After relatives of the late Clifford Devine had taken what they wanted from his western Pennsylvania farmhouse, the rest of the memorabilia he had left behind was offered up at auction.
Harry R. Cairns Jr. of Clarion, Pa., who deals in military artifacts, antiques and old books, bought a few items Devine had collected during his days with the Navy. There were a couple of ship plaques, one from the USS Seawolf, SSN 575, and the other from the USS Grayback, SS 208, as well as a couple of World War II era posters from Electric Boat.
And there was a metal warning tag that said, in part: “Warning, aft buoy. The other end of the cable attached to this buoy is secured to a sunken submarine, USS Thresher.”
A submarine buoy is designed to be release from a sub if it becomes disabled and sinks. Experts say the Thresher's buoy tag was probably removed during a refit of the boat before it sank on April 10, 1963, killing all 129 men aboard.
When Cairns put it up for sale on eBay, as he has dozens of other items in the past, he was deluged with e-mail from retired submariners who said it bordered on sacrilege.
“One guy said, 'You might as well be selling pieces of the USS Arizona,'” Cairns said. “That's when I realized, 'Holy smokes, what have I done?' I sure didn't mean any disrespect for the men who were lost on that ship or their families. I immediately canceled the auction, and contacted each and every one of the people who were bidding on it, and told them.”
“If it's that important an item, then it belongs to the people, and that's all there is to it, so I decided I would donate it to a museum,” Cairns said. “As it turns out, a good number of them were bidding on it to donate it themselves.”
Cairns has arranged with Frank Thompson in the curator's office at the Naval Historical Center in Washington, D.C., to donate the buoy plate, and expects to ship it out today.
One of the first submariners to contact him was Harry T. Parker of Worcester, Mass., who was a 2nd class machinist mate on the USS Seawolf from 1962 to 1965. That submarine spent several days searching for the Thresher after its loss.
“The thing that makes it such a sensitive item is there are still a lot of wives and children and other survivors around,” Parker said. “There's very little we can put our finger on, and touch, that had to do with the Thresher. Mainly it's pictures and memories.”
He said he was delighted that Cairns recognized quickly the importance of the piece, and responded so well.
“If you do something in innocence, there is no reason to feel bad, and his response once he understood the situation was very considerate and very gentlemanly,” Parker said.
“In fact, a few years ago this might have been thrown out because nobody recognized the importance of it,” Parker said. At least putting it on eBay helped to preserve a piece of the Thresher, he said.
Thompson was unavailable for comment, but Steve Finnegan, curator at the Submarine Force Library and Museum in Groton said the tag, which was not on the ship at the time it went down, is still a valuable piece of history.
“Any submarine-related material is important to us, and something like that, if only because it was related to the Thresher, would be a significant piece to have,” Finnegan said. “That would be a valuable find for any of our boats, but particularly for one that was involved in such a memorable event such as the loss of the Thresher.”
Paul Farace, the curator of the USS Cod museum submarine in Cleveland, said Cairns and other memorabilia traders can actually do a service to museums.
When eBay got started, he worried that it would become a dumping ground for items stolen off ships, and he watched it carefully.
“After two years, my gut feeling is that's not the case,” Farace said. “In effect, it's become a giant, national garage sale, where Uncle Louie's Navy stuff, which would have been trashed or given to the Salvation Army a few years ago, has now become available for us to purchase.”
Part of his daily routine is to scan the military items going up for sale. In the last year, he said, he has made 350 purchases on the electronic auction site, such as a Battery Test Kit, used to check the electrolyte in submarine batteries.
Cairns said he's pleased, despite the brief controversy, to have helped preserve an important submarine artifact.
“Ever since I was a kid, I've been rescuing stuff that other people have thrown out,” Cairns said. “If something good can result from this, that's great.”
Cairns said Devine was sort of a loner who moved to Clarion from Connecticut more than 30 years ago. He had told people that he taught Navy divers, and served in submarines, but nobody remembered much more about him.
The bolt holes on the buoy plate are worn, as though it was installed and later removed. Initially there was some question whether it might have come off the World War II submarine of the same name, though the wording used on the buoy plates in that era was typically not as detailed as what is on the Thresher plate, and they were typically larger.
Submariners speculate that Devine might have been in Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, when the Thresher came in for a refit. The first of a new class of submarine, the Thresher, built in Portsmouth, had just completed a refit period and was on sea trials about 220 miles east of Boston when it sank in 8,400 feet of water with 112 crewmembers and 17 civilian workers aboard.
During the refit, the yard workers would have inspected the buoy to make sure it was operational. The plate might have been removed and replaced because it was becoming worn from exposure to salt water. Devine might have pocketed it as a souvenir of his time at Portsmouth, but it would have been certainly weeks and possibly months before the disaster.
“They get painted, they get bumped and banged, and so they get replaced,” said Parker. “It looks like it was taken off in a workmanlike manner, so it was probably done in a yard rehab.”
Cairns said he served as an equipment operator with the Navy Seabees in Vietnam from 1966-69, up in the Danang area.
“When they talk about losing friends, I know that feeling, I think that's why this is bothering me so much,” Cairns said. “I would never, never think of disrespecting any of these lost sailors, whether they died in an accident or a war.”