“Experiencing minor difficulty. Have positive up angle. Attempting to blow.”
I wasn’t quite nine years old when the USS Thresher went down for its final dive on April 10, 1963.
I am sure I remember the news but I am also sure the significance of the tragedy did not reach all the way inside of my boyhood psyche.
That would not come until I went to submarine school in January 1973 and learned much more about the event and its aftermath. Being in New London at the submarine base, you can almost feel the ghosts of all those who perished in submarines. I would feel it again when I went on my first dive on the USS George Washington later that year.
A shipmate of mine reminded me today that the anniversary is coming up tomorrow. I went back into the archives on the Library of Congress site and read a number of articles form the period. But the one that was the most meaningful was about the memorial service. I am including it here:
NEW LONDON, Conn., April 16.—
The submarine Navy paid its last respects to its ship mates of the USS Thresher here yesterday.
The farewells were said with dignity and grace but not without tears. About 300 relatives of the 129 who died in Thresher last Wednesday were on hand for the 45-minute memorial service at the New London submarine base theater.
Grief yesterday, like death last week, was the great leveler. There were no distinctions of creed or color, of rank or station in life. Deep sorrow lined the faces of the relatives especially the women.
Some took it harder than others … or showed it more. Some cried their grief aloud; some sobbed quietly; some kept chin up and eyes somehow dry. But all were cast down in sadness, and their sorrow transmitted itself to every other person among the thousand in the flower-decked theater.
Secretary of the Navy Fred Korth, Chief of Naval Operations George Anderson, and Vice Admiral Hyman Rickover came from Washington to share the moment with the bereaved. Admiral Rickover, “father” of the atomic navy, accompanied one of the Thresher widows.
Represent Three Faiths
Catholics, Protestants and Jews perished aboard Thresher, and chaplains of the three faiths participated in the services. The Jewish and Catholic chaplains, veterans of undersea tours, alluded to their own sense of personal loss. In submarines —a close-knit branch of the Navy everyone who wears the dolphins is every other submariner’s shipmate.
The relatives filled the first half of the theater’s orchestra section. They sat quietly, resignedly, most of them apparently still dulled by the shock of last Wednesday’s tragedy. Even the children were solemn.
Occasionally, as the service proceeded, a sob or stifled cry would be heard. Strangely, during a minute of silence midway through the memorial rite, not a sound not even a cough broke the stillness.
On the stage, a 25-voice choir sat to the right, and the five Chaplains officiating, two Catholic, two Protestant, one Jewish sat to the left. Across the rear of the stage was a display of about 30 floral tributes, outstanding among them a large copy of the American flag.
Wreath for the Deep
Outside, in the lobby, a simple wreath of white chrysanthemums and white and salmon gladioli, tied with a gold and-blue ribbon, stood on a wire stand. It was the first thing the relatives saw on entering the theater. The knowledge that this wreath would be taken by submarine out to the ocean later and set floating on the water overcame many of the survivors. A few women required attention from a Navy nurse in hospital white uniform.
In general, the younger women seemed to carry their grief, and their greater responsibilities, with more stoicism than the elderly. But some of the young ones broke down, too, among them an attractive girl in her 20s, the wife of a Thresher submariner who will become a father posthumously in a month or so.
Rarely has so much concentrated grief unmixed with physical anguish been seen at one place and one time. The nearest thing to yesterday’s scene probably would be the agony of women at a mine head when hope is officially abandoned for those below.
The Navy gave what help it could. Widows were given escorts of their husband’s rank. Parents were similarly escorted, and the normal tight-security rules of the submarine base were humanely relaxed.
But nothing could really assuage the hurt inside nothing but time and faith, as the senior Catholic chaplain remarked in his eulogy of those who “laboriously earned and then jauntily wore the insignia of a distinguished arm of the Navy the dolphins of the submarine service.”
The memorial ended with a hymn and a benediction, the hymn being the old Navy standby:
Eternal father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the, restless wave,
Who bid’st the mighty ocean deep
its own appointed limits keep.
O, hear us when we cry to thee for those in peril on the sea.
It’s been fifty-nine years since the boat was lost. I can only imagine the grief that still survives in those left behind even now. The cost of freedom is indeed very high.