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USS Thresher disaster: Best story I never wrote
Apr. 2, 2023 6:00 am
April 10, 1963 — During a routine test dive 220 miles off Cape Cod, the nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Thresher (SSN-593) mysteriously sinks and implodes. All 129 crew and shipyard personnel aboard are killed.
The nation is shocked. The Defense Department says little, except that, no, the sunken ship’s nuclear reactor can’t blow up 8,400 feet down. A public worried by science fiction movies and Cold War conspiracy theories needs reassurance: no environmental damage, no radiation-swollen Godzillas clawing ashore to threaten all humanity, no evidence of a Soviet sub attack.
News media clamor for explanation. Three-year-old Thresher, fresh from a 9-month overhaul following a series of accidents and fires, was built to run faster and dive deeper than any sub. How could it just sink? The only clue is an underwater phone message, “We are experiencing minor difficulties. We have a positive up angle and are attempting to blow (the ballast tanks).”
“Minor difficulties” escalate into the nation’s worst submarine disaster? No wonder its cause has become the Everest of Journalism.
Iowa City (13 days later) — I’m headed for the UI Engineering College building where — according to my Press-Citizen boss Bill Eginton — a personally involved design engineer is about to give a talk on Thresher.
I’m the right reporter for the job. An Army brat during World War II and Korea, I know the anxieties facing service families. This tragedy will be multigenerational. And what a story it could be! Too bad it must await the next day’s publication. TV, radio and morning papers will be ahead of me.
But wait. No other news media present, just students, faculty and guests. A major scoop is likely. Recognition to follow.
The speaker, Myron D. Lunchick, worked as a civilian testing Thresher’s forward portion before commissioning. He says that if human error was to blame for the disaster, it was during overhaul at the Navy Shipyard in Portsmouth, N.H. He says a hole was cut in its side to accommodate new equipment. “If someone were careless and welded in some inferior plating, it could have caused the failure later on.” He also said a burst pipe could have been the cause.
So, design engineer-researcher, proud of his work, says look elsewhere for the disaster’s cause. Intriguing possibilities here: drama, mystery, tension between military higher-ups and civilians. What’s more, a clash of cultures — nuclear subs vs. World War II diesel power. And he story is all mine.
Then a jolt: No other news outlet picks up my big April 24 story. It goes nowhere and next day the newspaper wraps fish.
It’s the last Thresher article I ever write for publication. So I watch from the sidelines while:
Two months later, a crew on the famed bathyscaph Trieste locates the Thresher wreckage scattered over four acres. Still no clues as to cause.
Vice Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, “father of the nuclear navy,” heroically defends submarines’ 1950s move to nuclear propulsion. Good thing, too, lest the Soviets make formidable gains in Cold War sub hide-and-seek.
A Navy Court of Inquiry concludes probable cause of sinking at test depth (1,300 feet) as flooding from a ruptured sea-connected pipe in Thresher’s engine room.
On TV a year later (1964), young Dan Rather gives a “CBS Reports” documentary, “Legacy of the USS Thresher.” He gracefully handles the story that got its start as my story. Not for him the “Heads will roll!” speculation of other commentators. Rather makes lots of money.
Thresher’s “legacy” is SUBSAFE — 1964-initiated program ensuring strictest quality control at all stages of submarine design, construction and testing. It means those who perished on Thresher did not die in vain. Among the victims was one Iowan, Fire Control Technician Second Class Larry Freeman of Runnells.
In a U.S. Senate hearing, Bourke B. Hickenlooper (R-Iowa) scolds Navy brass for suggesting the captain of Thresher’s accompanying sub rescue ship Skylark somehow could have prevented the disaster. Skylark was equipped for rescue operations nowhere near Thresher’s 1,300-foot test depth. Good for Hickenlooper, an officer in France during World War I.
It turns out Thresher crewmen were woefully underinsured, that the crew included three African Americans and that scores of submariners — active and retired — remain dissatisfied by the Court of Inquiry’s conclusion. Court details remain classified, though the Cold War’s end in 1989 reduces the need for secrecy.
2013-2023: Two old mystery solvers come sailing in.
One is Bruce Rule, noted acoustic analyst and Court of Inquiry interviewee from 1963. His studies contradict the Court: no flooding from a burst pipe in stricken Thresher (which hardly would have been “minor difficulties”) but rather, electrical failure causing loss of propulsion and ballast-emptying capability. They make the vessel fatally “heavy.” Rule writes the definitive book, “Why the USS Thresher (SSN-593) Was Lost.”
The other sleuth is retired Captain James B. Bryant, who served on three Thresher-class submarines, including commanding the USS Guardfish (SSN-612). Not wishing to embarrass the Navy, he merely insists it’s time to report fully. So he successfully uses the Freedom of Information Act to force release of the court documents still classified.
‘’No cover-up, no smoking gun,” says Capt. Bryant. But naval policies and procedures failed to keep pace with rapid technological advances during the Cold War, allowing a series of failures leading to disaster. Overhauled Thresher and its largely new crew were not ready for deep diving.
I ask Capt. Bryant, 74, about that long-ago lecturer’s theory of flawed hull removal and reinstallation. He says a collapse there would have left Thresher in one piece, not scattered about the ocean floor.
On this 60th anniversary of the Thresher disaster, I hear online The Navy Hymn’s salute to “those in peril on the sea”: “Eternal Father, strong to save …” and view my photocopy of that exclusive 1963 story — my scoop. Sad to say, it doesn’t bear my name. No bylines for Press-Citizen reporters in those days. That makes it the best story I never wrote.
Writer-editor Jerry Elsea is retired after 40 years with The Gazette, the last 15 as opinion page editor.
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