SALISBURY — In 1955, Doris Randall Steinel Fisette was a pretty teenager with sparkling blue eyes when she met Robert Steinel at the roller skating rink at Salisbury Beach, where the 25-year-old Navy man had gone with his Marine buddy to spend some shore leave.
By age 18, she had married the handsome sailor at Salisbury’s East Parish United Methodist Church, and within the next seven years they would be blessed with three children.
But the events of April 10, 1963, would change her life forever. The 25-year-old mother was expecting her fourth child when she lost her husband, one of 129 men who went down aboard the USS Thresher, this nation’s most advanced submarine of its day.
This morning at Salisbury Beach Center, in commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Thresher tragedy, many will gather around the memorial established to honor the ultimate sacrifice Steinel and his shipmates made when they died aboard their ship while it was on sea trials about 220 miles east of Boston.
The home of two Naval submarine hubs at the time, New England lost many on the Thresher, whose motto was “silent strength.”
On board along with Steinel were Robert E. Charron and Donald Day, both of Newburyport, and Fred Abrams of Kittery, Maine, whose sister lived in Salisbury at the time. Day listed an address on Inn Street, and Abrams was also a civilian from the shipyard. Charron, a civilian electronics technician at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard on board for the sea trials, lived on Federal Street with his wife of 16 years, Ruth, and their children: Robert Jr., 14, Paul, 13, Anne-Marie, 10, Theresa, 6, and Peter, 16 months old.
“My husband worked at the shipyard on the sonar of the submarine,” said Ruth Charron, who now lives in Dover, N.H. “He received a couple of awards for the work he did on it. He was very proud of what they had done on the Thresher, and he really wanted to go out on the boat on the sea trials that day.”
A 16-year Navy veteran, the very fact that Steinel and others were assigned to the cutting-edge Thresher meant they were top-notch sailors.
“He loved his submarines,” Doris Fisette said with pride. “He couldn’t wait to get back on a sub when he was on shore. He was a sonarman first class.”
According to Norman Polmar, a military reporter at the time and the author of “Death of the Thresher,” the ship was no ordinary submarine. It was the world’s most advanced attack sub, nuclear-powered and able to dive deeper, cruise faster and run quieter than any before her. Those who manned and designed this ultimate enemy sub-hunter and killer were equally as superior.
“It was supposed to be the best submarine ever built,” Fisette said. “And she had the best of all crews.”
The Thresher’s keel was laid at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in May 1958. Launched July 9, 1960, at 3,700 tons, the Thresher was 279 feet long, 32 feet wide and had a draft of 26 feet; she received her Naval commission in August 1961.
“Her sonar could probe out enemy submarines at greater distance than ever before,” Polmar wrote. “Her remarkable new torpedo-missile weapon system could kill enemy submarines faster and at greater distance than ever before. The Thresher herself was ultra-silent when operating in the depths, making her relatively immune to enemy detection devices. And the Thresher, by operating in depths far beyond the reach of most enemy weapons, would be shrouded in a mantle of immunity.”
And it was her ability to dive so deep that led to the end of the Thresher. The USS Skylark had accompanied Thresher on those tests that took place off the continental shelf, where the sea floor was 8,400 feet down.
Skylark personnel heard the last words from Thresher’s crew at 9:13 a.m. on April 10, 1963, relaying a message that she was experiencing “minor difficulties.” But quickly following came a series of unintelligible verbal fragments. By 9:18 a.m., Skylark’s sonar picked up what a crew member recognized as sounds of the ship breaking apart. It was, and still is, the worst peacetime loss the Navy ever experienced.
“I was in Portsmouth with some friends when my father took the call from the Navy,” Fisette said. “When they first called (on April 10), they just told him they’d lost contact with the sub.”
Shortly after the worst fears became reality. On Thursday, April 11, Chief of Naval Operation Adm. George W. Anderson announced “with deep regret” that the boat and all aboard — 16 officers, 96 enlisted men and 21 civilians — had indeed been lost.
Fisette was devastated, and the loss is still profound.
“You never get over it,” she said. “I had my family all around to support me here in Salisbury. And in those days, all of Salisbury Beach was like a family. Everyone who knew him, loved Bob. He was a good husband and a good father.”
Bob and Ruth Charron had settled in Newburyport, had friends and family close by in Lawrence and Haverhill, who helped her, she said, as well as comfort from others suffering her same fate.
“Two days after it happened, Mrs. Steinel and her father came to visit me,” Charron said. “It was a very nice thing for her to do, and I’ve always been very appreciative of that.”
Mary Steinel-Andriotakis was 5 when her father was lost at sea. Robert Edwin Steinel II was 3 and named after his dad, youngest sister Barbara was just a toddler, and Fisette would give birth to her late son Paul, seven months after his dad’s death.
Remarried now to Robert Fisette, an Air Force veteran, Fisette said she’s fortunate to have found another military man who honors the memory of her first husband and became a wonderful father to the children he left behind.
Charron never remarried, saying her faith saw her through the tragedy. And, she added, her late husband had a hand in it.
“I truly believe my husband, though he’s now with the Lord, still helps me,” Charron said. “He was a very strong man, very religious. I think he’s up there keeping me out of trouble.”
Following the Thresher loss, the Navy launched an extensive investigation, discovering a leak in an engine room seawater system as the most probable cause of the tragedy, although other causes were considered as well. After locating the Thresher’s imploded remains on the sea floor, a Court of Inquiry found she most likely sank due to a piping failure that led to a loss of power that prevented the ship from blowing its ballast tanks fast enough to avoid sinking.
Determined those on board would not die in vain, the Navy undertook a massive effort, known as “Subsafe,” for the building of all future submarines. Since the enactment of Subsafe, there have been no further losses like those of the Thresher.
“They tell us that expecting it to give us some solace, but it’s cold comfort,” said Steinel-Andriotakis, who wishes the Navy had implemented Subsafe while the Thresher was being built, so her father may not have been lost.
Built in the midst of this nation’s Cold War with the former Soviet Union, Thresher was the first of her kind, a nuclear-powered wunder-boat and the first of what was to be a fleet of similar subs to protect the nation from its Soviet nemesis.
Steinel-Andriotakis fears it may have been the emphasis on speed that the Cold War’s arms race represented that could have led to the fatal error that destroyed the Thresher 50 years ago today. She considers her father as much of a war hero of the Cold War as any other warrior who died defending this country.
And her feelings on her father’s role since his death is similar to that of Charron.
“My father’s on eternal patrol,” Steinel-Andriotakis said. “That’s how the Navy lists all those who went down with the Thresher.”