By Angeljean Chiaramida
---- — SALISBURY BEACH — Two bells tolled 129 times at Salisbury Beach Center yesterday morning in memory of the men who lost their lives 50 years ago, when the USS Thresher sank with all hands during deep diving trials off the coast of Cape Cod.
Family and friends of the men who died, along with military veterans, gathered to remember the tragedy that occurred that cloudy Wednesday morning so long ago. Holding a moment of silence at 9:18 a.m. — the time most believe the Thresher and her men were lost — those present clustered around a granite memorial to honor them. The memorial is named for Petty Officer 1st Class Robert Steinel, a Salisbury Beach resident who died on board the Thresher.
Among the crowd was Steinel’s family, as well as Rowley’s Jane Sorenson, who proudly wore a badge with a picture of her first husband, Donald Day. Day was a 20-year-old engineman 3rd class and went down with his shipmates, leaving his wife and his 1-year old daughter, Anita, to grieve.
“I’m originally from the area, and we had been living in Newburyport, but we moved to Plaistow (N.H.) right before it happened,” Sorenson said. “Nobody ever forgets. It’s like it happened only yesterday when these things come about.”
Organized by area submarine veterans from Marblehead Sub Base with the help of Salisbury’s American Legion Post 309, yesterday’s event was meant to ensure that although 50 years has passed, the loss of what was thought to be the Navy’s most advanced nuclear-powered attack sub of its day would always be remembered.
Constructed to dive deeper, cruise faster and run quieter than any before her, the Thresher suffered a fatal flaw on April 10, 1963, that led to her demise, along with the 16 officers, 96 enlisted men and 21 civilians aboard for the trials, according to Marblehead Submarine Base Commander and sub veteran Tom Shannon,
Shannon explained that a leak in the engine room’s seawater system is believed to have caused the tragedy. The leak allowed saltwater in, which shorted-out an electrical panel, causing a loss of power that led to a shutdown of the ship’s nuclear reactor that powered the ship. The failure prevented the Thresher’s ballast tanks from successfully blowing, which would have forced the sub to surface. Instead, the ship imploded as it sank to the ocean’s floor, 8,400 feet down.
The loss of the Thresher was a “watershed event” for the Navy, Shannon told the crowd. It led to the creation of its “Subsafe” program, a stringent quality assurance building standard meant to ensure there would never be another such tragedy. So far, he added, there has never been a submarine lost that was built to Subsafe specifications.
“Believe me, the history of the Thresher was not lost on any of us,” Shannon said. “The sacrifice those men made was impressed upon all of us by our officers and senior members of our crews.”
And yesterday, the evidence of that stood all around, as dozens of submarine veterans from Sub Bases Marblehead and Boston, as well as from New Hampshire’s veterans’ Sub Base Thresher, stood at attention, saluting the heroes lost 50 years ago, as the American flag flew at half-staff behind them.