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Armed Forces: Satisfactory, or Satisfactory?

3 minute read

While armed guards kept outsiders out, a Navy board of inquiry last week continued hearings into the death of the nuclear submarine Thresher. Much of the testimony, taken from Thresher crewmen who were on leave during the sub’s fatal test cruise, and from technicians and nuclear-power experts, was classified as secret. But what did become public was enough to make any landlubber stay just that.

Reviewed in grim detail were the technical problems that had kept Thresher in overhaul for nine months at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. The sub’s defects, witnesses insisted, were remedied before the ship took to sea for its post-overhaul cruise. But, tragically and all too obviously, something did in fact go wrong. And the list of Thresher’s troubles was indeed formidable. Items:

»The sub’s main seawater valves, used mostly to bring in water to cool the nuclear reactor system, had not been closing properly. So many valves were switched around during Thresher’s overhaul that in one simulated dockside emergency, it took 20 minutes for the sub’s crew to find the valve necessary to cut off the flow through a “broken” pipe. Yet in the actual diving conditions during which Thresher died, survival could come only with the crew closing off such a flow within seconds. »The air pressure system had been leaky. To surface in an emergency, a submarine must have high air pressure to blow water from its ballast tanks and give buoyancy. In a flooding situation, anything less than full pressure would drastically slow down water ejection from the tanks—a fatal defect at Thresher’s maximum depth. »Portsmouth workers installed 20% of the hydraulic-system valves backwards, inspected and approved their handiwork in that condition. When a control switch was pressed, a mechanical reaction occurred opposite to what was intended. For example, pushing a “down” button on the periscope caused it to go up. Thresher crew members found this flaw themselves, naturally insisted yard workers correct it. — Plane and rudder mechanisms that control dive and cruising angles were still being repaired the night before the submarine went to sea.

Any one of these defects, unless completely corrected, could have brought disaster to Thresher. Rear Admiral Charles J. Palmer, Portsmouth yard commander, testified that all inspection reports seemed “satisfactory.” Angered,Vice Admiral Bernard L. Austin, presiding over the board of inquiry, snapped: “There is a difference between ‘satisfactory’ and ‘satisfactory without a shadow of a doubt.’ ” Palmer agreed and admitted that his shipyard sometimes “took on new jobs without adequate lead time, and without knowledge of availability of material, and underestimated work time.” That, he agreed, might be called “unsatisfactory.”

As the hearings continued, so did the search for Thresher. The oceanic research vessel Atlantis II dropped cameras to see if one of a half-dozen ocean-bottom sonar “protuberances” might be the hull of Thresher. The bathyscaph Trieste, capable of plumbing depths of 35,000 feet, arrived in Boston, from where it would be shipped to seek the submarine’s grave. And, for whatever reassurance it might be to men who serve aboard nuclear submarines, Rear Admiral Ralph K. James, head of the Navy Bureau of Ships, said that his experts were reviewing the design of Thresher class submarines—”to see if there is some little thing we may have overlooked.”

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