Sinking of the Thresher
On April 10, 1963, Patty Wiley went househunting in New London, Conn., where her husband John’s submarine, the Thresher, would be based after sea trials that were being conducted 160 miles north, out of Portsmouth, N.H.
While she was at a friend’s house in New London, Walter Cronkite reported that evening that the Thresher was missing. Later, Navy representatives arrived to inform Patty – who, like her husband, was an Altoona native – that the sub was lost, with no hope of rescue.
Her parents drove up from Altoona the next day to bring her home.
She never went back to Portsmouth, where she and John had set up housekeeping as a recently married couple a few months earlier.
Never, that is, until this weekend – where the Navy is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Thresher’s loss, the most catastrophic loss ever for a U.S. submarine.
It was probably a small hole that killed the 129 crew members and civilians aboard the Thresher, the most advanced attack submarine of its day.
There had been problems with silver-braze welds in pipes on the craft, but they hadn’t been considered overly serious.
However, when the Thresher was deep in the ocean, past the continental shelf, off Cape Cod that morning, one of those welds in a seawater piping system may have given way.
“Seawater piping system” means the water inside the pipes was under the ambient pressure of the ocean.
The hole was probably 2 to 5 inches wide, according to a Navy report declassified in 1993, as detailed in a New York Times article then. A much smaller hole, just a quarter-inch wide, 400 feet below the surface would jet like a fire hose, the article stated. A 1-inch hole – still smaller than the one presumed to have caused the disaster – at that depth would be “something beyond the imagination of most of us,” according to Vice Adm. E.W. Grenfell, as quoted from a prior article by the Times in 1993.
It was “cut-you-in-two pressure,” said Kevin Galeaz, former nuclear submariner, now commander of Thresher Base U.S. Submarine Veterans, the group that organized this weekend’s ceremonies.
Based on informed speculation and probability, the stream from the leak shorted out an electrical panel that controlled the nuclear reactor that powered the sub, according to Galeaz and written reports, including a Wikipedia article on Thresher.
The electrical shutdown triggered an automatic shutdown of the nuclear plant, leaving the sub without means of propulsion, if the operator followed prescribed procedures and cut off residual steam to the turbines that powered the sub, so as not to cool the reactor too quickly, according to the article.
That would have left the captain without the means to surface normally, by driving the craft upward using its dive planes.
Instead, he would have needed to blow the ballast tanks.
But shortly after sending compressed air into those tanks, the airflow slowed or stopped, probably because ice formed in debris strainers due to moisture in the system and the cooling effect of the expanding pressurized air, according to Galeaz.
“Boyle’s Law,” he said. “Pressure, volume and temperature.”
Whatever ballast the air displaced before stopping wasn’t enough to offset the weight of the water that flooded the engine compartment, so the sub sank past the classified maximum depth the hull could withstand, according to Galeaz.
The sub rescue ship Skylark was nearby, and at 9:13 a.m. its crew heard a transmission from the Thresher, “Experiencing minor difficulties. Have positive up angle. Am attempting to blow. Will keep you informed,” according to a JAG report on the Court of Inquiry findings on the disaster.
On its acoustic phone, Skylark heard the stopping of the ballast air, according to Thresher Down, a 1987 article in Mechanical Engineering Magazine.
Then it received a garbled message that ended with “test depth,” according to the magazine article.
Then the Skylark phone operator heard the “distinctive groans and clanks” of the sub breaking up, according to the article.
Eventually, Skylark found an oil slick near the site, and other vessels located debris.
Two months later, a crew of the Trieste, a deep-diving submersible, spotted a “yellow object,” a plastic shoe cover with metal snaps, the kind of safety boot worn in a reactor compartment, on the ocean floor in that area. It bore Thresher’s ship designation, SSN-593, according to a UPI story from 1983.
Sailing on the Thresher was John Wiley’s dream job.
He applied for it, because it was “elite,” Patty said.
He had graduated from the Naval Academy in 1961, had gone to Admiral Hyman Rickover’s nuclear powered sub school at New London, then to nuclear training at Windsor Locks, then to the Thresher in December 1962.
He was a lieutenant junior grade.
He was a good athlete at Altoona Catholic High School and had once held the Catholic High/Bishop Guilfoyle record for points in a basketball game.
He played freshman football at the academy – stopping after he broke ribs in practice the following spring, which set him behind in his schoolwork and made him realize he had better focus on his studies, according to his brother, Tom, a retired Secret Service officer who lives in Annapolis, Md.
He scored close to a perfect 1600 on his college boards, according to another brother, Frank of Altoona.
He was recruited by Ivy League schools, Tom said.
His academy grades were good enough that he received his diploma directly from President John Kennedy, according to Frank.
“He was always kind of like a superstar,” said Frank, who was 8 when the Thresher sank.
Most important, however, he was intuitive in his understanding of people, without being judgmental, Patty said.
He had “a deeper sense than most people had of what people were about,” she said.
It’s valuable in any walk of life “to understand your fellow man,” but especially for a military officer, she said.
After John’s death, his father withdrew, Tom said.
“He got quiet,” he said.
Their father had been a fireman, then an engineer-driver for the Pennsylvania Railroad.
He died several years later in a car accident after he may have blacked out due to diabetic shock, Tom said.
Tom, a fullback on the freshman team at Purdue, went back after the funeral to resume spring practice and was “not really into it.” They moved him to guard.
Their mother relied on her Catholic faith.
Both parents accepted it as God’s will, according to Mary Wiley, Frank’s wife.
They accepted a lack of information about the disaster – much even now remains classified, and they didn’t seek to assign blame, according to Mary and others.
It was a different time then, she said.
His mother “just knew he was gone, and that was the main thing,” Mary said.
It actually took her three years, according to Justin Wiley, Frank and Mary’s son.
“She waited every day for him to come home,” Justin said. “She was in denial.”
On the third anniversary of his death, however, she stopped hoping.
With 37 attendees, the Wileys were to have the biggest contingent at this weekend’s ceremonies, Galeaz said.
The ceremony is about creation and perpetuation of memories.
Getting family survivors and former sub crew members together, with the help of pictures, artifacts, family storyboards and the location of the sub’s construction and launching, helps the memories resurface and generates emotion that gives those memories sticking power, according to Galeaz.
On encountering submariners who once served with their loved one, Thresher families “light up,” he said. “Stuff comes out that’s incredible.”
The women will get roses, and a petal from each will go into the water of the harbor where the Thresher first got wet, along with a commemorative wreath.
In an initiative called “immersion” – pun intended by Galeaz – current academy seniors destined for sub service will shadow surviving family members for the weekend.
“They have to remember what happens if you make a mistake,” Galeaz said. “What the cost of failure is.”
As an institution, the Navy remembers, according to Galeaz.
After the disaster, it had a “come to Jesus moment,” which led to a thorough evaluation of deficiencies in the Thresher and the overall sub program and reforms that have prevented any recurrence.
“There were deficient specifications, deficient shipbuilding practices, deficient maintenance practices, and deficient operational procedures,” according to a 2003 statement by Rear Adm. Paul Sullivan to a Congressional Committee in 2003. Most importantly, more than 400 silver-braze joints may have been substandard, based on then-new ultrasonic tests in the yard prior to Thresher’s last run, according to Sullivan.
The legacy, however, of the Thresher is SUBSAFE, a program to “provide maximum reasonable assurance of watertight integrity and recovery capability” in subs, according to the Thresher Base website.
It involves designers, builders, crews and maintenance workers and includes “non-negotiable requirements,” annual training, audits, independent oversight and lots of redundancy, according to the website and Galeaz.
In the 50 years since the program began, only one U.S. sub, the Scorpion, was lost, and it wasn’t SUBSAFE-certified.
Exhibit A for its effectiveness: the San Francisco, a sub that while running “quiet,” with no transmissions that would have allowed it to detect an obstacle ahead, smashed at flank speed into an undersea mountain, he said.
A website picture, after the sub was recovered without sinking, shows the smashed front end.
One crew member died, from injuries from the shock of the collision.
But it remained watertight.
The Thresher families learned that their loved ones didn’t die in vain, Galeaz said.
In the years after his death, John Wiley has remained a “palpable” presence in the family, said Mary.
A picture of him receiving his diploma from Kennedy was “front and center” on top of the TV in the living room.
His portrait, painted by a nun who taught art at BG, hung on the wall.
“His athletic and academic achievements were so striking and his loss had been so keen,” she said.
On the day of the disaster, when the sub was out of contact, but not yet known publicly to be gone, 8-year-old Frank wanted to go to a friend’s birthday party.
When his father told him that story many years later, he still felt guilty, Justin said.
“Strange for me to observe,” Justin said. “How could that feeling still be there?”
John’s death also made an impression in the community at large.
At the memorial service in the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, the mayor and the bishop of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown were there, according to Mary Ann Courtney of Chester County, John’s sister.
The church was filled, she said.
Years later, a priest connected with Bishop Guilfoyle told a family member that all the nuns at Mount Carmel Elementary School cried over John’s death.
Even now, people he doesn’t know, on hearing his name, will ask him if he’s related, Frank said.
No long ago, “an old guy” who heard Justin’s last name at a popular local bar asked if he was related, and on hearing he began “choking up,” Justin said.
To questions from her children when they moved into the area after living out of town for years, Mary explained, “It was sort of like being related to [the late teacher-astronaut] Christa McAuliffe and being in her hometown.”
When John’s mother died, and his siblings encountered his effects, “they were kind of afraid” of them, Justin said, as if they were “sacred.”
Patty, who is remarried and now lives in Massachusetts, initially hesitated to speak with the Mirror about her husband.
She hesitated two years ago when author Ellen Fitzpatrick called for permission to use a commiserating letter Patty had sent to Jackie Kennedy, after the president’s wife, too, became a widow. Fitzpatrick wanted to include it in a book she was planning called “Letters to Jackie: Condolences from a Grieving Nation.”
She hesitated more recently when Boston NPR host Robin Young called to interview her about that letter, which was published in the book and will this fall be featured as part of a Discovery Channel documentary.
Patty, whose last name is now Kelleher, hesitated because she felt her memory of John was “fragile,” “delicate,” and feared exposing it to the world would damage it.
“Even though this was a national event, I always thought of it as something very private,” she said. “There’s a certain sense of being undone when something so personal or sorrowful becomes public.”
She’s still not sure it’s for the best that it became public.
But at some level it may be, because in sharing it, “you realize you’re one of many,” she said. “Everybody has loss.”
On April 10, 1963, when Tom returned to his room at Purdue after football practice, he found his roommate listening to Tom’s transistor radio.
That was strange, because it hadn’t been working for months.
“How’d you get it to work?” he asked.
“I just turned it on,” his roommate replied.
They were tossing a football back and forth when news came on about the Thresher.
Tom went downstairs to get further information from the TV, and when he came back up, prepared to go home to Altoona because of what happened, the radio was again non-functional.
It had worked just long enough to get him the terrible news.
“He was my idol,” Tom said. “He set the standards for us.”
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.