"Royal Navy and Maritime Book Reviews" PROVIDED BY - Rob Jerrard
The Globe Pequot Press (The Lyons Press)
The Globe Pequot Books Group (The Lyons Press)
The Death of the USS Thresher
The Story Behind History's Deadliest Submarine Disaster
Author: Norman Polmar
Publishers: The Lyons Press (An Imprint of The Globe Pequot Press
Publication Date: 2004
Publisher's Title Information
On the morning of April 10, 1963, the world's most advanced submarine was on a test dive off the New England coast when she sent a message to a support ship a thousand feet above her on the surface:
. . . EXPERIENCING MINOR PROBLEM . . . HAVE POSITIVE ANGLE . . . ATTEMPTING TO BLOW . . .
Then came the sounds of air under pressure and a garbled message: . . . TEST DEPTH . . .
Last came the eerie sounds that experienced navy men knew from World War II: the sounds of a submarine breaking up and compartments collapsing.
When she first went to sea in April of 1961, the U.S. nuclear submarine Thresher was the most advanced submarine at sea, built specifically to hunt and kill Soviet submarines. In The Death of the USS Thresher, renowned naval and intelligence consultant Norman Polmar recounts the dramatic circumstances surrounding her implosion, which killed all 129 men on board, in history's first loss of a nuclear submarine.
This revised edition of Polmar' s 1964 classic is based on interviews with the Thresher's first command officer, other submarine officers, and the designers of the submarine. Polmar provides recently declassified information about the submarine, and relates the loss to subsequent U.S. and Soviet nuclear submarine sinkings, as well as the escape and rescue systems developed by the Navy in the aftermath of the disaster. The Death of the USS Thresher is a must-read for the legions of fans who enjoyed the late Peter Maas's New York Times best seller The Terrible Hours.
The sub-title is 'The Story Behind History's Deadliest Submarine Disaster', presumably because 129 men died on the morning of 10 April 1964. It was the worst submarine disaster up to that time and we are told in the Preface that in the decades that followed, six additional nuclear submarines were lost, five Soviet-Russian and USS Scorpion, which was lost 22 May 1968 (see Scorpion Down by Ed Offley published by Basic Books 2007.
It needs to be explained why there were 129 on board. The normal number would be 104. Because Thresher was going out on post-overall trials, there were shipyard personnel and representatives of the Atlantic Fleet submarine force and Naval Ordnance Laboratory and Civilian firms. Four men who should have gone didn't, including Lieutenant Raymond J McCoole, who missed the sailing because his wife suffered a minor accident at home. This diving with extra men on board is not necessarily unusual, on her first dive she took 40 extra and went down to 600 feet without mishap.
Before the fatal dive she rendezvoused with the submarine Rescue Ship Skylark, so at least in theory if things went wrong there should have been some help with specialist equipment and a rescue chamber first used to bring 33 men up from USS Squalous in 1939. I say in theory, because Skylark carried 7,200 feet of nylon line, which would still not have been sufficient to reach Thresher on the bottom. We now know that she was testing at below that and Skylark could not even mark her last position.
From all accounts she reached 'test depth' because her last messages were, 'experiencing minor problems…have positive angle… am attempting to blow and test depth' after which they heard the sounds of a ship breaking up - 'a muted dull thud'.
Thresher was found eventually and Appendix E is the statement announcing the finding of Thresher's remains at 8,400 feet.
'The location of structural parts of the Thresher on the ocean floor having been positively confirmed by the bathyscaph Trieste during her latest series of successful dives, I have today directed that the associated operational aspects of the search for the nuclear submarine Thresher be terminated.'
Appendix D is the Thresher Court of Inquiry Report which states, inter alia:-
'A flooding casualty in the engine room is believed to be the "most probable" cause of the sinking of the nuclear submarine USS Thresher, lost April 10, 1963, 220 miles east of Cape Cod with 129 persons aboard.
The Navy believes it most likely that a piping system failure had occurred in one of the Thresher's salt water systems, probably in the engine room. The enormous pressure of sea water surrounding the submarine subjected her interior to a violent spray of water and progressive flooding. In all probability water affected electrical circuits and caused loss of power. Thresher slowed and began to sink. Within moments she had exceeded her collapse depth and totally flooded. She came to rest on the ocean floor, 8,400 feet beneath the surface.
This book goes into great detail in an attempt to explain why this happened. It contains some excellent diagrams and photographs.