Archive for April, 2013

The Death of the USS Thresher by Norman Polmar

April 5, 2013


The Cold War is long since over, and obviously we won. But in 1963, all bets were off. I was a little boy of nine and in the third grade. My dad worked at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in the Design Department presumably designing things, although even now I don’t know what. The USS Thresher was built there.

That world of fifty years ago would be seen today as foreign and even alien and certainly vice versa. If you were alive then cast your mind back to it. That there was some positive and much negative is probably apparent. If you were born in say ’70, ’80, ’90 or later, all I can say is that you owe it to yourself find out and to educate yourself what things were like then, because it is important.

How different was 1963 from 2013? Well, as an example there were three, only three TV networks. That means three choices. Period. Oh, in Boston or New York, or DC there was National Educational TV. But it was nothing like the PBS. TV was all in Black and white. Color was coming but still very new. Also there was only one TV set per household. To add to this there was the TV repairman who had to be called once or twice a year to replace 1950’s style vacuum tubes that made the set work. Really. The sets were hot to the touch and all analog, with usually a six inch mono-speaker. And a remote? A what? You got up to change the channel. It was dreadful. Radio was all AM and even worse than TV. Don’t ask.

In 1963 cars were all American made, with no seatbelts, radial tires or antilock brakes. If you hit something, you died. There might be a very few VW beetles and little Renaults and Peugeots puttering around but that was it. Make no mistake these were very nasty. They were better than walking. The “Jet set” was still new and cool. No one exercised or watched their diet apart from a few “heath-nuts” in New York or Boston. And unless you lived in an “ethnic” area of Italian, Greek or other immigrants, the food was execrable, overcooked and uniformly bland. If you think I’m making this up, just ask. On the positive side, JFK was the young and dashing President and First Lady Jackie was oh so elegant.

But, under the surface and not too far under was an undercurrent of fear, and with good reason. There was fear of Atomic war with the USSR and its Warsaw Pact, which was a monolithic structure with only one goal, the absolute destruction of Western capitalism and the victory of communism. To counter this Cold War offensive, the US and its allies banded together into NATO in a desperate attempt to avoid domination by so we then thought, of both Soviet Russia and Red China. Little did we then know the reality behind those two powers and their hated for each other was greater than their hatred of us.

Fortunately one of our most effective and deadly weapons was the atomic (now called nuclear) powered submarine. Designed to counter the hundreds of Soviet ships and subs. The US Navy’s nuclear submarines and later allied British and French subs were and are the ultimate weapon. Think of a huge black mass as of a great silent shark watching, waiting in the depths of the ocean, unseen until the moment of attack! If it frightens you, it frightens me more, which was and is the whole idea.

And so when in early April ’63, in this seacoast NH and Maine area the unthinkable happened, the horror-the-then-mind-numbing-horror of the news that the Thresher was … how to say it? Overdue? What!!! The Navy’s newest most modern and technically advanced submarine (read deadly) was missing??? The chill was as a thunderbolt nationwide. And in the Seacoast area, a shock.

For a child, to see your parents, and all adults afraid, was even more frightening. But it was true. What had happened? A Russian attack? And if so, how? And if not, was it sabotage? And if not that, then what? A mechanical failure? Unthinkable! I will never forget the hushed whispers of blind fear.

This book is the story told by naval writer par excellence, Norman Polmar. Original published in 1964 and updated with new information in 2004. Polmar is a masterful writer, who engagingly and methodically tells us the story of this tragedy, with added codas of the later loss of the submarines, USS Scorpion and the Russian [not Soviet] Kursk.

Certainly and quite rightly, owing to the extreme nature of the necessity for secrecy, the general public may not know for decades, if ever, what actually happened on that April day off Cape Cod. And that begs a question; does anyone actually know what happened? We do not know what we do not know. And as the remains of the Thresher are 8,400 feet under the sea in a scrap field on the bottom we may never know.

Fortunately, out of this disaster came the SubSafe Program which greatly improved quality control in onboard submarine repairs. So probably and indirectly the loss of the Thresher helped to lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union. That monstrous paradox that was Russian communism, a system so perverse that it had to build an armored wall with minefields and guard towers to keep its own people from voting with their feet and just leaving, which is to say escaping. The Schadenfreude, which is to say the joy (or pleasure) at your enemy’s discomfort would be delicious if it were not tempered with the pain of loss of so many. And this was in a “Cold” and not a “Hot” war.

Norman Polmar’s book ought to be read, at least as a memorial to the 129 men who died on that day. We can talk, think, write and pray, as well we should. But we should never forget that while the machine can be replaced the people cannot. And we the living owe the dead a debt which we can never repay.

“O God, thy sea is so great, and my boat is so small”—a prayer of Breton fishermen.

Bill Littlefield

5 March, 2013

Available on audio from Hoopla

The Death of the USS Thresher