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Merrimack Valley

April 10, 2013

'On eternal patrol'

Today marks somber anniversary of submarine tragedy

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A 16-year Navy veteran, the very fact that Steinel and others were assigned to the cutting-edge Thresher meant they were top-notch sailors.

“He loved his submarines,” Doris Fisette said with pride. “He couldn’t wait to get back on a sub when he was on shore. He was a sonarman first class.”

According to Norman Polmar, a military reporter at the time and the author of “Death of the Thresher,” the ship was no ordinary submarine.

It was the world’s most advanced attack sub, nuclear-powered and able to dive deeper, cruise faster and run quieter than any before her. Those who manned and designed this ultimate enemy sub-hunter and killer were equally as superior.

“It was supposed to be the best submarine ever built,” Fisette said. “And she had the best of all crews.”

The Thresher’s keel was laid at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in May 1958. Launched July 9, 1960, at 3,700 tons, the Thresher was 279 feet long, 32 feet wide and had a draft of 26 feet; she received her Naval commission in August 1961.

“Her sonar could probe out enemy submarines at greater distance than ever before,” Polmar wrote. “Her remarkable new torpedo-missile weapon system could kill enemy submarines faster and at greater distance than ever before. The Thresher herself was ultra-silent when operating in the depths, making her relatively immune to enemy detection devices. And the Thresher, by operating in depths far beyond the reach of most enemy weapons, would be shrouded in a mantle of immunity.”

And it was her ability to dive so deep that led to the end of the Thresher. The USS Skylark had accompanied Thresher on those tests that took place off the continental shelf, where the sea floor was 8,400 feet down.

Skylark personnel heard the last words from Thresher’s crew at 9:13 a.m. on April 10, 1963, relaying a message that she was experiencing “minor difficulties.” But quickly following came a series of unintelligible verbal fragments. By 9:18 a.m., Skylark’s sonar picked up what a crew member recognized as sounds of the ship breaking apart. It was, and still is, the worst peacetime loss the Navy ever experienced.

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