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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

How a U.S. Navy Nuclear Submarine Imploded Underwater (And Trapped the Crew?)

USS Thresher
Image: Creative Commons.

One of the worst naval disasters in modern history occurred when the US Navy submarine USS Thresher imploded in 1963 killing everyone on board. Despite some clues, the ultimate cause of the disaster was a mystery for decades until a lawsuit and records request uncovered more reasons why the sub sunk. Some experts even believe that some sailors might have survived the initial wreck, trying desperately to communicate with other subs and surface ships.

What Happened to the Thresher?

One hundred and twenty-nine sailors and civilians perished in the tragedy. The Thresher was an advanced nuclear-powered attack submarine, able to dive deeper and steam quieter than its brethren.

In April of 1963, the Thresher was performing exercises about 220 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Another ship participating in the drills heard a terse and enigmatic communication from the Thresher that said it was experiencing small problems. No other verbal messages came from the Thresher, despite many ships’ personnel trying to talk to the crew. Within five minutes, sonar images from surface ships showed the submarine falling apart. Other sonar operators heard low-frequency grinding noises and officers and sailors on the surface feared the worst.

This was a blow to the entire U.S. military that was amplified by the paranoia of the Cold War. President John F. Kennedy, himself a navy veteran, ordered flags at half-staff and an investigation into the tragedy. Preliminary findings said a leak caused the electrical system to short-circuit and the problem spread to other electronics. The crew was not able to bring the ship to the surface and the pressure from the deep sea forced the ship to implode and it broke into six different pieces.

Could Some Have Lived Hours After the Implosion?

On the day of the sinking, USS Seawolf was searching for any signs of life when it used its communication system to request sailors on the Thresher to key the mic on its underwater telephone. Some people may have survived for a few hours as the Seawolf heard 37 pings before communication ceased.

Many decades later, a navy submarine veteran wanted more answers. He filed a freedom of information act request that later turned into a lawsuit. The navy began releasing hundreds of documents. Revelations about the cause focused on a leak in the engine room that doomed the boat’s electrical system.

Documents Reveal More Details on Causes of the Wreck

The 1,000-page document dump (despite several redactions) revealed that there was a panel of investigators the navy convened to find the cause of the accident. The panel determined that the Thresher had crews that were inexperienced and not trained well. The investigators said that a bad weld caused the initial leak and the crew reacted poorly when it tried to get the sub to surface. Electrical panels performed badly. They couldn’t stop the leak and ballast tanks failed. The navy kept all this secret because it did not want the details to be released to the public and allow the Soviets to get information on the sinking.

Thrasher Transformed the Silent Service Forever 

Sometimes tragedy can have positive effects. The navy tried to make changes to its submarine service after the demise of the Thresher. It created new techniques and procedures to make sure an accident like this never happened again. Even though the navy did not cover up the details in a conspiratorial manner, it should have made more information voluntarily available to surviving families without the need for a lawsuit.

1945’s new Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.