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

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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.


At a time when military budgets are under pressure, the Navy also uses the Thresher's story politically, to convince Congress to continue funding its submarine safety initiatives.

For some family members, the political messages at the memorial services are a distraction. For them, the service allows them to be closer to someone they love and haven't seen for 50 years.

"This isn't saying 'goodbye.' It's like saying 'hello' again," said Debby Ronnquist, 72, of Kittery, whose husband Julius Francis "Buddy" Marullo, a quartermaster, died on the Thresher, leaving her alone with two children under the age of 3.

Last week, one of Marullo's friends stopped by her house to show her an old movie of him skiing.

"It's an incredible feeling to see him like that, vibrant and alive and happy," she said.

Children of the lost men are eager to soak up new information about their fathers.

For Debby Ronnquist's daughter, Marcye Philbrook, 52, who was 2 1/2 when the Thresher sank, her deepest connection to her father is a sock she found in a box in storage when she was in her 20s. She was startled to see the imprint of the foot, and that she could smell his odor.

"That's when I felt he was a real person," she said.

Suzy Johnson, 69, was 17 when she first met Ed Johnson, chief engineman on the Thresher. He was a fun-loving and dashing sailor, thrilling in his beige Navy uniform. The couple dated for more than two years, despite her mother's opposition.

Although she would later have two children with two other men, Johnson remains the love of her life, she said.

For days after the Thresher was lost, his love letters to her continued to arrive in the mail.

"Upon opening them I could smell the Thresher, and Ed's words demanded no reply but were so loving," she said.


Crew member John Riemenschneider, of Lebanon, was not required to join the submarine on its final journey because he had been assigned to another submarine. He had a $2 bet with his best friend, Jack Hudson, that he would not be ordered to go on the Thresher that day. While he was asked to join the Thresher crew, he decided not to, in order to win the bet. It saved his life.

Riemenschneider last spoke to his friend as the submarine departed the shipyard.

"I told Jack I would see him when he came back," he said.

The Thresher, which was launched in 1961, was the first in its class of a new line of advanced attack submarines. It could travel faster, dive deeper and operate more quietly than any other submarine in the world.

It had been at the Navy yard for several months for repairs. After the work was completed, it left Kittery on the morning of April 9 to conduct a series of post-overhaul trials.

The next morning, as the submarine rescue ship USS Skylark stood by, the Thresher began a deep-diving test.

That was when things went wrong. At more than 600 feet below the surface, seawater probably rushed into the engine room through an opening created when the weld on a pipe gave way, according to a Navy Court of Inquiry. The pipe was used to bring cold water to cool the nuclear reactor.

The reactor automatically shut down when the water shorted out the electrical equipment that controlled it.

The submarine lost propulsion power. The crew's only chance to save themselves – a blast of high-pressure air to create buoyancy – failed.

The submarine, which had been gliding forward with its bow upward, began descending, stern first, like a stalling airplane.

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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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