USS Thresher (SSN-593), the second US Navy ship to bear this name, succeeded the World War II submarine USS Thresher (SS-200). The namesake of these two vessels was a shark that is known to pose no threat to man and that is easily recognizable due to the fact that its tail is longer than its body and head combined. USS Thresher (SSN-593) was first in her class of nuclear-powered fast attack submarines (SSNs).
Ordered on January 15, 1958, USS Thresher’s keel was laid down just over four months later on May 28th by the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard located in Kittery, Maine. Sponsored by Mrs. Frederick B. Warder, wife of the celebrated Pacific War captain, Thresher was launched on the 9th of July 1960 and commissioned on August 3, 1961. A complement of 16 officers and 96 enlisted men was led by Commander Dean L. Axene.
Armed with four 21 inch torpedo tubes and possessing the capability to lay mines, Thresher measured 278 feet, 6 inches in length, reached speeds in excess of 30 knots, and had a surface displacement of 3,540 tons and a submerged displacement of 4,200 tons.
Newly commissioned, USS Thresher participated in a series of sea trials in the Caribbean Sea and in the waters of the western Atlantic for the remainder of 1961 and well into 1962. These trials were aimed at assessing her intricate network of technological equipment in addition to her state of the art weaponry. Among the trials in which she was a participant were Nuclear Submarine Exercise (NUSUBEX) 3-61 in September of 1961 off the northeastern coast of the United States and NUSUBEX 2-62 in March of 1962 which was intended to enhance her tactical capabilities. Subsequent exercises in 1962 focused on antisubmarine warfare training and SUBROC missile testing.
An accidental collision with a tugboat at Port Canaveral, Florida resulted in Thresher’s return to Groton, Connecticut for repairs to one of her ballast tanks at the Electric Boat Company’s shipyard. Upon completion of this repair, Thresher returned to Florida where she carried out further sea trials off the coast of Key West for a brief time before returning to the northeast for an overhaul that would last through the spring of 1963.
Completion of Thresher’s overhaul gave way to the initiation of post-overhaul trials which commenced on April 9, 1963. Led by Lieutenant Commander John Wesley Harvey, Thresher and her crew set off for a series of deep-diving tests 220 miles east of Cape Cod, Massachusetts on the morning of April 10th. This mission would seal Thresher’s fate.
Just minutes after Thresher reached her operating depth for the tests, Skylark—the submarine rescue ship that accompanied Thresher—received a transmission via an underwater telephone communications system indicating that the submarine was encountering difficulties of some sort. This transmission was followed by an undistinguishable noise, then silence, and eventually unsuccessful attempts to reestablish communication.
USS Thresher sank in 8,400 feet of water and claimed the lives of her entire crew of 129—16 officers, 96 enlisted men, and 17 civilian technicians. The loss of this US Navy submarine was attributed to failure of a piping system that resulted in the flooding of the engine room. USS Thresher was officially stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on April 10, 1963 and her class was renamed the Permit class after the next vessel in the series.
In response to the loss of Thresher, the US Navy instituted the SUBSAFE Program—an initiative designed with the aim of achieving a maximum level of watertight security aboard its submarines with the additional assurance that control and recovery from flooding was a possibility in the event that it did in fact occur.
Asbestos Risk on the USS Thresher (SSN-593)
The tragedy of the loss of the USS Thresher ultimately gave rise to improved safety standards aimed at protecting the crews that served aboard US Navy submarines from incidents of flooding. During this same time period, the use of a substance known as asbestos was employed by the Navy with the goal of achieving the same objective—improved safety measures for submarine crews, but in this case, with regard to protection from outbreaks of fires. What was unknown to many at the time was that this substance would eventually be directly responsible for negatively impacting the health and well-being of numerous individuals.
Proclaimed to be a “wonder product” for its low-cost, accessibility, and superior strength, flexibility, and resistance to heat and fire, asbestos was wrapped around pipes and boilers, added to paints and adhesives, and used in the production of gaskets, cables, and valves. Within the confines of a submarine, asbestos could be found throughout areas of operations (e.g., navigation and boiler rooms) and areas of living (e.g., mess halls and sleeping quarters).
Asbestos posed its greatest danger to humans when its fibers became disturbed and released into the surrounding atmosphere. This disruption of asbestos fibers often occurred during the maintenance of vessels and especially during the demolition of these ships at the end of their careers.
Human exposure to asbestos is known to result in a variety of illnesses: asbestosis, pleural plaques, lung cancer, and mesothelioma. These diseases can be attributed to the inhalation and accumulation of asbestos fibers in which the end result is scarring and inflammation in the lungs, along with the possibility of more severe circumstances—modifications to the membranes surrounding the lungs and mutations of the cells in the membranes surrounding the chest and abdominal cavities. In short, these afflictions produce overall difficulties with breathing, and in some instances, prove to be fatal.
Any career linked with a US shipyard, whether sailor or shipyard worker, is a link to potential asbestos exposure. If you worked in one of these professions and have been diagnosed with mesothelioma please request a free information packet to learn more about the medical and legal options available to you.Sources
Wikipedia–USS Thresher (SSN-593)
Official Website of the United States Navy
NavSource Online: Submarine Photo Archive