Local sailors among 129 killed 50 years ago when nuclear submarine sank off Cape Cod
Portsmouth, N.H. — Penny Shafer Craig remembers her mother and aunt crying when the USS Thresher sank 50 years ago, but she was only 5 at the time and didn't really understand what was happening.
Her father, Benjamin Shafer, was a master chief who was serving on the Thresher with his brother, John Shafer. Both men lived in Groton and graduated from Robert E. Fitch Senior High School.
"A little girl growing up without her daddy is really hard," she said. "I can't help but wonder what my life would've been like."
At the 50th annual USS Thresher Memorial Service Saturday, Craig met submarine veterans who knew her father. They all had nice things to say, she said, but it was hard listening to their stories.
"I'm envious. I wish I knew him as well as these guys do," she said.
Nearly 1,000 people filled the auditorium at the Portsmouth High School for the memorial service. Some had gone to previous services, but many others said they were attending for the first time because the 50th anniversary is such a momentous occasion.
The Thresher (SSN 593) sank on April 10, 1963, east of Cape Cod after leaving the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard for deep-diving tests. All 129 men on board died.
Vice Adm. Michael J. Connor, the commander of the submarine force, said the Thresher was built with revolutionary capabilities to prevent the Soviet submarines that were operating off the coast of the United States from "doing their deadly mission."
"The Thresher helped change the world because she, and ships like her, and the descendents of her, made the Soviet Union realize they could never prevail," he said.
For the Thresher families, Connor said, "I know that is probably a small consolation." But, he said, the sacrifice made by the crew and the civilian technicians on board "will be carried forward by the entire submarine force as we do the nation's business and the Navy's business around the world, under the sea."
A wedding, a poem, a parade
Before the ceremony began, hundreds of family members lingered in the lobby of the auditorium. Each wore a nametag with a picture of their loved one and their relationship to him — widow, son, daughter, grandchild.
Kirsten Babbin of Waterford talked about the plans for the wedding she never had. The Groton Heights Baptist Church was booked, she said. She had bought a dress and was looking forward to her honeymoon on Cape Cod. Babbin had met Don Dundas, an electronics technician on the Thresher, at a USO dance in New London. They were were to be married in June 1963.
Raymond Lubsen stopped in front of a poster board printed with the poem "An Unknown Father." He wiped tears from his eyes as he read it. Lubsen, 75, of Marlboro, Mass., served on the Thresher but left the Navy in 1962.
Tim Noonis, the author of the poem, was 1 went the Thresher sank with his father, Chief Petty Officer Walter "Jack" Noonis, on board.
"When I was in kindergarten, everyone had to tell what their father did for work," he said, his lip quivering. "I always knew I'd be a little bit different."
The poem reads in part, "No game of catch would ever be played/Nor pictures of us fishing on the wall displayed/No advice ever given, on what it takes to be a man/For the Thresher lay deep, a crumpled tin can."
Several New Hampshire politicians spoke during the ceremony about the legacy of the Thresher and the safety initiatives that were instituted as a result of the tragedy. U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said the 129 men "did not die in vain," and she thanked their relatives for their strength.
Vicki Billings, the oldest of Lt. Cmdr. John Hilary Billings' five children, showed the audience pictures and told stories of her father, whom she idolized.
Billings always pushed his cap to the back of his head to kiss his wife, Dolores, when he came home from work. After dinner, Dolores washed the dishes, he dried.
Once, he led a Fourth of July parade in Maine. Billings marched in his dress white uniform, staring straight ahead. Meanwhile his son, Hilary, rode a bike in circles around him, red, white and blue streamers flying.
He was a warrior, but he also was a musician, Vicki Billings said. He was religious, patient and kind, she added. Billings, who worked at the naval shipyard, went on the Thresher to observe the testing.
"I saw my father then, and now, as a true knight in shining armor, protecting us all," she said.
As a bagpiper played "Amazing Grace," a bell tolled once for each man who was lost.
After, a small group gathered on a bridge looking out at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Ira Goldman, a Waterford resident who served on the Thresher but left to go to school, and two other former Thresher crew members threw a wreath over the side.
Goldman saluted as the wreath fell to the river below. He held onto a piece of it, to dry and preserve.
The entire day, Goldman said, was exactly the kind of tribute his shipmates deserved.