Navy Declassifies 300 Pages of Probe into 1963 USS Thresher Disaster

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Starboard quarter view, taken while the USS Thresher was underway on April 30, 1961.
Starboard quarter view, taken while the USS Thresher was underway on April 30, 1961. (U.S. Navy/J.L. Snell)

Nearly six decades after a Navy submarine plummeted to the bottom of the sea during a deep-dive test, families of those lost in the tragedy are finally getting a look at hundreds of documents about the accident the service has long kept under wraps.

The Navy on Wednesday released the first 300 pages of a court of inquiry on the catastrophic 1963 loss of the nuclear-powered submarine Thresher. The documents provide details into the Navy's worst undersea accident, which claimed the lives of 129 men onboard.

While Navy leaders say they're committed to being transparent with the families and the public about what caused the Thresher -- the first sub in its class -- to sink, it took a court order to reach this point.

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Capt. Jim Bryant, a retired Navy submarine officer, sued his former service in 2019 to get it 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 that report monthly to the public.

"I think I'm doing the Navy a favor," Bryant told Military.com this week. "This is a significant historic event ... and the reactions were very sound. It's a really good story here for the Navy."

Rear Adm. Bill Houston, director of the Undersea Warfare Division at the Pentagon, told reporters Tuesday that Navy leaders don't believe the newly released Thresher documents "will shed any additional light on her loss." Still, he added, the Navy is committed to releasing additional portions of the report monthly, despite much of it remaining classified.

"This process requires coordination between many organizations, and takes time to be done correctly," Houston said. "But the Navy knows this is the right thing to do."

He declined to comment on Bryant's lawsuit prompting the documents' release.

The first batch of documents released this week includes witness and exhibits lists, findings of facts, opinions, recommendations and initial testimony. Families were notified in a letter sent last month from Vice Adm. Daryl Caudle, commander of Naval Submarine Forces, that the Navy was working to declassify the documents and make them public.

Joy MacMillan and her brother Tim Noonis lost their father, Walter "Jack" Noonis, to the Thresher accident. Both credited Bryant for the time he put into pushing the Navy to release the documents. The decision to do so "should have been automatic," MacMillan said.

"We would definitely want to know," she said. "We know it won't bring them back, but it does help to understand how something like that could have happened to our family."

MacMillan's mother, who passed away 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 her boots up and marching forward, but I would never say that it was easy," MacMillan said. "I feel that it would've been an honor to all the moms to get this information."

Bryant said the families -- along with the rest of the public -- deserve access to the answers.

"Naval history is important," he said. "And when the technology is no longer of danger to national security -- well, I think we should know about it."

How Tragedy Led to Change

The Thresher had just completed a months-long overhaul period when -- on April 10, 1963 -- the sub began dive tests off the coast of Massachusetts.

It was accompanied by the submarine rescue ship Skylark, which received garbled communications about the Thresher experiencing minor difficulties.

The court of inquiry determined that the Thresher sank due to a piping failure that resulted in a loss of power and the inability to blow ballast tanks quickly enough to avoid sinking. Houston said this week that the Navy stands by those initial determinations.

Bryant wanted to know more, though, and was unsatisfied with the Navy's original decision to publicly release just 19 of the 1,700 pages of documents from the court of inquiry. It was only after a Freedom of Information Act request failed to shake loose the documents that he took the Navy to court.

The families and the public have a right to know more about the decisions that led up to the accident, he said. In 2018, Bryant wrote a piece for the U.S. Naval Institute's Proceedings magazine arguing that data showed the Thresher "very likely had already sunk below her 1,300-foot test depth limit when she 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's read everything he could find publicly on the Thresher, said he'd like the Navy to further analyze acoustical recordings of the Thresher accident that were picked up by the Navy's Sound Surveillance System, known as SOSUS.

Bryant described an analysis Navy Reserve Lt. Bruce Rule provided during 1963 testimony about what the SOSUS picked up on the Thresher's sinking. According to Bryant's April 2020 Proceedings article titled "USS Thresher (SSN-593) Disaster: Ten Questions Our FOIA Lawsuit Hopes to Answer," Rule's observations reject the Navy's assessment that there was major flooding on the sub before implosion.

While Noonis said he'd like to see the Navy take another look at that claim, he isn't holding out much hope -- especially since the service isn't releasing the documents by choice.

"They were forced to release it," he said. "I don't have a lot of faith in the government coming out and changing their conclusion. ... Bureaucracies aren't fond of finding fault with themselves."

People who study technology need access to any information available about major accidents to understand the decisions leading up to them, so they don't repeat the same mistakes, Bryant said this week.

Despite the battle over the documents, though, Bryant credits the Navy with taking important steps in the aftermath of the Thresher tragedy to help prevent other undersea mishaps. That's why he said he wants to see the service share any documents it has that can help others understand what went wrong.

Houston said the Thresher remains a defining event for the submarine service. Every new Navy submariner learns about the vessel.

"From day one, every new submariner checking onboard discusses the impact of Thresher to the submarine force, and the significant improvements that transpired as a result of her loss," he said.

The Navy's Submarine Safety program, known as SUBSAFE, was born out of the Thresher accident. SUBSAFE has "drastically improved quality control and assurance in the fabrication, construction and maintenance of submarines," Houston said.

"Since the program's inception, no SUBSAFE-certified submarines have been lost at sea," he said.

MacMillan said she's grateful the accident led to change, but said without the Navy releasing the full probe, no one can be certain all possible steps have been taken to prevent something similar from happening again.

"Was it the main coolant pump? Was it just a push too fast for a deeper dive in the Cold War?" she said. "It really does feel like it's been [more than enough] time to know what really occurred."

Now, as the Navy begins releasing never-before-seen documents on the accident that prompted those changes, Houston said the service must balance being transparent while still protecting information relating to national security.

Bryant said he and his attorney feel the Navy's plan to release about 300 pages connected to the Thresher probe every month is reasonable, but noted they'll be closely monitoring what is held back or redacted.

If the Navy refuses to declassify information they feel should be made public, Bryant said, "We're going to fight them over it."

MacMillan said she hopes the documents being released prove to the public that it's possible to take on powerful organizations that might be reluctant to release information. Bryant didn't have a stake in the Thresher accident, she said, but fought to do the right thing.

"If you work long and hard enough, you can get to the truth," she said. "... As a 6-year-old child kind of still frozen in that time period, I think it's high time that they come up with something."

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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