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USS Thresher (SSN-593)
USS Thresher (SSN-593) underway, 30 April 1961.
USS Thresher (SSN-593) underway, 30 April 1961.
Ordered: 15 January 1958
Builder: Portsmouth Naval Shipyard
Laid down: 28 May 1958
Launched: 9 July 1960
Commissioned: 3 August 1961
Struck: 10 April 1963
Motto: Vis Tacita (Silent Strength)
Fate: Sank with all hands during deep diving tests, 10 April 1963, 129 died.
Status: Located 350 km east of Cape Cod at a depth of 8400 ft.
General characteristics
Class & type: Permit-class submarine
Displacement: 3,540 short tons (3,210 t) light, 3,770 short tons (3,420 t) submerged
Length: 279 ft (85 m)
Beam: 32 ft (9.8 m)
Draft: 26 ft (7.9 m)
Propulsion: 1 Westinghouse S5W PWR, Westinghouse Geared Turbines 15,000 shp (11 MW)
Speed: 20+ kts
Complement: 16 officers, 96 men
Armament: 4 × 21 in (530 mm) torpedo tubes amidships

The second USS Thresher (SSN-593) was the lead boat of her class of nuclear-powered attack submarines in the United States Navy. Her loss at sea in the North Atlantic during deep-diving tests approximately 220 miles east of Boston, Massachusetts, on 10 April 1963 was a watershed event for the U.S. Navy, leading to the implementation of a rigorous submarine safety program known as SUBSAFE. Measured by lives lost, historic context and significance, the sinking of Thresher was then, and remains today, the world's worst submarine disaster. As the first nuclear submarine lost at sea, its disappearance generated international shock and sympathy.

Significance of design and loss

When it was designed and built Thresher was the most advanced attack submarine of its time: it was faster and quieter than any submarine ever built, and able to dive deeper than any submarine in the world. SSN 593 was considered the most advanced weapons system of its day, created specifically to seek out and destroy Soviet submarines. Its new sonar (both passive and active) was able to detect other submarines and ships at greater range, and it was intended to launch the U.S. Navy's newest anti-submarine missile, SUBROC. In writing about its significance shortly after its loss, the (then) Commander of Submarine Force Atlantic – in the March 1964 issue of the U.S. Naval Institute's monthly journal Proceedings – stated that, "the Navy had depended upon this performance to the extent that it had asked for and received authority to build 14 of these ships, as well as an additional 11 SSNs with very much the same characteristics. This was the first time since World War II that we had considered our design sufficiently advanced to embark upon construction of a large class of general-purpose attack sub­marines." During its one year of trial operations – August 1961 – July 1962 – the Thresher fulfilled every expectation as the most advanced nuclear attack submarine in the world.

As the lead vessel, the class name should have been Thresher-class. However, when the Thresher was struck from the Naval Vessel Register on 16 April 1963, out of respect for naval tradition its name was retired and the class name was changed to that of the second boat, USS Permit (SSN-594): thus, despite being the lead boat, the Thresher is, officially, referred to as a Permit-class submarine. Having been "lost at sea", Thresher was not decommissioned by the U.S. Navy and remains on “Eternal Patrol.”

Early career

The contract to build Thresher was awarded to Portsmouth Naval Shipyard on 15 January 1958, and her keel was laid on 28 May 1958. She was launched on 9 July 1960, was sponsored by Mrs. Mary B. Warder[1] (wife of the famous Pacific War skipper Frederick B. Warder), and was commissioned on 3 August 1961, Commander Dean L. Axene commanding.

Thresher conducted lengthy sea trials in the western Atlantic and Caribbean Sea areas in 1961–1962. These tests provided a thorough evaluation of her many new and complex technological features and weapons. She took part in Nuclear Submarine Exercise (NUSUBEX) 3–61 off the northeastern coast of the United States from 18–24 September 1961.

On 18 October 1961, Thresher headed south along the East Coast. While in port at San Juan, Puerto Rico, on 2 November 1961, her reactor was shut down and the diesel generator was used to carry the "hotel" electrical loads. Several hours later the generator broke down, and the electrical load was then carried by the battery. The generator could not be quickly repaired, so the captain ordered the reactor restarted. However, the battery charge was depleted before the reactor went critical. With no electrical power for ventilation, temperatures in the machinery spaces reached 60 °C (140 °F), and the boat was partially evacuated. The diesel submarine Cavalla arrived the next morning and provided power from her diesels, enabling Thresher to restart her reactor.[2]

Thresher conducted further trials and fired test torpedoes before returning to Portsmouth on 29 November 1961. The boat remained in port through the end of the year, and spent the first two months of 1962 evaluating her sonar and Submarine Rocket (SUBROC) systems. In March, the submarine participated in NUSUBEX 2–62 (an exercise designed to improve the tactical capabilities of nuclear submarines) and in antisubmarine warfare training with Task Group ALPHA.

Off Charleston, SC, Thresher undertook operations observed by the Naval Antisubmarine Warfare Council before she returned briefly to New England waters, after which she proceeded to Florida for more SUBROC tests. While moored at Port Canaveral, Florida, the submarine was accidentally struck by a tug which damaged one of her ballast tanks. After repairs at Groton, Connecticut, by the Electric Boat Company, Thresher went south for more tests and trials off Key West, Florida, then returned northward. The submarine entered Portsmouth Shipyard on 16 July 1962 to begin a scheduled 6-month, "post-shakedown availability" to examine systems and make repairs and corrections as necessary. As is typical with a first-of-class boat, the work took longer than expected, lasting nearly 9 months. The ship was finally re-certified and undocked on 8 April 1963.[3]


On 9 April 1963 Thresher, now commanded by Lieutenant Commander John Wesley Harvey, got underway from Portsmouth at 8 am and rendezvoused with the submarine rescue ship Skylark at 11 am to begin its initial post-overhaul dive trials, in an area some 190 nmi (220 mi; 350 km) east of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. That afternoon Thresher conducted an initial trim dive test, surfaced and then performed a second dive to half test depth. It remained submerged overnight and re-established underwater communications with Skylark at 6:30 am on the morning of the 10th to commence deep-dive trials. Following standard practice, Thresher slowly dived deeper as it traveled in circles under Skylark – to remain within communications distance – pausing every additional 100 feet of depth to check the integrity of all systems. As Thresher neared her test depth, Skylark received garbled communications over underwater telephone indicating "... minor difficulties, have positive up-angle, attempting to blow",[4][5][6] and then a final even more garbled message that included the number "900".[7] When Skylark received no further communication, surface observers gradually realized Thresher had sunk. By mid-afternoon a total of 15 Navy ships were en route to the search area. At 6:30 pm, the Commander Submarine Force Atlantic sent word to Portsmouth Naval Shipyard to begin notifying next-of-kin – starting with Commander Harvey's wife – that Thresher was "missing". By morning the next day all hope of finding Thresher was abandoned and at 10:30 am the Chief of Naval Operations went before the press corps at the Pentagon to announce that the submarine was lost with all hands. President John F. Kennedy ordered all flags to be flown at half-staff on 12–15 April in honor of the 129 lost submariners and shipyard personnel.[8]

An extensive underwater search using oceanographic ship Mizar and other ships mounted immediately and they soon found shattered remains of Thresher's hull located on the sea floor, some 8,400 ft (2,600 m) below the surface, in six major sections.[9] The majority of the debris had spread over an area of about 134,000 m2 (160,000 sq yd). The bathyscaphe Trieste, then in San Diego, California, was alerted on 11 April and subsequently loaded aboard the large landing ship USS Point Defiance (LSD-31) and brought through the Panama Canal to Boston. The Trieste then deployed for two series of dives on the debris field: the first series on 24–30 June, and the second series in late August/early September. It found and photographed major sections of Thresher, including the sail, sonar dome, bow section, engineering spaces section, operations spaces section, and the stern planes. One aspect of the search conducted that summer by Mizar involved the use of highly sensitive proton magnetometers furnished by the Instrument Division of Varian Associates, Palo Alto, California, and shipped aboard Mizar before her departure from Suitland, Maryland. The magnetometers were used in conjunction with underwater video cameras and suspended on the same electrical line used to tow the video cameras themselves.

Deep-sea photography, recovered artifacts, and an evaluation of her design and operational history permitted a Court of Inquiry to conclude Thresher had probably suffered the failure of a salt-water piping system joint which relied heavily on silver brazing instead of welding; earlier tests using ultrasound equipment found potential problems with about 14% of the tested brazed joints,[10] most of which were determined not to pose a risk significant enough to require a repair. High-pressure water spraying from a broken pipe joint may have shorted out one of the many electrical panels, causing a shutdown ("scram") of the reactor, with a subsequent loss of propulsion. The inability to blow the ballast tanks was later attributed to excessive moisture in the sub's high-pressure air flasks, moisture which froze and plugged the flasks' flowpaths while passing through the valves. This was later simulated in dock-side tests on Thresher's sister sub, Tinosa. During a test to simulate blowing ballast at or near test depth, ice formed on strainers installed in valves; the flow of air lasted only a few seconds.[11] Air driers were later retrofitted to the high-pressure air compressors, beginning with Tinosa, to permit the emergency blow system to operate properly.

Submarines typically rely on speed and deck angle (angle of attack) rather than deballasting to surface; they are propelled at an angle towards the surface. Ballast tanks were almost never blown at depth, and to do so could cause the sub to rocket to the surface out of control. Normal procedure was to drive the sub to periscope depth, raise the periscope to verify the area was clear, then blow the tanks and surface the sub.

At the time, reactor-plant operating procedures precluded a rapid reactor restart following a scram, or even the ability to use steam remaining in the secondary system to "drive" the sub to the surface. After a scram, standard procedure was to isolate the main steam system, cutting off the flow of steam to the turbines providing propulsion and electricity. This was done to prevent an over-rapid cool-down of the reactor. Thresher's Reactor Control Officer, Lieutenant Raymond McCoole, was not at his station in the maneuvering room, or indeed on the boat, during the fatal dive. McCoole was at home caring for his wife who had been injured in a household accident—he had been all but ordered ashore by a sympathetic Commander Harvey. McCoole's trainee, Jim Henry, fresh from nuclear power school, probably followed standard operating procedures and gave the order to isolate the steam system after the scram, even though Thresher was at or slightly below its maximum depth and was taking on water. Once closed, the large steam system isolation valves could not be reopened quickly. Reflecting on the situation in later life, McCoole was sure he would have delayed shutting the valves, thus allowing the boat to "answer bells" and drive itself to the surface, despite the flooding in the engineering spaces. Admiral Rickover later changed the procedure, allowing steam to be withdrawn from the secondary system in limited quantities for several minutes following a scram.

In a dockside simulation of flooding in the engine room, held before Thresher sailed, it took the watch in charge 20 minutes to isolate a simulated leak in the auxiliary seawater system. At test depth, taking on water, and with the reactor shut down, Thresher would not have had 20 minutes to recover. Even after isolating a short-circuit in the reactor controls, it would have taken nearly 10 minutes to restart the plant.

Thresher likely imploded at a depth of 1,300–2,000 ft (400–610 m).

The Navy has periodically monitored the environmental conditions of the site since the sinking and has reported the results in an annual public report on environmental monitoring for U.S. Naval nuclear-powered craft. These reports provide specifics on the environmental sampling of sediment, water, and marine life which was done to ascertain whether Thresher's nuclear reactor has had a significant effect on the deep ocean environment. The reports also explain the methodology for conducting deep-sea monitoring from both surface vessels and submersibles. The monitoring data confirm that there has been no significant effect on the environment. Nuclear fuel in the submarine remains intact.

According to newly declassified information, the Navy sent Commander (Dr.) Robert Ballard, the oceanographer credited with locating the wreck of RMS Titanic, on a secret mission to map and collect visual data on both Thresher and Scorpion wrecks.[12] The Navy used Ballard's search for Titanic as a screen to hide the mission. Ballard approached the Navy in 1982 for funding to find Titanic with his new deep-diving robot submersible. The Navy saw the opportunity and granted him the money on the condition he first inspect the two submarine wrecks. Ballard's robotic survey discovered that Thresher had sunk so deep that it imploded, turning into thousands of pieces. The only recoverable piece was a foot of marled pipe.[13] His 1985 search for Scorpion revealed such a large debris field that it looked "as though it had been put through a shredding machine." Once the two wrecks had been visited, and the radioactive threat from both was established as small, Ballard was able to search for Titanic. Due to dwindling funds, he had just 12 days to do so, but he used the same debris-field search techniques he had used for the two subs, which worked, and Titanic was found.[14]

U.S. submarine classes are generally known by the hull number of the lead ship of the class–for instance, Los Angeles-class boats are called "688s" because the hull number of USS Los Angeles was SSN-688. The Thresher-class boats should thus be called "593s", but since Thresher's sinking, they have been referred to as "594s" (Permit class).

Disaster sequence of 10 April 1963

Time-accelerated sequence of events during the disaster

Time line of the Thresher disaster[15]
Time Event
07:47 Thresher begins its descent to the test depth of 1,000 ft (300 m).
07:52 Thresher levels off at 400 ft (120 m), contacts the surface, and the crew inspects the ship for leaks. None are found.
08:09 Commander Harvey reports reaching half the test depth.
08:25 Thresher reaches 1,000 ft (300 m).
09:02 Thresher is cruising at just a few knots (subs normally moved slowly and cautiously at great depths, lest a sudden jam of the diving planes send the ship below test depth in a matter of seconds.) The boat is descending in slow circles, and announces to Skylark she is turning to "Corpen [course] 090." At this point, transmission quality from Thresher begins to noticeably degrade, possibly as a result of thermoclines.
09:09 It is believed a brazed pipe-joint ruptures in the engine room. The crew would have attempted to stop the leak; at the same time, the engine room would be filling with a cloud of mist. Under the circumstances, Commander Harvey's likely decision would have been to order full speed, full rise on the fairwater planes, and blowing main ballast in order to surface. The pressurized air rapidly expanding in the pipes cools down, condensing moisture and depositing it on strainers installed in the system to protect the moving parts of the valves; in only a few seconds the moisture freezes, clogging the strainers and blocking the air flow, halting the effort to blow ballast. Water leaking from the broken pipe most likely causes short circuits leading to an automatic shutdown of the ship's reactor, causing a loss of propulsion. The logical action at this point would have been for Harvey to order propulsion shifted to a battery-powered backup system. As soon as the flooding was contained, the engine room crew would have begun to restart the reactor, an operation that would be expected to take at least 7 minutes.
09:12 Skylark pages Thresher on the underwater telephone: "Gertrude [ underwater telephone ] check, K [over]." With no immediate response (although Skylark is still unaware of the conditions aboard Thresher), the signal "K" is repeated twice.
09:13 Harvey reports status via underwater telephone. The transmission is garbled, though some words are recognizable: "[We are] experiencing minor difficulty, have positive up-angle, attempting to blow." The submarine, growing heavier from water flooding the engine room, continues its descent, probably tail-first. Another attempt to empty the ballast tanks is performed, again failing due to the formation of ice. Officers on Skylark could hear the hiss of compressed air over the loudspeaker at this point.
09:14 Skylark acknowledges with a brisk, "Roger, out," awaiting further updates from the SSN. A follow-up message, "No contacts in area," is sent to reassure Thresher she can surface quickly, without fear of collision, if required.
09:15 Skylark queries Thresher about her intentions: "My course 270 degrees. Interrogative range and bearing from you." There is no response, and Skylark's captain, Lieutenant Commander Hecker, sends his own gertrude [ underwater telephone ] message to the submarine, "Are you in control?"
09:16 Skylark picks up a garbled transmission from Thresher, transcribed in the ship's log as "900 N." [The meaning of this message is unclear, and was not discussed at the enquiry; it may have indicated the submarine's depth and course, or it may have referred to a Navy "event number" (1000 indicating loss of submarine), with the "N" signifying a negative response to the query from Skylark, "Are you in control?"]
09:17 A second transmission is received, with the partially recognizable phrase "exceeding test depth...." The leak from the broken pipe grows with increased pressure.
09:18 Skylark detects a high-energy low-frequency noise with characteristics of an implosion.
09:20 Skylark continues to page Thresher, repeatedly calling for a radio check, a smoke bomb, or some other indication of the boat's condition.
11:04 Skylark attempts to transmit a message to COMSUBLANT (Commander, Submarines, Atlantic Fleet): "Unable to communicate with Thresher since 0917R. Have been calling by UQC voice and CW, QHB, CW every minute. Explosive signals every 10 minutes with no success. Last transmission received was garbled. Indicated Thresher was approaching test depth.... Conducting expanding search." Radio problems meant that COMSUBLANT did not receive and respond to this message until 12:45. Hecker initiated "Event SUBMISS [loss of a submarine]" procedures at 11:21, and continued to repeatedly hail Thresher until after 17:00.

On 11 April, at a Pentagon news conference at 10:30, the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral George W. Anderson Jr., officially declared the ship as lost.

During the 1963 inquiry, Admiral Hyman Rickover stated:

"I believe the loss of the Thresher should not be viewed solely as the result of failure of a specific braze, weld, system or component, but rather should be considered a consequence of the philosophy of design, construction and inspection that has been permitted in our naval shipbuilding programs. I think it is important that we re-evaluate our present practices where, in the desire to make advancements, we may have forsaken the fundamentals of good engineering."[16]

Alternate theory of the sinking (electrical failure)

Bruce Rule, an acoustic data expert, published his analysis of the data collected by USS Skylark and Atlantic SOSUS arrays in a paper[17] which was published in the Navy Times[18] on 8 April 2013.[19] Rule's analysis is based on SOSUS data which was highly classified in 1963 and was not discussed in open session of the Court of Inquiry and was not revealed at the congressional hearings.[19]

Rule concluded that the primary cause of the sinking was a failure of the electrical bus which was powering the main coolant pumps. According to Rule, SOSUS data indicates that after two minutes of electrical instability, the bus failed at 0911, causing the main coolant pumps to trip off. This caused an immediate reactor scram, resulting in a loss of propulsion. Inability to de-ballast the ship caused by formation of ice in the high-pressure air pipes then caused the Thresher to sink. Rule's analysis holds that flooding (whether from a silver brazed joint or anywhere else) did not play any role in the reactor scram or the sinking, and that the Thresher was intact until it imploded. In addition to the SOSUS data that does not record any sound of flooding, the crew of the Skylark did not report hearing any noise that sounded like flooding, and the Skylark was able to communicate with the Thresher, despite the fact that even a small leak at test depth would have produced a deafening roar. Additionally, the previous commander of the Thresher testified that he would not have described flooding, even from a small diameter pipe, as a "minor problem".[19]

Rule interprets the communication "900" from the Thresher at 0917 as a reference to test depth, signifying that the Thresher was nine hundred feet below its test depth of 1,300, or 2,200 feet below sea level. According to Rule the SOSUS data indicates an implosion of Thresher at 09:18:24, at a depth of 2,400 feet, four hundred feet below its certified test depth. The implosion took 0.1 seconds, too fast for the human nervous system to perceive.[19]

SUBSAFE legacy

When the Court of Inquiry delivered its final report, it recommended that the Navy implement a more rigorous program of design review and safety inspections during construction. That program, launched in December 1963, was known as SUBSAFE. From 1915 to 1963, the U.S. Navy lost a total of 16 submarines to non-combat accidents. Since the inception of SUBSAFE only one submarine has suffered a similar fate, and that was the USS Scorpion (SSN-589), which sank in 1968 for reasons still undetermined: the Scorpion was not SUBSAFE certified.[20]


Memorial stone in Arlington National Cemetery, USS Thresher, July 1967

  • Just outside the main gate of the Naval Weapons Station, Seal Beach, California, a Thresher-Scorpion Memorial honors the crews of the two submarines.[21]
  • In Carpentersville, IL the Dundee Township Park District named a swimming facility in honor of Thresher.[citation needed]
  • In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, there is a stone memorial with a plaque honoring all who were lost on Thresher. It is located outside the Albacore museum.[22]
  • The Portsmouth Navy Yard, where the Thresher was built, renamed its on-base chapel the Thresher Memorial Chapel after the disaster.[23]
  • A Joint Resolution was introduced in 2001 calling for the erection of a memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, but this proposal has yet to be adopted.[24]
  • On 12 April 1963, President John Kennedy issued United States Executive order 11104 paying tribute to the crew of Thresher by flying flags at half-staff.[25]
  • In Eureka, Missouri, there is a marble stone at the post office on Thresher Drive honoring the "officers and crew of the USS Thresher, Lost 10 April 1963"[26]
  • In Salisbury, Massachusetts, the town paid tribute to USS Thresher crewman Sonarman First Class Robert Edwin Steinel, a resident of the town, by naming a park in his honor "Robert E. Steinel Memorial Park". The tribute ceremony was attended by his wife, children, and other members of the USS Thresher family.
  • In Nutley, New Jersey, a monument to Pervis Robison, Jr.
  • On 7 April 2013 the 50th anniversary of the loss of the Thresher, the Town of Kittery, Maine held ceremonies at the Kittery Memorial Circle to dedicate a 129 foot flagpole erected to honor the 129 lost souls that died on the Thresher. Kittery also plans a Thresher monument in Memorial Park at the entrance to the new Memorial Bridge.
  • Thresher′s hull number was used for an attack submarine in the James Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me.

See also


  1. Polmar, Norman. "The Death of the USS Thresher: The Story Behind History's Deadliest Submarine Disaster". pp. 7. ISBN 978-1592283927. 
  2. The Cavalla-Thresher Incident
  3. "USS Thresher", article by Vice Admiral E.W. Grenfell, U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, March 1964; accessed 6 April 2013.
  4. "COMSUBPAC Web site, Submarines Lost or Damaged before and after World War II". Archived from the original on 29 January 2006. Retrieved 2006-02-02. 
  5. "U.S. Gov Info / Resources, US Navy's Submarine Rescue Team". Retrieved 2006-02-02. 
  6. "NOVA Web site, transcript of "Submarines, Secrets, and Spies"". Retrieved 2006-02-02. 
  7. Thresher (SSN 593) Loss & Inquiry,
  8. Sharp, David (4 April 2013). "US sub sinking 50 years ago led to safety changes". Miami Herald. Retrieved 2013-04-05. [dead link]
  9. Brand, V (1977). "Submersibles – Manned and Unmanned.". ISSN 0813-1988. OCLC 16986801. Retrieved 2008-07-10. 
  10. 50 Years of Steely Purpose-USS Thresher Remembered. 10 April 2013.
  11. Thresher (SSN-593) Loss & Inquiry.
  12. The Great Explorer 60 Minutes; aired 29 November 2009
  13. Lost Subs: Disaster at Sea. Tim Kelly, Executive Producer. DVD. National Geographic, 2002.
  14. : Titanic search was cover for secret Cold War subs mission The Times,24 May 2008
  15. Bentley, John. The Thresher Disaster, New York: Doubleday, 1975, pp. 157–165
  16. "Vanderbilt ties to 'worst submarine tragedy' 50 years ago | News | School of Engineering | Vanderbilt University". Retrieved 23 April 2013. 
  17. "What Sank The Thresher", Bruce Rule, 10 April 2013
  18. "50 years later, a look at what really sank the Thresher", Bruce Rule and Norman Polmar, 4 April 2013 (Navy Times link)
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 19.3 "What Sank The Thresher", Bruce Rule and Norman Polmar, 8 April 2013
  20. "USS Thresher Left Legacy of Safety for Submarines". SeaCoast online, 24 March 2013.. 
  21. "ThresherScorpionMemorial". Retrieved 2010-06-01. 
  22. "Wreck of USS Thresher (SSN-593) – Portsmouth, NH – Disaster Memorials on". Retrieved 2010-06-01. 
  23. Winslow III, Richard E. (1985). Portsmouth-Built: Submarines of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Portsmouth Marine Society. p. 161. ISBN 091581904X. 
  24. Robert Patterson, Michael. "USS Thresher Disaster". Retrieved 2010-06-01. 
  25. Executive Order 11104
  26. (pdf file)[dead link]


Further reading

External links

Coordinates: 41°46′N 65°03′W / 41.767°N 65.05°W / 41.767; -65.05

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