Almost six decades after a Marine submarine plunged to the bottom of the sea in a deep dive test, the families of those lost in the tragedy finally get a glimpse of hundreds of documents about the accident that the service has long kept secret.
The Navy released on Wednesday First 300 pages of a court of inquiry on the catastrophic loss in 1963 of the nuclear submarine Thresher. The documents provide details of the Navy’s worst submarine accident, which claimed the lives of 129 men on board.
As Navy officials say they are determined to be transparent with families and the public about what sank the Thresher – the first submarine in its class – it took a court order to get there.
Captain Jim Bryant, a retired Navy submarine officer, continued his former service in 2019 to release the full 1,700-page report on the Thresher accident. A federal judge ordered the Navy in February to begin releasing portions of this report to the public on a monthly basis.
“I think I’m doing the Navy a favor,” Bryant told Military.com this week. “This is an important historical event… and the reactions have been very positive. It’s a very good story here for the Navy.
Rear Admiral Bill Houston, director of the Pentagon’s Submarine Warfare Division, told reporters on Tuesday that Navy officials did not believe the recently released documents on the Thresher “would shed further light on her loss. “. Still, he added, the Navy has pledged to release additional parts of the report each month, although much of it remains confidential.
“This process requires coordination among many organizations and takes time to get done properly,” Houston said. “But the Navy knows it’s the right thing to do.”
He declined to comment on Bryant’s trial which prompted the release of the documents.
The first batch of documents released this week includes witness and exhibit lists, factual findings, opinions, recommendations and initial testimony. The families were told in a letter sent last month by Vice Admiral Daryl Caudle, Commander of the Navy’s submarine forces, that the Navy is working to declassify the documents and make them public.
Joy MacMillan and her brother Tim Noonis lost their father, Walter “Jack” Noonis, in the Thresher accident. Both credited Bryant for the time he spent pushing the Navy to release the documents. The decision to do so “should have been automatic,” MacMillan said.
“We would definitely like to know,” she said. “We know it won’t bring them back, but it helps to understand how something like this could have happened to our family.”
MacMillan’s mother, who died in 2016, had four children under the age of 10 when the Thresher sank.
“It was intense, but I think my mom did a fabulous job picking up her boots and walking forward, but I would never say it was easy,” said MacMillan. “I think it would have been an honor for all moms to get this information.”
Bryant said families – as well as the rest of the public – deserve to have access to the answers.
“Naval history is important,” he said. “And when the technology is no longer a threat to national security, well, I think we should know.”
How tragedy led to change
The Thresher had just completed a period of overhaul of several months when – on April 10, 1963 – the submarine began diving tests off the coast of Massachusetts.
He was accompanied by the underwater rescue vessel Skylark, which received scrambled communications about the Thresher experiencing minor difficulties.
The court of inquiry determined that the Thresher sank due to a failure in the piping that resulted in loss of power and the inability to blow up the ballasts quickly enough to avoid sinking. Houston said this week that the Navy is sticking to those initial determinations.
Bryant wanted to know more, however, and was dissatisfied with the Navy’s initial decision to release only 19 of the 1,700 pages of court of inquiry documents. It was only after a Freedom of Information Act request failed to release the documents that he sued the Navy.
Families and the public have a right to know more about the decisions that led to the accident, he said. In 2018, Bryant wrote an article for the Proceedings of the American Naval Institute the magazine saying data showed the threshing machine “had most likely already sunk below its 1,300-foot test depth limit when it reported minor difficulties.”
“The result,” he wrote, “was a hull collapse that could have been avoided with more testing and better planning.”
Noonis, who said he had read everything he could find publicly on the Thresher, said he would like the Navy to further analyze the acoustic recordings of the Thresher crash that were picked up by the sound monitoring system of the Navy, known as SOSUS.
Bryant described an analysis that Lieutenant Bruce Rule of the Naval Reserve provided during the 1963 testimony about what SOSUS noted during the sinking of the Thresher. According to Bryant’s April 2020 article titled “USS Thresher (SSN-593) disaster: ten questions our FOIA trial hopes to answerRule’s observations reject the Navy’s assessment that there had been major flooding on the submarine prior to the implosion.
While Noonis has said he would like to see the Navy take another look at that claim, he doesn’t hold onto much hope, especially since the service doesn’t release the documents out of choice.
“They were forced to release him,” he said. “I don’t have much confidence that the government will come and change its conclusion. … Bureaucracies don’t like to blame themselves.
People who study the technology need to access all the information available about major accidents to understand the decisions that led to them, so they don’t repeat the same mistakes, Bryant said this week.
Despite the battle over the documents, Bryant credits the Navy for taking significant action in the wake of the Thresher tragedy to help prevent further underwater incidents. That’s why he said he wants the service to share any documents it has that can help others understand what went wrong.
Houston said the Thresher remains a defining event for submarine service. Each new Navy submariner discovers the ship.
“From day one, every new submariner who checks on board discusses the Thresher’s impact on the submarine force and the significant improvements resulting from its loss,” he said.
The Navy’s submarine safety program, known as SUBSAFE, grew out of the Thresher accident. SUBSAFE has “dramatically improved quality control and assurance in the manufacture, construction and maintenance of submarines,” said Houston.
“Since the start of the program, no SUBSAFE certified submarine has been lost at sea,” he said.
MacMillan said she was grateful the accident resulted in a change, but said that without the Navy releasing the full investigation, no one can be sure all possible steps were taken to prevent something similar does not happen again.
“Was that the main coolant pump?” Was it just a push too fast for a deeper dive into the Cold War? ” she said. “I really feel like it was [more than enough] time to find out what really happened.
Now, as the Navy begins releasing previously unreleased material on the crash that caused these changes, Houston has said the service needs to balance transparency while protecting national security information.
Bryant said he and his lawyer believe the Navy’s plan to release around 300 Thresher-related pages each month is reasonable, but noted that they would closely monitor what is withheld or redacted.
If the Navy refuses to declassify information it believes should be made public, Bryant said, “We’re going to fight them for this.”
MacMillan said she hoped the published documents would prove to the public that it is possible to tackle powerful organizations that may be reluctant to release information. Bryant had no interest in Thresher’s crash, she said, but fought to do the right thing.
“If you work long enough and hard enough, you can find out the truth,” she said. “… As a 6 year old child, I’m still stuck in this period, I think it’s high time they found something. “