Launched in 1960 the USS Thresher was the fastest submarine of its day. It was a nuclear powered attack submarine – a submarine hunter killer.
This was back in the early days of nuclear powered vessels and a lot of experimentation was happening. In 1961 while docking in Puerto Rico the Thresher turned off its Nuclear Generator (standard practice in port) and ran on a backup diesel generator. Unfortunately the diesel broke down and she had to resort to battery. When it became clear the diesel could not be repaired the officers attempted to restart the nuclear generator, but the battery charge was too low. So the embarrassed Captain had to ask another ship for a loan of some cables and then connected them to the diesel submarine, USS Cavalla, for a jump start.
In April 1963 the Thresher was engaged in deep diving tests off the coast of Boston. The lives of 129 crew and shipyard personnel were lost in one of the worst submarine disasters in history.
Subsequent efforts to recover the boat failed. All through 1963 and 1964 the shortcomings of the USS Navy rescue equipment for deep dive situation became evident. The Thresher was found in 1964 in five major sections spread out over a 33 acre wide area of the sea bed, and was photographed to ascertain the cause of sinking.
I grew up with the tale of the Thresher because of a subsequent prank. I was born in 1963 so I have no direct memory of the events, but a bit of detective work will turn up the newspaper clippings of the day dated March 29th to March 31st or thereabout in 1966, three years after the sinking.
In those days we used to spend every summer holiday in Kilkee, County Clare in the West of Ireland. So it was big news in March 1966 when a mystery enfolded. A three foot cylinder bearing the name Thresher and with radioactive markings was found on the beach in Kilkee the far side of the Atlantic from the sinking.
The Irish police informed the US Navy as a precaution, but had already established that the object was not radioactive. Two US Navy officers stationed at the Nuclear Submarine base in Holyloch in Scotland were dispatched to retrieve the “object” and it was a mini-media storm. The events were widely picked up by news media around the world.
The truth, as I heard it, was that some local wags in Kilkee painted up an old barrel and decked it up with markings to make it look like debris from the wreck. They then placed it on the beach to be found by a local beachcomber, Jerry McDermott. Nicknamed “Sailoil” this simple man was, as we say in Ireland “a bit touched”. Today we would say he is on some spectrum. The traditional Irish rendition is “leag Dia lámh air” meaning “God laid a hand on him” or “God touched him” hence “touched”. He was the perfect innocent straight man to perpetrate the prank.
Sailoil proudly bore his prize home and stored it under his mothers bed. The news of the fine percolated out into town and caused a bit of consternation when people saw the nuclear markings. So experts were sent for, armed with geiger counters to scan the object. The press showed up and the hoaxers celebrated with pints as they watched the whole thing unfold on the News. In 1966 this was the equivalent of “going viral”.
As I say my memory of these events is third hand hearsay. If you know better let me know!