBN-727(G). My belief was that my final Qual Board, to be held in early November, would be focused especially on damage control. I had already shown myself to be a pretty good systems guy, and my watch standing as Missile Compartment Roving Patrol and Strategic Weapons Technician had shown that I was very adept at both understanding a given situation and anticipating the sequence of any evolution for a casualty situation.
So I had come to believe that my Board would focus outside of the Missile Compartment and the Missile Control Center, probably more on Engine Room and Air systems, which for some reason, I had passed but had received a “red” signature on the Block Check out from my own Division Officer, Lt. David Fairfax. I was pretty determined to smoke my board, so I buckled down and hit the books determined to know more about the subjects than anybody else.
During the process, I pulled out the big green Ships Systems books. Most folks avoid these because while they are the “official” NAVSEA books, they also can be a bit overwhelming information-wise and they tend to not be as interesting as actually tracing out a system yourself or talking to an expert. But the Damage Control book was enthralling because I learned, in August of 1984, that the US Navy had intentionally and purposely dropped a whole bunch of depth charges on USS Thresher in the summer of 1962.
The manuals noted that the Navy had been both surprised and disappointed by the results of the test, which showed that Thresher had been “significantly damaged” by the pounding. The Thresher completed the tests and proceeded to the yard where the repairs and previously delayed overhaul took place.
Keep in mind that in 1962 the Thresher was THE cutting edge technology in underwater warfare. There had NEVER been a submarine like her before and in truth, the Navy had no real idea of her overall abilities or capabilities. Much of her short life was dedicated to learning how to use new weapons systems with the new design of the subs. No one knew for certain how things worked. They knew how they were designed to work, but as my own experience aboard Michigan would teach me, that is NOT the same thing.
After the loss of Thresher, Admiral Rickover would be the only high ranking Navy official to speak truth to power and say as much. He innately understood that reactor start up procedures took too long and it was clear to all that Thresher had lost power and had a reactor SCRAM. He alone told the Board of Inquiry and Congress that “When fact, supposition and speculation, which have been used interchangeably, are properly separated, you will find that the known facts are so meager it is almost impossible to tell what was happening aboard Thresher.”
It was a sobering thing for a twenty year old aspiring submariner to read.
And it drove home to me, more than anything I had previously learned or believed, that going to sea in ships – especially ships that are designed to go underwater, is inherently dangerous.
I remember sitting in the crews library and imagining myself asking the men who went down on Thresher if it was worth it? Did they believe in what they were doing? Was it so important that the risks are worth the danger?
In my mind, they said, “Yes.”
The Navy literally revamped the entire submarine construction and maintenance process and procedures following the loss of Thresher. Today the Navy employs a program known as “SUBSAFE,” which verifies that every part, every weld, every document aboard a boat is 100% in compliance with every safety precaution that could possibly be imagined.
And it’s still dangerous.
We have not lost a boat since 1968. But – and it gives me chills to write this – we will. It is as inevitable as the tides. Someday, when we least expect it, when we have become complacent or sloppy or even just confident in our abilities and skills, we will.
And the lessons of Thresher, now fifty years old, will be dusted off and revisited, along with new lessons learned. Men will be remembered and an entire new generation of young boys will go to sea and ask their ghosts, “Is it worth it?”
Yes, it is.