PORTSMOUTH, N.H. (NNS) -- Nearly 1,000 family members, active and retired submariners, shipyard workers, and members of the community came together to pay tribute to the 129 men who perished aboard USS Thresher (SSN 593) during the 50th Anniversary commemoration at Portsmouth High School's Auditorium.
The distinguished visitors in attendance included Sens. Kelly Ayotte; Jeanne Shaheen; Rep. Carol Shea-Porter; Keynote Speaker Vice Adm. Michael J. Connor, commander, Submarine Forces; Capt. L. Bryant Fuller III, commander, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Dr. Thomas E. Hassan, New Hampshire first gentlemen, Al Singleman Jr., national junior vice commander, United States Submarine Veterans and Gary Hildreth, master of ceremonies, former commander, USSVI Thresher Base.
During the ceremony Hildreth read letters to the attendees written by the Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and Vice Adm. Kevin M. McCoy, Commander, Naval Sea Systems Command.
In his letter Secretary Mabus wrote, "On behalf of the Department of Navy and a grateful nation, I join you on the 50th anniversary of its loss in remembrance in honoring USS Thresher (SSN 593) and her crew. Thresher was the lead boat of her class of nuclear-powered attack submarine of the United States Navy. On April 10, 1963, while on a deep test dive about 200 miles off the Northeast coast of the United States, USS Thresher was lost and all hands perished aboard her at sea. The loss of the lead ship of a new fast, quiet, deep-diving class of submarines led the Navy to reevaluate the methods used to build its submarines. The Submarine Safety Program (SUBSAFE) was created as the direct result and has no doubt saved countless lives and enabled our modern submarine fleet to remain the best in the world."
Connor referred to the men of Thresher as pioneers and thanked them and their families for their sacrifices and service to our nation.
"We are here today to honor 129 pioneers that were lost at sea sailing from this city," said Connor. "Thresher didn't just change submarine safety, it changed the world."
Fuller spoke to the attendees who gathered to pay tribute to those lost aboard Thresher, reflecting on the need to ensure such a tragedy never happens again.
"Thresher was, and still is, our boat," said Fuller. "Thresher will always be a part of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, and not a day passes that we don't remember the lessons we learned and reflect on our great responsibility."
In 1963, USS Thresher, the first of her class, was a state-of-the-art submarine with the most modern technology of the day, allowing her to be fast, quiet and deep diving. At the time of Thresher's loss, she had been in service for only 36 months and had not even conducted a full-length deployment. Instead, she operated in the Atlantic Ocean, testing her systems while also taking part in two anti-submarine exercises prior to entering Portsmouth Naval Shipyard for a scheduled maintenance period.
On April 10, 1963, USS Thresher sank off the coast of Massachusetts during a deep-diving test, making it the first nuclear-powered submarine lost at sea and the largest loss of life in the submarine force's history. This tragic loss led directly to the establishment of the SUBSAFE program, which is known worldwide as a model for safety and quality assurance. The SUBSAFE program works to ensure that submarines do not experience flooding events and, if they do, they have the ability to surface. The program does this by enforcing a set of stringent quality processes and material control requirements beginning in the design phase and enforced throughout the submarine's entire service life.
Vicki Billings, daughter of Lt. Cmdr. John H. Billings, USS Thresher spoke at the memorial, in addition to her brother, Dr. Blake Billings, who composed and performed a piece he wrote titled "In Memory of You."
In addition to Billings, Chief Engineman Tilmon Joseph Arsenault's daughter, Lori Arsenault, who serves as the director of operations/concert manager for the University of Southern Maine's School of Music attended the memorial alongside her sister Debra Henderson. Both daughters performed the national anthem in memory of their father and the lives of those lost aboard Thresher 50 years ago.
Arsenault said that various members of their family have attended the Thresher memorials since the loss of the submarine in 1963.
"The thing that makes the Thresher families' losses different than the loss of other loved ones is that it was a national tragedy, shared, and therefore larger than any single family," said Arsenault. "Many of us feel that we have a responsibility to that larger community to keep remembering Thresher's legacy for the benefit of generations to come."
Arsenault said that her mother passed away last summer, but takes comfort in knowing that she is now with her father.
"They are together now," said Arsenault. "My family has lost one parent at a young age, and another one in the later years. My mother was 86 at the time of her death, and there is no easy way to lose anyone."
Arsenault expressed appreciation for what came out of the loss of Thresher.
"We are so appreciative that something good came of this, with the creation of the SUBSAFE that the Navy has taught us about all of these years later," said Arsenault. "USS Thresher changed history."
When Thresher sank, 112 Sailors, and 17 civilians, 13 of them who worked at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, died. Three of the Navy officers lost were stationed at the shipyard and several of the Navy crewmen were residents of Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts and all left behind grieving families, friends, neighbors and colleagues.
Arsenault reflected on meeting present-day submariners and the lessons they shared with her.
"When I go to the memorial services and speak to people who served on Thresher, other subvets, and those who are serving or who are working on subs now, they explain the significance of the SUBSAFE," said Arsenault. "They stop in their tracks when they hear that I'm a relative of a Thresher Sailor. They make it a point to assure me that they remember everyday what the cost is."
Sailors such as Seaman Trevor A. Heehs, USS Thresher Class 13200, Basic Enlisted Submarine School is reminded the cost daily while undergoing training at Naval Submarine School, Naval Submarine Base New London. Heehs will take the lessons he has learned from his Thresher Class when he graduates on April 19, just nine days after the historic anniversary of the loss of Thresher.
"I feel pretty honored to take part in today's memorial; the Thresher sinking was the worst submarine tragedy the Navy has ever seen especially in the modern nuclear Navy," said Heehs. "I never thought I would have an opportunity to attend the memorial in Portsmouth and for me it is a real big honor and I take a lot of pride in attending."
The Town of Kittery, Maine, birthplace and final homeport of USS Thresher, will dedicate a 129-foot flagpole in Memorial Circle on April 7, 2013. The flagpole height will serve as a permanent reminder of the 129 men who died that morning, ensuring they will forever be honored in and around the town where Thresher was built and homeported.
The state of Maine issued a proclamation to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the loss of the submarine.
"The state of Maine and its citizens, and the entire United States of America and its citizens, are greatly indebted to the sacrifice of these brave pioneers," said Maine Gov. Paul R. LePage in his proclamation. "We commemorate the 50th anniversary of this terrible tragedy and honor the 129 Cold War casualties lost that day, men of genius and adventure who represented the finest qualities of our Nation."
Thresher changed the face of the submarine service and serves as a poignant reminder that ignorance, arrogance, and complacency can, and have resulted in tragedy. The SUBSAFE Program is dedicated to the memory of those lost 50 years ago and works every day to keep such an event from happening again.
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