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.

Monitoring the dive from the surface, the USS Skylark received a mostly garbled transmission saying that the submarine was "exceeding test depth," the depth at which the submarine could operate safely. One minute later, the Skylark detected a high-energy, low-frequency noise characteristic of a submarine imploding.

The Thresher disintegrated into pieces as it tumbled 8,400 feet to the bottom of the Atlantic.

On the surface, the Skylark continued to try making contact with the Thresher.

Ira Salyers, 80, a crew member on the Skylark, was instructed to throw hand grenades over the side to signal the Thresher to resurface. He said the crew was hoping that the problem was only that the Thresher's communications system was down.

He said the Skylark conducted a sonar search for several days but never found any sign of the Thresher.

Salyers said he was a tough, hard-drinking sailor and never thought much about the loss. But 12 years later, while attending a church service in Florida, he thought about the men on the Thresher and began to weep uncontrollably.

"All those years later, it hammered me like a ball bat, seeing that all 129 men died when the hull came apart in that cold ocean," he said.

A Navy investigation after the disaster concluded that deficient shipbuilding and maintenance practices had contributed to the sinking, and that records for critical materials and work accomplished were incomplete or nonexistent.

In response, the Navy developed a program called SUBSAFE. Not only were improvements made in submarine design and manufacturing, but the operations of submarines were limited until the readiness and safety of submarines were independently verified. The Navy has never lost a submarine that has gone through the program.

Olsen, the crew member from York, said all submariners owe their lives to the men who died on the Thresher.

"Family members have every right to be proud," he said. "These men did not die in vain."

Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:


Twitter: @TomBellPortland


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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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