P.O.D.
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On April 10th, 1963, I was sitting at my desk in Mrs. Adam’s first grade class at the Branon Street Cottages, as the small school in El Paso, Texas was called. Do I remember hearing that the USS Thresher had been lost with all hands?

I think so, but fifty-five years plays games with your memory and it’s hard to separate that which is real from that which might be imagined. What I am sure of, is that having studied the event, done my time in Maneuvering, and traveled tens of thousands of miles submerged, my appreciation and gratitude for what the deaths of our shipmates bought us continues to grow.

I’m sure they didn’t give it a thought, as they cast off lines the day before and put out to sea for post-overhaul shakedown and testing. We wouldn’t have either. We were young enough to think we could take on the world, and what 20-year old wouldn’t with 5000 tons of nuclear-powered HY-80 under his feet, and a torpedo room full of the most sophisticated weaponry to grace the planet.

For all our similarities, the difference between us remains. They never came home.

Things went wrong that day, and the sea, like I remember Mrs. Adams, was a stern and unforgiving school-mistress.

Though it would be almost twenty years before I would walk across the brow and salute the ensign on the USS William H. Bates, learning was taking place. Out of the ashes of the Thresher disaster rose organizational learning on a scale that has not been equaled since. The birth of the SUBSAFE program in those dark days mourning the loss of 129 shipmates, sailors, and civilians laid the groundwork for fundamentally changing the way we designed and built submarines. It was radical, it was revolutionary, and it protected the lives of thousands of submariners that prowled the ocean depths in the years that followed.

I speak with a grateful voice, and a heart that aches for those who were lost. I’ve been there. We’ve been there. On the edge, at the very limits of design, with the bite of seawater or the searing acid of smoke in the air, where life becomes very binary – either we will be successful, or we won’t. Surrounded by the steady professionalism of men coaxing their machine to the limits and more, finally breathing the sigh of someone pardoned, and only later, when the realization of what just happened sinks in, lying quietly in your bunk when the shaking comes.

So to the men of the Thresher, the legacy you left us has paid off time and time again, and will continue to do so for as long as submariners go to sea. Your sacrifice, the SUBSAFE program, and the professionalism of the dolphins brought us home.

For that, we remain eternally grateful, and we will never forget.

 

Please take a minute to honor our shipmates, and visit www.threshermemorial.org, and see how you can help preserve the memory of those we lost.

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© 2019 Brad Williamson
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