Submarine Community Remembers USS Thresher

By Rear Adm. David Duryea
Deputy Commander, Undersea Warfare (SEA 07)

Fifty years ago today, 112 Sailors and 17 civilians died when USS Thresher (SSN 593) sank to the bottom of the ocean off the coast of Massachusetts. While we will never know exactly what caused Thresher’s loss, this tragedy continues to live within the submarine community and led to the establishment of a world-renowned quality assurance program.

Starboard bow view, July 24, 1961. (Official U.S. Navy photograph from the collections of Naval History and Heritage Command)

Starboard bow view, July 24, 1961. (Official U.S. Navy photograph from the collections of Naval History and Heritage Command)


Less than two months after we lost those 129 men, the Navy established a program dedicated to making our submarines as safe as possible. Eventually, this effort became the Submarine Safety Program. SUBSAFE’s sole mandate is to provide maximum reasonable assurance of our submarines’ watertight integrity and the ability to surface should a boat experience flooding. Mission assurance is not a consideration with SUBSAFE, only the ability to keep water out of the “people tank” and surface in an emergency.

We are constantly refining and improving how we execute the SUBSAFE Program to ensure our submariners’ safety. The greatest risk to the SUBSAFE Program is complacency, ignorance and arrogance, and it is critical our workforce and Sailors remember the lessons so dearly learned 50 years ago.  Thresher’s loss changed the submarine force’s and greatly improved how we design, build, maintain and operate our boats. Those who died did not do so in vain.

The SUBSAFE Program is known world-wide for its impeccable safety record. Since its inception on Dec. 20, 1963, more than 200 submarines have been certified by the program without a single one being lost to an accident.  For a comparison, in the 48 years before Thresher’s loss, the Navy lost 16 boats to non-combat issues – an average of one every three years.  The SUBSAFE Program has been extremely successful and has been called upon by other government agencies and allied nations to provide its expertise in risk mitigation and safety.

Thresher and those lost aboard her remain a part of the submarine force.  Their sacrifice serves as a stark reminder that it only takes a moment to fail.  The SUBSAFE Program is dedicated to the men lost that day and to their families so that we never again experience such a horrific accident. “Lest We Forget” is used routinely within the SUBSAFE Program as a reminder of the 129 men who died 50 years ago and their loved ones so that we do not let history repeat itself.