PORTSMOUTH, N.H. – On April 10, 1963, the nuclear submarine USS Thresher sank about 200 miles off Cape Cod during a test dive. All 129 men on board were killed when the submarine imploded hundreds of feet below the ocean’s surface.
On Saturday, at a memorial service marking the 50th anniversary of the Thresher’s sinking, more than 1,000 people, mostly family members and former crew members from around the country, gathered to make sure the nation did not forget their sacrifice.
Built at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, the Thresher at the time was the Navy’s newest and most advanced submarine. Its loss was a turning point for the Navy, which responded to the Thresher tragedy by putting much greater emphasis on quality control during the manufacture of submarines to ensure that a submarine faced with a similar catastrophic flooding in the future would always recover.
But the men on the Thresher sacrificed their lives for a cause that was much larger than submarine safety, said Vice Adm. Michael Connor, the Navy’s top submarine commander and keynote speaker at the service, which was held at Portsmouth High School.
The sinking occurred at the height of the Cold War. The men aboard the Thresher were pioneers, Connor said, helping the Navy build a fleet of advanced submarines that the Soviet Union could not match. Unable to keep up, he said, the Soviet Union collapsed and democracy flourished in its place.
“This ship helped save the world,” he said.
The memorial service was the largest-ever gathering of family members and former crew members of the Thresher. Attending were 26 widows, 24 sisters, 20 brothers, 45 sons, 49 daughters, 104 grandchildren and 31 great-grandchildren.
Many of the family members displayed photographs, newspaper clippings and mementos on tables and story boards in a hallway outside the auditorium.
Elizabeth DesJardins, 80, was five months pregnant and left with two young daughters when her husband, Richard DesJardins, a mechanical engineer at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, died aboard the Thresher. She never remarried and lives in the same home on Kittery Point she had shared with her husband.
While thrilled that her children and grandchildren came from across the country to remember her husband, she was overcome with sadness Saturday thinking about what her husband has missed, such as seeing his children grow up and then sharing with her the pride she feels about their grandchildren.
“It means everything to us to remember Dick,” she said. “The saddest thing of all is that he’s not able to enjoy his family. “
Lt. Cmdr. John Hilary Billings of South Berwick left five children when he died on the Thresher. Speaking during the service, the oldest child, Vicki Billings, recounted how her mother, Dolores Billings, and other Thresher widows managed to carry on.
“Our moms are the ones who held our lives together — some, maybe just for the sake of us children, at a time of their own devastating personal loss,” she said.
Her brother, Blake Billings, performed a song he composed, “In Memory of You,” to honor his father.
A bell tolled during the ceremony 129 times, one for each man lost in the tragedy.
Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: