Fifty years ago this week, the naval submarine USS Thresher sank while on an experimental deep dive, taking with it 129 men, among them several who lived in this region.
Yesterday in Salisbury, a fitting tribute was paid to their memory by loved ones, local residents and a cadre of submariners. Submariners, like Marines, are a tight-knit group who hold a special bond, clearly evident at yesterday’s event.
The tribute yesterday reminds us that apart from special ceremonies such as this, Americans who served in the Cold War conflict against the Soviet Union and its satellite nations are often not recognized or remembered for their service. These veterans served in a conflict in which the two major adversaries — the United States and the Soviet Union — never engaged in a major military action directly against one another.
Yet even in times of relative peace during the Cold War period, there were dozens of minor clashes — aircraft shot down or forced down, secret operations and border incursions. The precise number of military deaths suffered by the United States during this period is not known, as some of those deaths occurred on secret missions. There were also many servicemen who died in training accidents and military exercises, such as the Thresher disaster.
The Cold War was a conflict unlike any that our nation has been engaged in. We lived our lives knowing chilling military jargon that is thankfully no longer part of our lexicon — “Defcom 5,” “nuclear winter,” “first strike” and “the domino effect.”
There was a potential for worldwide annihilation lingering in the background at all times, just a crisis and a bad decision away from coming to fruition. We depended upon our military to always be ready and strong, yet we hoped it would never be used.
In Europe, the United States and our allies in the North American Treaty Organization (NATO) stood on alert for over 40 years, while on the other side of the “Iron Curtain,” the larger Soviet-led armies of the Warsaw Pact faced them.
On the seas and in the air, our forces strove for dominance over the Soviets. The Thresher was part of that relentless push to be a step or more ahead of our enemy. Its task was to be the cutting-edge military weapon that could dive deeper, run quieter and strike faster. Like other weapons systems of its day that pushed technology to its limits, the Thresher’s crewmembers were at the forefront of the deadly risks that were inherent in the arms race.
Yesterday’s service helped remind us all of the sacrifices that many Americans made during the Cold War.