US Department of the Navy releases records related to loss of submarine USS Thresher

USS Thresher underway in 1961 (Photo: US Navy/J.L. Snell)

The US Department of the Navy has begun releasing recently unclassified documents concerning the loss of the nuclear-powered submarine USS Thresher, fulfilling a February 2020 ruling by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

Thresher, the lead ship of its class, sank on April 10, 1963 some 350 kilometres off the Massachusetts coast while conducting sea trials.

All 129 men on board, consisting of 112 crewmembers and 17 shipyard personnel, perished in the incident.

The submarine sank to a depth of 2,600 metres with its hull broken up in five major sections.

Following the tragedy, a formal court of inquiry convened to determine, if possible, the cause of the loss.

While the court of inquiry could not conclusively determine the cause of Thresher‘s loss from the available evidence, the investigation did identify multiple weaknesses in the submarine’s design that contributed to either a flooding casualty or complicated the vessel’s ability to combat a casualty to save the ship.

In the intervening years, no amplifying evidence has been found that would illuminate the cause.

In alignment with the court of inquiry findings and recommendations, the US Navy implemented changes in operating practices and crew training as well as more stringent maintenance and material procedures. The material aspect was specifically addressed by creating the Submarine Safety (SUBSAFE) Program, the basic foundation of which is still in place today.

Additionally, to address inadequacies in submarine rescue capabilities, the navy developed and funded deep-sea submarine rescue technology to ensure any similar failures in systems or procedures will not result in the loss of sailors’ lives.

The current release of information is consistent with the need to protect information related to military plans, platforms, weapons, systems, and operations, as well as the privacy of crewmembers and their families. This release provides the public with electronic access to all releasable material.

The navy is initially processing the court of inquiry for release, which was ordered on April 10, 1963, the date of the loss, by the Commander in Chief, US Atlantic Fleet.

Documents will be released on a monthly basis, in the order in which they are processed.

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