50 Years Ago: 7 Connecticut Men Died In Worst Ever Submarine Disaster

The USS Thresher, while conducting deep water test dives 200 miles east of Cape Cod, lost power and imploded in 8,400 feet of water. All 129 men aboard were killed instantly.

Powered by a nuclear reactor, the USS Thresher was on the cutting edge of attack submarines at the height of the Cold War in 1963. It bristled with the latest in sonar technology and weapons systems.

The 278-foot long attack sub shaped like a cigar was built at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in New Hampshire. Its keel was laid down on Jan. 15, 1958, and it was launched on July 9, 1960. At the time it was the fastest and quietest attack submarine in operation; most appropriately, its motto was “Vis Tacita”—silent power.

Its home base was Groton, CT. In should come as no surprise that there were many Connecticut ties to the ill-fated submarine.

The crew of 129, including 17 civilians, left Portsmouth at 8 a.m. on April 8, 1963, and proceeded to a point in the North Atlantic about 200 miles east of Cape Cod for a test dive. While conducting a deep water dive of about 1,000 feet, the Thresher lost its power. Investigators of the disaster believe that a water pipe burst, sending out a stream that affected nearby electrical components. That bursting pipe set off a series of cascading events that caused the sub to sink slowly and irretrievably to a depth where the water pressure on its hull was so extreme that it imploded, killing the crew instantly.

The implosion probably occurred between 1,200 and 1,500 feet. The remains of the Thresher then settled on the bottom at a depth of 8,400 feet, where they were discovered by deep sea explorer Robert Ballard of Old Lyme in 1985 — on the same voyage of exploration that Ballard found the Titanic!

The incident remains the single largest submarine disaster in terms of loss of life in history. The vast majority of the crew had attended submarine school in New London; additionally, many had received training in understanding nuclear reactors from Combustion Engineering.

CE’s marine nuclear propulsion training facility — known as S1C — was in Windsor, CT. Most of the crew had spent time in Windsor to learn about nuclear propulsion in a submarine. (S1C was later called the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory and was eventually decommissioned about 15 years ago.) Also, since the sub’s home base was in Groton, most of the crew lived nearby in various Connecticut communities.

The disaster hit Connecticut especially hard. Among the dead were the Shafer brothers of Groton. Both were graduates of Fitch High School. The older of the Shafer brothers was Benjamin, born in 1926 and a member of the Fitch Class of 1944. A World War II Naval veteran, Ben had a keen interest in electronics, especially radios.

After the war, he took a job as a welder at Electric Boat in 1946. In 1949, he decided to re-enlist in the Navy and became a master electrician’s mate. He was assigned to the Thresher in February of 1961. He left behind his wife, a daughter, three sons, and both of his parents in North Stonington.

The Shafer parents also had to endure the loss of another son on the Thresher —their son, John. John Shafer was a senior electrician’s mate. John had graduated from Fitch in 1947 and had similar interests in electronics as his older brother. John joined the Navy after graduation and was initially assigned to the carrier Roosevelt. John later served on four other submarines before joining his older brother on Sept. 21, 1961. He was survived by four sons as well as his parents, a brother, and three sisters.

The following men with Connecticut ties also perished on the Thresher:

Lt. Robert D. Biederman — A Hartford native and Weaver High grad, Lt. Biederman had just been assigned to the sub three months before the disaster. He was the superintendent for non-nuclear work. Biederman was survived by his wife and four children as well as his mother, four brothers, and three sisters.

Seaman David A. Wasel — A New Britain native, David Wasel graduated from high school there in 1959 and joined the Navy. Six of Wasel’s uncles had served in the military during World War II, so military service was a family tradition. Wasel had been assigned to the Thresher just five weeks before it was lost at sea. Besides his parents, David Wasel left behind his brother, Robert.

Engineman 2nd Class Richard P. Brann — A Windsor Locks High School grad of 1957, Richard Brann joined the Navy immediately upon graduation. He had served on another sub — theWahoo — prior to being assigned to the Thresher in February of 1961. Besides his wife, Richard left behind his parents and two brothers on North St. in Windsor Locks. One of his brothers, Danny, was a childhood friend of mine.

Lt. Frank J. Malinski — Though born in New Jersey, Frank Malinski grew up in Fairfield County in the town of Stratford. He was a Fairfield Prep grad in 1957. Malinski then attended Holy Cross College, graduating in 1961. He soon joined the Navy and became a lieutenant, taking advanced training in nuclear power. He was assigned to the Thresher just two months before it was lost. Just 23 when he died, Lt. Malinski was survived by his parents.

Lt. John Smarz Jr. — Born in Shelton, CT, in 1929, John Smarz graduated from high school there in 1947 and joined the Navy. He studied electronics first, then he became qualified as a nuclear reactor operator. He served on one other sub before being assigned to the ill-fated Thresher in August of 1960. He left behind his parents, his wife, and three sons.

Five of the seven Connecticut men onboard the Thresher had jobs that dealt with electrical components and the operation of the nuclear reactor. One can only imagine the central role that those five Connecticut guys had in trying to re-start the crippled sub and the fear that must have gripped them as the sub sank ineluctably to its watery grave.

Men from 34 states, the Philippines, and Washington, D.C. perished on the Thresher. By far, the most victims came from New York — 17. Massachusetts was next with 10, followed by Maine with nine. Both New Hampshire and Connecticut lost seven of its native sons to the sea fifty years ago on April 10, 1963.

Just this past Sunday, hundreds of people, including relatives of the lost men, attended a memorial service for the victims of the Thresher in Kittery, Maine. At that service a 129 foot flagpole — one foot for every victim — was dedicated to their memory in a village close to the sea where they all rest. Just as the limp flag reached the top of the pole a strong wind kicked up and blew the flag straight out from the pole and toward the sea, snapping it to attention, as if to salute the victims. It seemed eerily appropriate.