The Death of the USS Thresher
The Story Behind History's Deadliest Submarine Disaster
Author Norman Polmar
Narrated by Sean Crisden
Publication date Apr 18, 2017
Running time 5 hrs 7 min
Courtesy Tantor Audio
The loss of the USS Thresher was the worst submarine disaster in US history with 129 souls lost. The Thresher was the first of a new class of bigger, faster nuclear submarines. In the early 1960’s, master of the seas was the growing area of the cold war arms race. Both sides were constructing submarines that could operate longer underwater, penetrate foreign waters undetected and launch nuclear warheads.
The Death of the USS Thresher begins by detailing the history of the boat from it’s days in the shipyard to its trials and return to the shipyard for refits. The Thresher was designed to dive deeper than any submarine ever made. Her classified depth was around 1300 feet. On the run to test it’s deep diving capabilities, something went horribly wrong. The Thresher was crushed by the pressure of the water at about 2400 feet. The catastrophic events that lead to her sinking left her falling into the crush level depths without hope of recovery.
Norman Polmar wrote the book in 1964, about a year after the disaster. The book was reissued in 2001. Polmar does a good job of explaining what happened on the Thresher, how the failure of restart procedures for nuclear plant left her unable to use her propeller and a defect in her emergency blow system which caused moisture in the air to freeze as it was pushed into the ballast tanks blocking the airflow. This prevented the submarine from blowing to reach the surface. There were terrifying minutes as the crew scrambled to save the boat. When it hit the crush depth, it was instantaneous implosion.
Polmar discusses the inquiries into the disaster and the arrival at the cause. He also talks about the development of the SUBSAFE program to prevent similar disasters. The only other US submarine lost, the USS Scorpion in 1968, was not SUBSAFE certified. The changes SUBSAFE made in the building and handling of the boats, especially in crisis situations, much safer. In the years since no boat, other than the Scorpion, has been lost. There have been accidents and loss of life but no total losses such as the Thresher and Scorpion has occurred. “The entire process was rewritten after the loss. All systems on submarines were redesigned after the accident, as with almost all safety rules, they are written in blood.” stated Rick Geddes TMC (SS) USN (RET).
The audiobook continues on to discuss the history of submarine accidents and the various steps taken to develop rescue plans. It really is a fascinating history. Submarines have always held a special place in my varied interests. The extremely cool technology and their capabilities is balanced against the terror I personally would feel being in a small compartment under the crushing pressure of the ocean. I have a special admiration for those who go to sea by going under it, especially my cousin Rick Geddes TMC (SS) USN (RET). Sean Crisden is a very good narrator. He is clear. His voice is even. This is a narration, not a performance, which is perfect for this particular book. The production values and volume remain consistently good.
If you are fascinated by submarines and/or disasters at sea, The Death of the USS Thresher is an educational and enjoyable listen. While you listen, keep in mind those 129 souls whose loss created safer submarine conditions for all who came after.