Sunday, April 13, 2008

129 victims remembered

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The Boston Globe
By Maria Sacchetti
April 13, 2008


The nuclear submarine USS Thresher sank 45 years ago off Cape Cod

KITTERY, Maine - On a dark night in April 1963, Fernley Wagner's Navy buddies awakened him in his bunk. The USS Thresher, the submarine he had left months earlier in Maine, was in trouble - with 129 men aboard.

more stories like thisHe knew those men - Pappy, Heiser, Tilly, the five Johnsons, and the rest. For months he ate with them, slept with them, tipped back beer with them. They were on the Navy's finest submarine, the fastest, deepest-diving vessel in the world.

He shook his head.

"I said they should be all right. Don't worry about it," he recalled yesterday. "They'll bring that boat back up."

He paused, his eyes cloudy. "Well," he said, "they didn't."

Forty-five years have passed since the nuclear submarine sank and shattered at the bottom of the sea, more than 100 miles off Cape Cod, stunning the Navy and devastating a tight-knit community at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery. Yesterday, 300 survivors, naval officers, and others gathered for a memorial service to remember those lost in one of the Navy's worst disasters and the safety measures that followed to prevent calamities.

Fifteen of the men in the crowd yesterday - their hair white, their hearing less than it used to be - were among the former crew who were transferred off the ship weeks or months before the disaster. Now they are symbols of what might have been and storytellers who can connect dozens of now-middle-age children to the fading memories of their fathers.

The Thresher was a sleek "hunter-killer" submarine built to pinpoint and destroy Soviet ships during the throes of the Cold War. In Portsmouth, it was a point of pride.

To the wives, sons, and daughters of the Thresher seamen, it was also the job that separated them for months at a time. They were proud but missed them.

Tilmon Arsenault's daughter Lori recalled yesterday how her father taught her to play the organ and to love music. Michael Lyman remembered how his father, John, the ship's engineering officer, umpired his baseball games, even though he was exhausted from work on the sub.

At work, the men were a serious but fun-loving. They played pranks like putting shaving cream on a guy's hands when he slept and tickling his nose so he would cover his face with the stuff. On their off hours, they sometimes hit the beach with families and friends.

On April 9, 1963, the Thresher left the shipyard in Kittery for three days of testing. It was supposed to be a short trip. Back home, families made plans. The Lymans eagerly hoped for news that their father would be assigned to Hawaii.

John Riemenschneider, a Navy seaman, gloated that he had won a $2 bet with his best friend, Jack Hudson. Hudson had gambled that Riemenschneider would be on the Thresher for the journey. But Riemenschneider had left the crew 18 days before.

"It was the first trip it ever made without me," he said yesterday.

more stories like thisOn April 10, 1963, the television news started reporting that a submarine was in trouble. Despite frantic efforts on board, the ship was unable to surface. It sank and broke apart, crushed by water pressure.

The news ripped through the Naval community. In shock, parents, wives, and children searched for answers.

Days after the disaster, at his wife's urging, Wagner visited the parents of his friend Laird Heiser in Pennsylvania. He was reluctant to go, unsure whether he could bear it.

Heiser's mother served cookies and coffee, and both parents peppered him with questions. Most of all, they wanted to know whether he thought their son had suffered.

"He did not suffer," he told Heiser's parents. "It was that quick."

Wagner was 29 then.

Yesterday, at 74, he and other former crew members still offered comfort, with their stories, to the children and relatives of survivors who had traveled from as far away as Seattle and Florida to attend the service.

Riemenschneider said he would get phone calls from children asking about their fathers. He searches his memory and tells them everything he knows - and how their loss ultimately helped others, like the young submarine students who attended the service yesterday.

Mike Lyman, a captain in the US Public Health Service, said he was moved when one of his father's former employees said he admired his father for always keeping a clear head, never getting angry or rattled. "It was extraordinarily meaningful," he said. Mike Lyman is 54; his father was 31 when he died.

The Navy concluded that electrical problems caused by a hole in a pipe triggered the disaster, according to news accounts. Yesterday officials said the Navy made changes as a result of the calamity that surely prevented future losses.

"If they had kept building them the way they were the would have lost some more," said Riemenschneider.

The mourners listened to speeches and shared condolences. They read each name and rang a bell after it. Tissues were pulled out of pockets and tears wiped away. Men stood stock-straight and sailors in dress blues saluted.

Then, as the afternoon fog crept in, the group gathered on a grassy hill across the river from the shipyard. A relative of one of the men lost placed a flowery wreath on the water. An easterly wind and incoming tide pushed the wreath into the bay, past the families.

When the tides change, they said, the flowers will head out to the Atlantic, out of reach.


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