This is a column about a submarine that was lost, a superpower struggle that has ended, a scrapbook that was never completed — and a lesson that was never forgotten.
Today hardly anyone remembers the Thresher. The passage of time has stilled the unrequited hopes, the horror, and the helplessness of a terrible week half a century ago when a nuclear submarine disappeared during sea trials off the shore of Cape Cod, 129 men perishing with it. Yet as the 50th anniversary of the disaster approaches, it stands out as a moment when America’s military hardware stopped seeming unshakeable — and when the human cost of the struggle between capitalism and communism became clearer.
The Atlantic coast has been the site of many seaborne disasters, including the Andrea Doria, an Italian liner struck off Nantucket by a Swedish ship in 1956, killing 51. Perhaps because it occurred on, and not beneath, the surface of the sea, the Andrea Doria had a stronger impact on maritime memory. But the Thresher, as an emblem of the Cold War-era strains that shaped the country that mourned its demise, has far deeper historical resonance.
The Thresher was the lead vessel of a class of boats with advanced sonar and rocket systems. Along with land-based missiles and bombers, submarines were one of the legs of the nation’s nuclear triad. Tensions were high. When the Navy lost contact with the Thresher on April 10, 1963, it was only months after Soviet missiles were discovered in Cuba.
The Thresher’s disappearance spawned new submarine safety initiatives. It raised questions about why the strongest navy in the history of the world had no techniques for rescuing sailors aboard its most high-profile vessels.
That very week, the Senate held its first secret session in two decades, called to consider a measure for $196 million in parts for the Nike-Zeus anti-missile missile. And in the wake of the Thresher disaster, Moscow radio described the catastrophe as “a hard blow against United States plans’’ for putting Polaris missiles aboard NATO submarines. No matter that Thresher carried no missiles.
But, perhaps most important, the sinking of the Thresher shocked a public that was stirred by the space successes of Project Mercury and — four years before the tragedy of Apollo 1, where three astronauts died atop a rocket, and long before the nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island — still viewed technology with awe, not skepticism.
Against all evidence, which included an oil slick in the waters that the submarine had plied, the Navy held out hope. Maybe there had been a communications breakdown. Maybe the sub was merely disabled. Maybe it was quietly proceeding to port after a systems failure.
But soon these hopes disappeared, much like the submarine that was the object of them.
In New London, Conn., headquarters of the submarine fleet, the wife of the sub’s commander issued this statement: “We ask that you continue your prayers for these men, that our Lord will have taken them home quickly and forever.’’
The ultimate fate of the Thresher wasn’t fully known for another two decades, and again Cold War pressures intruded. The team that in 1985 located the Titanic actually had been dispatched on a secret mission to find the Thresher and another stricken submarine, the Scorpion, lost with 99 crewmen in 1968. It found that the Thresher had crumbled into thousands of pieces.
A memorial service for the men of the Thresher will be held Saturday at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. There is one every year. But this column was prompted by a memory that has remained with me for a half century.
During 1963, I found myself drawn to the news — to space shots that excited a 9-year-old and to a president, only a bit older than my father, who seemed to speak in poetry. I started collecting clippings in a scrapbook, starting with the voyage into space of Sigma 7 and its pilot, Walter M. Schirra, atop a Mercury-Atlas missile in October 1962 — a mission that occurred just two weeks before the crisis over missiles of a different sort.
So when the Thresher went down I assembled newspaper clippings (Boston Globe headline: “A-Sub Lost 200 Miles off Boston, Hope All But Gone for 129 Men”) for my scrapbook, along with the Wally Schirra stories — until, that is, my mother pointed out that some of those men had children my age and told me that the news had serious human consequences.
Maybe those weren’t her exact words. Maybe all this sounds like the kind of story that an editor makes up a half-century later. But it’s true, and I remember the lesson, every bit of it, every day as I edit a newspaper. That’s why this anniversary is so poignant for me, and why I never completed that scrapbook.David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.