April 10, 2013

Losing the Thresher: the 50th anniversary

When the nuclear submarine sank with 129 men aboard in April 1963, it was a turning point for the Navy – and for the survivors who will remember lost loved ones next weekend.

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

KITTERY — For perhaps a minute or so, the 129 men aboard the USS Thresher probably realized that their submarine would be crushed by water pressure.

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Debby Ronnquist, right, and her daughter, Marcye Philbrook, show a portrait of Ronnquist's former husband and Philbrook's father, Julius Francis Marullo, who died on the USS Thresher.

Photos by Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

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Yellowed newspaper front pages from 1963 announce the loss of the USS Thresher.

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THE DEDICATION of the USS Thresher Memorial Flagpole will be held Sunday, April 7.

WHERE: Memorial Circle on Route 1 in Kittery

WHEN: The ceremony begins at 9 a.m. Traffic will be closed between 8:30 and 9:45 a.m.

WHAT ELSE: Parking for dignitaries and people with disabilities is at Kittery Town Hall, 200 Rogers Road. General parking is at Traip Academy at 12 Williams Ave. Shuttle service is available.

"That's the horror part of it," said William Olsen, 72, of York. "They had to know."

Had he not been attending a training program, Olsen, a crew member, would have been on the submarine when it went down that day, April 10, 1963.

The sinking of the Thresher 50 years ago was a turning point for the Navy. The nation's newest and most advanced nuclear submarine at the time, the Thresher sank when a weld on a pipe gave way during a test dive 220 miles east of Cape Cod in waters nearly two miles deep.

No one survived. The accident remains the largest loss of life ever on a Navy submarine. After the Thresher sinking, the Navy put much greater emphasis on quality control during the manufacturing of submarines, and developed new safety measures and designs to ensure that a submarine faced with a similar catastrophic flooding would always recover.

Many Americans today are not familiar with the story of the Thresher. But people in Kittery and other communities near the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, where the submarine was built, have never forgotten.

Forty-seven of those lost lived in the area, including 30 sailors, 10 shipyard workers and seven shipyard engineers. The workers and engineers were on board to monitor the submarine's performance during the tests. In all, 17 civilians were on board the Thresher when it sank.

"It was an absolutely terrible thing," said Russell Van Billiard, 82, a retired shipyard engineer who helped design the Thresher's torpedo room. "It was such a close community. Everybody knew somebody who was on it, or knew a number of people who were on it."


Memorial services are held every year at the Kittery shipyard. But this year – the 50th anniversary of the Thresher's sinking – the service will be the largest ever.

More than 700 family and crew members and 400 others are expected to attend Saturday's private memorial service at 1 p.m. in the Portsmouth High School auditorium, the only available venue in the area large enough to hold that many people.

A public ceremony will be held at 9 a.m. Sunday, with the dedication of a new memorial for the Thresher at Kittery's Memorial Circle on Route 1. The flagpole is 129 feet tall – one foot for each man lost at sea.

Many family members and former crew members have been saving money for years to attend the weekend's events. Their advanced ages – many are now in their 70s and 80s – has added a sense of urgency to the occasion because they are the last generation to have known the dead.

At the memorial service, there will be large story boards containing photographs and information about individual members of the Thresher crew. Each board will be a gathering place for family members and the retired sailors and shipyard employees who worked with them, said Kevin Galeaz, commander of the Thresher Base United States Submarine Veterans.

"This is the last opportunity to unite the first generation submariners who knew the men personally with the family members, including second-generation children, many of whom don't remember their fathers," he said.

It's critical for the Navy that the younger members remember the Thresher because it reminds them to focus on safety when they work on submarines, said Rear Adm. David Duryea, deputy commander for Undersea Warfare, which oversees the safety programs that were developed after the Thresher disaster.

"It was an event that changed our whole culture in how we build and maintain submarines," he said. "We strive to make sure that our work force remembers the lessons learned."

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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This photograph of the USS Thresher was probably taken in Newport, R.I. It was the nation’s newest and most advanced nuclear submarine.

Courtesy of Bruce Harvey

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William Olsen of York was a crew member of the USS Thresher who was not aboard the submarine when it went down on April 10, 1963.

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Suzy Johnson of Kittery was 17 when her boyfriend, Edward Albert Johnson, was killed when the USS Thresher went down. The chief engineman on the sub, he remains the love of her life, she says.

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Crew member Edward Albert Johnson.

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Debby Ronnquist of Kittery, widow of sailor Julius Francis Marullo, recalls the terrible loss when the USS Thresher went down in 1963. Debby and Julius’ daughter, Marcye Philbrook, also of Kittery, looks on.

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The USS Thresher before its launch at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery.

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Cathy Beal of Kittery, daughter of sailor Daniel W. Beal Jr., made this memory board that will be part of next weekend’s 50th anniversary memorial service for the 129 men lost aboard the USS Thresher.

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Julius Francis “Buddy” Marullo, a quartermaster lost at sea on the USS Thresher, is shown with his dog, Dobi. His death left his widow alone with two children under the age of 3.


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