Michigan sailors perish in 1963 loss of nuclear submarine

CAPE COD, MASSACHUTES. – Sixty years ago on April 10, 1963, 129 United States Navy officers, crew members, and civilian technicians perished onboard the nuclear submarine the USS Thresher (SSN 593).

The Thresher’s sinking remains America’s most significant loss of lives aboard a nuclear submarine.

Onboard were Michigan crew members. “Chief of the Boat “was Chief Petty Officer – Torpedoman Robert Eugene Johnson of Wyandotte with family in Southgate, Chief Petty Officer – Radioman Walter Jack Noonis from Anchorville with family in Dearborn Heights, Petty Officer Second Class – Electronic Technician Thomas Charles Kantz from Ann Arbor with family in Clawson, and Petty Officer Second Class -Machinist’s Mate Marvin Theodore Helsius of Trout Creek.

Each of these Michigan residents had an extensive submarine career.

The USS Thresher was designated as an attack submarine. The design, at this time, made it fast, quiet, and deadly. The submarine was homeported out of Kittery, Maine.

After being commissioned in August 1961, the submarine went through a series of Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea test and training sea trials. While in Puerto Rico, the submarine experienced a nuclear reactor shutdown and diesel generator challenges. When moored at Port Canaveral, Florida, the Thresher was clipped by a tug which damaged a ballast tank. Repairs were undertaken at Groton, Connecticut’s Electric Boat Company.

The Thresher reentered test training off the coast of Key West, Florida.

The submarine later returned to Portsmouth, Maine shipyard for a scheduled six month post shakedown inspection.

On April 9, 1963, under the command of Lieutenant Commander John Wesley Harvey, the Thresher departed Kittery with a Naval crew, and civilian technicians of 129. They were heading into the Atlantic for a series of deep diving trials. Accompanying the Thresher would be the submarine rescue ship the USS Skylark.

According to accounts provided by the Thresher Base Memorial organization, on April 10, 1963, the submarine and Skylark were about 220 miles off Cape Cod shores. The Thresher began early that morning a series of deep dives.

Near 9:16 a.m. communications became garbled between the two vessels. The final Thresher account the Skylark received was like “air rushing into an air tank”. Then, near 9:20 a.m.complete silence.

The Thresher was 8,400 feet below the ocean’s surface.

By mid-afternoon 15 Navy ships were part of the search and rescue team. The morning of April 11, hope was given to despair, and the rescue ceased. The Chief of Naval Operations Admiral George W. Anderson, Jr. announced at a late morning Pentagon press conference the Thresher and all on board have been lost.

President John F. Kennedy ordered from April 12 to 15 American flags be flown at half-staff for those who perished.

By late June 1963, the Navy submersible Trieste located a debris field scattered over a 33-acre ocean floor field. In July, the photography of the Thresher’s remains was undertaken.

The theories of the Thresher’s loss are varied.

Initial U.S. Navy studies and research indicate a significant failure of the Thresher’s salt-water piping system which relied upon silver brazing vs. welding. This pipe burst would have caused a lack of ship control taking it to a rapid descent to the ocean’s floor, Implosion most likely occurred between 1,300 and 2,000 feet.

A subsequent 2013 study theorized the submarine experienced a massive electrical power failure.

After the Thresher’s loss, the Navy established a program entitled, SUBSAFE ensuring safe integrity before any new or upgraded submarine’s deployment.

In 2008, through the resources of the Navy and National Geographic Society, Robert Ballard located, and surveyed the Thresher’s debris field, as well as the USS Scorpion (SSN 589); which was loss in 1968. Subsequently, Ballard also surveyed the remains of the passenger ship, HMS Titanic.

On YouTube is featured the folk group, the Kingston Trio performing The Ballard of the Thresher. A fitting tribute to a sad event in U.S. Naval history. Other Thresher videos can be found on YouTube.

With the most significant lives loss of any nuclear submarine, a Thresher memorial is located in The Arlington National Cemetery.

The Thresher Base memorial group will offer a tribute this coming April. Information on this event and on the submarine can be found at www.thresherbase.org.

On eternal patrol is the USS Thresher (SSN 593).

Jeffery Brasie is a retired healthcare CEO. He frequently writes historic feature stories and Op Eds for various Michigan newspapers. He is a USN and USNR veteran and served on the public affairs staff of the Secretary of the Navy. He grew up in northern Michigan and resides in suburban Detroit.


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