The stories of seven lost US Navy submarines, the bravest Americans who will never come home

A World War II veteran watches the Pearl Harbor Memorial Parade at Fort Derussy Beach Park, Hawaii, Dec. 7, 2016. Civilians, veterans, and service members came together to remember and pay their respects to those who fought and list their lives during the attack on Pearl Harbor. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Matthew Casbarro)

1. USS Thresher (SSN-593)

Starboard bow view of USS Thresher (SSN-593) taken at sea on 24 July 1961. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center.
Starboard bow view of USS Thresher (SSN-593) taken at sea on 24 July 1961.
Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center.

Last but most certainly not least, the fast attack nuclear submarine Thresher was the lead boat of her class, the first nuclear submarine loss in human history and the highest casualty count of any submarine accident- until the Russian Kursk accident in 2000.

Commissioned in 1960 (much like the Scorpion), the Thresher’s motto was Vic Tacita, or “Silent Strength.” At the time she was built, she was the fastest and quietest submarine in the world and the most advanced weapons system of her day. Those who served aboard her adored her, enamored with the way a larger submarine could keep the pace and even outrun smaller subs.

Designed as a true “sub hunter,” the Thresher was born to track down and kill submarines.

Less than three years into her life, the Thresher would be conducting dive trials in April of 1963 alongside the submarine rescue ship Skylark.

During her dive, the Thresher would dive deeper as she swam in a circular pattern around Skylark, periodically reporting her status at the surface. As she neared the test depths she was assigned, the messages became garbled and unreadable. Her last message was a cryptic one- “900.”

After receiving no word for some time, those on the surface gradually realized Thresher had likely been lost. It would later be surmised that the ballast system iced over due to air compression, causing the 99 man crew -who desperately wanted to surface- to continue to sink until they were crushed to death by water pressure. When the Thresher was finally found, her shattered remains spanned a 33-acre area.

On April 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy ordered all flags at half-mast for the Thresher’s 129 lost souls.

Commander Robert Ballard (who would later find the Titanic) was sent on missions to get up close and personal with both the Thresher and Scorpion to determine what had happened to them. Needing funding, he was given money to find the lost cruise liner on the conditions that he take a look at America’s lost nuclear submarines beforehand. When he found the Thresher, it was determined that it had imploded into thousands of pieces.

Despite the tragic loss of Thresher, a lot of good came out of the incident. Following America’s first nuclear submarine disaster, the US Navy developed the SUBSAFE program in December of 1963. SUBSAFE ensures that all systems aboard the submarine stay tightly controlled to ensure an accident such as that of the Thresher (which could not surface due to faulty ballast-blow systems) would never happen again.

Since Thresher, not a single SUBSAFE-certified US nuclear submarine (the Scorpion was not certified) has been lost.

Indirectly, the loss of the Thresher has also made space travel safer. After the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia, NASA looked into the SUBSAFE program and underwent joint missions with Naval personnel to make space flight more survivable in the future.

To this day, the “Silent Service” lurks beneath the world’s oceans 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Be it hunting enemy vessels or ferrying a large bulk of America’s nuclear arsenal on a silent world tour, submariner crews are all-too deserving of our respect and gratitude.

After all, the crew of a submarine knows all too well what it means to risk everything as they go into the dark unknown, living -and possibly dying- as a team.

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  • Andy Wolf

    Andy Wolf is an Appalachian native who spent much of his youth and young adulthood overseas in search of combat, riches, and adventure- accruing decades of experience in military, corporate, first responder, journalistic and advisory roles. He resides in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains with his K9 companion, Kiki.

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