“In the long course of history, having people who understand your
thought is much greater security than another submarine.”
– J. William Fulbright
Phil recorded a version of The Thresher for inclusion in Broadside, but it didn’t make the cut. Broadside #25, in late April 1963 instead printed ‘The Submarine Called The Thresher’ by Gene Kadish (which, as with Phil’s Lou Marsh, was also covered by Pete Seeger on ‘Broadside Ballds Vol. 2’). The next issue wrote of their being six more Thresher songs which they simply didn’t have room for. Proof if needed, that the sinking of the Thresher was, at the time, a big deal.
The story behind the song is simple, but devastating;
“On the morning of April 10th, 1963, the USS Thresher (SSN 593) proceeded to conduct sea trials about 200 miles off the cost of Cape Cod. At 9.13 a.m., the USS skylark received a signal…indicating that the submarine was experiencing minor difficulties…”.
No transcript of this message exists, but it is thought that the message ran something like “Experiencing minor difficulties. Have positive up angle. Am attempting to blow. Will keep you informed”
The next message came through at 9.18 a.m., as Robert Gannon reported in Popular Science in 1964;
“The [Skylark’s] loudspeaker rattled with sound, accompanying a voice garbled and indecipherable”.
The $45 million nuclear submarine sank. Experts reckoned that due to the subs weight she would have plummeted towards the oceans depth at 100mph..
Later that day Admiral George W. Anderson gave a press conference in Washington, D.C. that began;
“To those of us who have been brought up in the traditions of the sea, one of the saddest occasions is when we lose a ship”.
All hands were lost – 112 military and 17 civilian.
However chilling the facts, The Thresher will always be thought of as Phil’s other submarine song. While it offers a neat rundown of the events, and some possible insight into the complacency that enabled such a tragedy (“And the builders shook their hands, And the builders shared their wine”) it pales in comparison with Phil’s later The Scorpion Departs But Never Returns, which uses the sinking of a submarine as merely the starting point of a more far-reaching song. This song is very much an early Phil song, ripe with emotion, somewhat leaden with unnecessary facts (“Then they put her on the land, for nine months to stand, And they worked on her stem to stem”) but is effective none the less.
In terms of trying to understand the cause of the disaster, Phil gets himself into something of a pickle, starting off with suggesting that it was the vanity of the shipbuilders and the Navy that is at the heart of the matter, before finally trying to suggest something more mysterious. The New York Mirror lead story of April 12th opens in such a fashion – “Was it the machine? Or was it man?” This air of mystery pervades the song, with Phil offering no insight beyond sharing in that mystery and pointing out the grim irony that; “She was a death ship all along, died before she had the chance to kill”)
The Thresher introduces a theme that would run through many of Phil’s songs – the sea. Indeed the sea almost becomes alive in Phil’s songwriting, able to comment upon or reflect emotions (consider That Was the President or Santo Domingo). While it is overegged somewhat here (“for the ocean has no pity, and the waves they never weep”) there is a definite striving for something beyond mere reportage, something that Phil’s harshest critics seem to overlook.
Beyond the tragedy lies another story here, that of trust, or rather the lack of trust, in military leaders. Later Phil would sing, wearily, “trust our leaders where mistakes are almost never made” (The War Is Over), but here such a stance is less obvious. The New York Mirror article quotes Vice Admiral Hyman G. Rickover’s optimistic declaration that “I can assure you there is no radioactive hazard as a result of this unfortunate accident”. Like the submarine itself, The Thresher promises more than it delivers, never quite able to deliver a telling blow.
Typically Phil was somewhat out of step with the mainstream view of the message behind the loss of The Thresher, perhaps best summed up by pop-psychologist Dr Joyce Brothers ‘Profile of a Submariner’ which spoke of a “special kind of sadness, mixed with universal admiration for the men who choose this type of work”. She goes on to write of the “challenge of masculinity” that attracts men to become Submariners, a job that “certainly is a test of man’s prowess and power”. What Brothers ignores, and Phil is all too keen to point out, that as much one may like to blame these same men’s loss on the “power of the sea”, it is as much a case of hubris as tragedy; “they thought that they had mastered the sea“.
In July 1964 reporters were allowed onto the USS Dace (SSN 607), the Thresher’s replacement. As a sign of confidence the Dace’s skipper, Cmdr. John A. Walsh, brought along his two young sons for the test cruise. “The Dace would go about her career with little fanfare, save for her lone ‘kill’ in March 1975 – a fishing boat that the submarine collided with in the Narraganset Bay off the coast of Rhode Island”. (www.mesotheliomaweb.org/mesotheilomia/veterens/submarines/ussdace)
The USS Dace was decommissioned in December 1988.