By Angeljean Chiaramida
---- — When her keel was laid at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard on May 28, 1958, the USS Thresher was set to be the world’s most advanced attack sub, nuclear-powered and able to dive deeper, cruise faster and run quieter than any before her.
But by 9:13 a.m. on Wednesday, April 10, 1963, the Thresher and all 129 men aboard her were dead, and the submarine's splintered hull eventually found scattered across the bottom of the ocean, 8,400 feet below the surface, about 220 miles east of Boston.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Thresher disaster, and local members of the U.S. Submarine Veterans will honor the sailors who died aboard the ship — including two Newburyporters and a Salisbury Beach resident.
The ceremony will be held April 10 at 9 a.m. at a memorial marker in Salisbury Beach Center that honors the memory of Robert Steinel, a Salisbury Navy man.
“We’re planning just a quiet, reserved ceremony to memorialize the people who lost their lives on the Thresher,” U.S. Submarine Veterans Marblehead base commander Tom Shannon told Salisbury selectmen this week. “It should take about half an hour. We’ll read the names of all who were lost, and there’ll be the tolling of bells.”
With Shannon at the selectmen’s meeting were other local submarine veterans, Peter Koester of Rowley and Arthur Ober of Salisbury. They’re all proud of their service on these Navy ships built for stealth, and they know the debt they owe to the men who lost their lives on the Thresher.
The loss of the Thresher was a landmark event in American Naval history. The nation was stunned in the hours that followed the Navy’s first announcement that it had lost contact with its wunder-boat during sea trials. With a seafaring history and the home of two Naval hubs, New England had many sons on the Thresher. In Newburyport and Salisbury, families with men on aboard prayed that the ship, whose motto was “silent strength,” had gone quiet only because of communications problems.
Then came Thursday, April 11, when Chief of Naval Operation Admiral George W. Anderson announced “with deep regret” that boat and all aboard — 16 officers, 96 enlisted men and 21 civilians — had indeed been lost.
The USS Skylark had accompanied Thresher on sea trials, hearing her last words at 9:13 a.m. on that fateful Wednesday 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 the sounds of the ship breaking apart.
The Thresher’s last understandable report came as she began a maximum test dive. The depth to which the sub had planned to descend was classified, Anderson said, but then he explained to a horrified nation that the chance of finding any survivors was gone.
“If this submarine sank in the water of that depth in which she was operating,” Anderson said, “I would say that there would be absolutely no possibility that (those aboard) would still be alive.”
On board were Steinel of Salisbury Beach, Robert E. Charron and Donald Day, both of Newburyport, and Fred Abrams, of Kittery, Maine, whose sister lived in Salisbury at the time.
According to The Daily News on April 11, 1963, Steinel, of Railroad Avenue, was a veteran sailor with 16 years of service to his country, with a wife and three little children. Charron, of Federal Street, was a husband and father of five, a civilian electronics technician at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard on board just for the sea trials. Day listed an address on Inn Street, and Abrams was also a civilian from the shipyard.
Over the decades that followed, family members and the region would never forget those who lost their lives on the Thresher, holding yearly memorials, particularly in Portsmouth and Arlington National Cemetery.
The Navy’s extensive investigation into the Thresher disaster indicated a leak in an engine room seawater system as the most probable cause of the tragedy, as well as other probable causes discovered by the Navy’s research and that of a Congressional inquiry. 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.
Following the discoveries, the Navy undertook a massive effort, known as “Subsafe,” to correct design and construction problems in its existing and future nuclear subs that it believed led to the Thresher tragedy. Since the implementation of Subsafe, the Navy and nation has endured no further losses like those of the Thresher.
Laid down in May 1958 and launched July 9, 1960, at 3,700 tons, the Thresher was 279 feet long, 32 feet wide and had a draft of 26 feet, receiving her Naval commission as a cutting-edge naval vessel in August 1961.
In the midst of the Cold War, carrying the label of “submarine killer,” Thresher was the first of her kind, the nuclear-powered marvel of her day.