Norman Polmar - The Death of the Uss Thresher

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"The Death Of The USS Thresher": 129 men perished in the 1963 submarine's sinking

Feb 23, 2005 (Updated Oct 7, 2006)
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Pros:Updated 2004 version of Norman Polmar's classic 1964 book about the USS Thresher disaster.


The Bottom Line: Norman Polmar has updated his 1964 story of the loss of the USS Thresher to include information on more recent losses, including the USS Scorpion and the Russian submarine Kursk.

After deploying her "missile boats," large nuclear-powered submarines that acted as undersea launching platforms for United States Navy nuclear missiles, it soon became apparent to Navy planners that with the superpowers of the "Cold War" all deploying these hard-to-detect warships that the only way to find, track, and, if necessary, sink a submarine is to do so with another submarine.

The USS Thresher was one of the "hunter-killer" class of submarines developed to hunt the submarine "missile boats" of the perceived enemies of the United States, mainly submarines belonging to the Soviet Union (which included Russia).

The Thresher, if called to do so, could "run silent, run deep" in pursuit of her target. She was deep diving. Her now-known (previously classified) "test depth" was some 1,300 feet, meaning that depth is the furthest depth she was tested at and the depth at which she should stop her dive.

There was a safety margin of some 600 more feet, around the 1,900-foot depth, where she was believed to have a chance of surviving the destructive pressures of the waters surrounding her and her crew.

She had made some 40 safe dives to her "test depth" by April of 1963 as the Navy tested her pride and joy. The beautiful, sleek-looking steel whale carried 129 people on her last dive (including 17 civilian observers).

The Navy personnel were volunteers, all well-tested and well-trained. It took a very special breed of sailor to maintain a positive attitude when trapped undersea in a metal tube.

After shallow dives on April 9, 1963, over the continental shelf of the Atlantic Ocean, where the waters are no deeper than 600 feet, the decision was made to take the USS Thresher to deeper waters and make another dive to her test depth of 1,300 feet.

Once off the continental shelf, the ocean's depths become scary. No crew can be rescued below a certain depth. The USS Thresher went into waters some 8,400 feet deep for her 1,300-foot test dive.

She would be safe up to her test depth of 1,300 feet. If she dove below 1,900 feet, her hull would be crushed like an eggshell in your hand.

On April 10, 1963, the USS Thresher and her crew disappeared beneath the waves and never returned to the surface. A surface vessel escorting her heard the sound of a submarine breaking up under the ocean's surface.

How deep is 8,400 feet?

In Norman Polmar's "The Death Of The USS Thresher," first published in 1964 and updated in 2004, there's a chart that explains how deep 8,400 feet is. It shows that World War II submarines could not operate below 400 feet; that the Washington Monument is 555-feet tall, and that the Empire State Building is 1,250-feet tall, all shown with the USS Thresher headed for the bottom of an 8,400-foot trench on the ocean floor --- a very interesting comparison of depth and height.

"The Death Of The USS Thresher" author:

"The Death Of The USS Thresher" was written by Norman Polmar.

Polmar is considered one of the leading experts on military affairs, with some three dozen naval, intelligence and aviation books to his credit. Polmar is both a compelling author with an easy-to-read yet informative style of writing, and an expert on military matters who works out of Alexandria, Virginia.

Polmar has been a government consultant to senior officials of the U. S. Navy and the Department of Defense. He has served on the Secretary of the Navy's Research Advisory Committee.

He also spent four years with Northrop Corporation (the folks behind the "Flying Wing" bomber of the 1940's which evolved into today's B-2 Stealth Bomber). Four of his years with Northrop were spent on the U. S. Navy's program to develop submarine rescue and escape systems.

The book:

"The Death Of The USS Thresher" by Norman Polmar runs some 200-plus pages in this 2004 paperback.

The 1964 edition concerned itself solely with the loss of the USS Thresher, but this 2004 updated edition also looks at more recent submarine losses (six nuclear subs have been lost since the Thresher sank), such as the nuclear submarine USS Scorpion (with 99 men on board, she was the second and last U. S. nuclear sub lost at sea), through the loss of the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk in August of 2000 (with 118 men aboard).

The book is well-illustrated with graphs, reproduced news releases and photographs. The USS Thresher, in life, is shown on the book's cover in a head-on shot as the ship approaches the photographer, with men now gone on deck in her conning tower as the ship rides on the surface. She was a beautiful ship.

Photos inside the book show the twisted remains of the great ship on the ocean floor.

The book lists the names of the entire ship's company, all 129 souls who were lost in what remains the worst loss of life aboard a submarine of all time.

The subject:

The USS Thresher was launched in 1960 after construction at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine. She was formally commissioned a year later, the result of 60 years of U. S. Navy experience in building submarines.

The USS Thresher was 278 feet, 6 inches in length. At her widest point, the author tells us, "her nearly circular hull was 31 feet, 8 inches."

Her nuclear reactor produced steam to power her single propeller. Her steel hull was designed to withstand 80,000 pounds per square inch of water pressure. If the water pressure exceeded that, the ship would cease to exist.

As Polmar tells us, she was fast enough, but not designed for speed. Her "primary assignment," he tells us, "would be to cruise slowly - hence silently - off enemy ports and in narrow waterways to catch and kill enemy submarines en route to attack friendly shipping or cities."

She was, after all, a "hunter-killer" designed to prevent an enemy attack with her four torpedo tubes launching their deadly "fish" at an enemy.

Polmar takes us through the life of the Thresher from her birth upon the sea in 1960 through her death beneath the ocean in 1963. When "bugs" were discovered, such as malfunctioning depth gauges, these problems were quickly fixed.

Thresher had worse problems, as detailed by Polmar, including a potentially fatal incident where the nuclear reactor shut down on a cruise, followed by the failure of the ship's auxilary diesel power (meaning the ship's equipment didn't have power to function and creating an emergency situation requiring the ship's crew, in darkness and in extreme heat, to manually get electrical power to restart the ship's nuclear reactor while they also tried to fix the diesel power).

These men were well-trained. They didn't panic, though the situation was deadly. Polmar takes us through this near-disaster --- detailing how the ship's skipper and his crew reacted in a crisis, a very good view to how they probably reacted on their final dive in April of 1963, with complete coolness of thought and minds determined to save their ship (submariners call their vessels "ships," "subs" and "boats," and the Navy often called her simply "593-Boat" after the number on the side of the ship that identified who she was at sea, so Polmar frequently uses all these terms in describing the Thresher in the book).

To find the Thresher's resting place, Polmar takes us aboard the Trieste, a deep-diving submarine capable of diving to the deepest depths of the ocean for research, to take photographs and with a remote arm that could pick up debris. Though the Navy knew the vicinity of the sinking of the USS Thresher in 1963, they would have to find her in the dark depths of the Atlantic Ocean.

The Navy sank an automobile hoping to follow it to the ocean floor with sonar and perhaps figure out just where the remains of the Thresher were --- it didn't work. They next considered sinking a World War II submarine and using it as a "giant sonar reflector," hoping it would sink along a path to the ocean floor that would lead the Navy to the Thresher --- but this plan was abandoned.

Using deep water cameras and dredging hooks that reached the ocean floor from surface ships, the Navy found the Thresher. Some debris, such as small packages of O-rings, were brought to the surface. One ship succeeded in photographing parts of the Thresher's hull on the ocean floor.

The mystery:

Finding the USS Thresher was one thing, but Polmar's book reveals the complicated job the Navy had in finding out what sank the Thresher.

Theories abounded. Had she been sunk by a collision with a Soviet submarine? Had her nuclear reactor failed? Did she lose power? Was their sabotage (he details incidents of foreign governments, angry sailors and disgruntled construction workers who had performed acts of sabotage on other U. S. submarines in the years before Thresher's loss, so the idea isn't far-fetched)?

When she sank, Thresher had notified her surface escort (men remembered different things after the fact, but Polmar believes this statement of the ship's last report makes the most sense): "Experiencing minor problems... have positive up angle... attempting to blow up..."

This was followed by the garbled message "test depth" and the sound of the Thresher breaking up.

Polmar asks: What is a "minor problem" that becomes bad enough to sink a submarine? What is a "positive up angle" --- was Thresher's forward section just aiming for the surface or was she actually standing on her tail and sliding backwards to deeper depths?

"Attempting to blow up" meant she was blowing her ballast tanks for an emergency surface (her surface escort heard compressed air blown underwater several times, while tracking part of the Thresher's death dive with sonar). Why didn't this work? Had pipes burst beneath the water? A small burst pipe could quickly flood the ship.

And what caused two craters on the ocean floor? One was certainly from the Thresher, but could both be? Could a Soviet sub have collided with Thresher and also been sunk? Polmar answers these questions as well.

The main question: What happened? Like a good detective, Polmar, through interviews with the lowest military ranks through admirals and scientists, tries to supply the answer to the Thresher's loss. I won't spoil a good detective mystery here by revealing his findings.

Polmar's updated sections take us through an examination of the Navy's "Sub Safe" program that was supposed to prevent the loss of additional U. S. submarines after 1963. Guess what? In typical government fashion, he notes that the USS Scorpion went to see five years later in 1968 without the "Sub Safe" preventative measures and with defective torpedoes.

The USS Scorpion, headed to waiting families in Norfolk, Virginia, was found facing the wrong way, towards Europe, in nearly 11,000 feet of water, another mystery he investigates here, with surprising findings.

He also details the loss of five Soviet (today's Russia) nuclear submarines, including one that sank twice, in the decades since the USS Thresher went down with all hands.

Final recommendation:

I was six-years-old when the USS Thresher went down in 1963. My father was career Navy, serving on destroyers, destroyer-tenders, troop ships and oilers, so the loss of the Thresher was something I followed from a young age (including the early coverage in National Geographic when the ship's remains were found).

I discovered Norman Polmar's original hardcover 1964 version of "The Death Of The USS Thresher" while in high school in the mid-1970's, but had never been able to own a copy of this outstanding tribute to a brave Navy crew.

I recently found that the book had been updated and reprinted in 2004 in its present paperback form while shopping at Books-A-Million. I quickly made a purchase.

If you are a military buff, know someone serving in the military, enjoy a good detective mystery or just want to read a well-written book, "The Death Of The USS Thresher" by Norman Polmar should appeal to you.

I come away from this new read of an old favorite with even more admiration for those who "face peril upon the sea." I highly recommend this book.

On the web:

A website dedicated to the USS Thresher:

A proposed memorial to the ship's crew for Arlington Cemetary (since no bodies were recovered from the shipwreck, the crew's families seek a place to go to honor their dead):

Those who died on the USS Thresher:

A page for the USS Thresher at SubNet.Com:

A page for the USS Thresher at LostSubs.Com:

A tribute to the USS Thresher at TheSaltySailor.Com:

A tribute to the USS Thresher at SubmarineSailor.Com:

A list of those lost on the USS Scorpion:

Recommend this product? Yes

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