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50 years later, Thresher veteran still grieves loss of shipmates at sea

Waterford - Fifty years later, Ira Goldman still cries sometimes when he talks about the men he served with on the USS Thresher.

"I could sit with my son and go through the whole boat, valve for valve, fixture for fixture," he said. "But when you think about the boat, not as a boat, but the boat as a crew, that's the hardest part. They're all like brothers.

"The family side of it, it just gets to me," he added. "I can see their faces."

Goldman and two other former Thresher crew members, Ray Butler and Frank DeStefano, will lay a wreath in Portsmouth, N.H., Saturday in memory of their shipmates following the 50th annual USS Thresher Memorial Service.

The Thresher 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.

More than 600 family members of the crew and former crew members are traveling from across the country for the invitation-only service at Portsmouth High School. Goldman said he was honored to be asked to take part in the private wreath-laying ceremony across the Piscataqua River from the naval shipyard, where the Thresher was built, since so many people are attending the anniversary events.

"It will be my memoriam to my guys," he said during a recent interview at his home in Waterford.

The Navy has said a silver-brazed joint in a seawater pipe in the engine room on the Thresher (SSN 593) failed and the seawater shorted out an electric panel that triggered the reactor to shut down.

The submarine couldn't get to the surface because of a design flaw in the system that blows water out of the main ballast tanks to lighten the ship. The reactor couldn't be restarted quickly enough. With no propulsion, and with the added weight of the water, the ship sank below crush depth and imploded.

Sixteen officers, 96 enlisted men and 17 civilian technicians were on board. It was the first time a nuclear submarine had been lost, and it remains the world's worst submarine disaster, in terms of lives lost.

Goldman, now 75, would have been on the Thresher if he hadn't gone to school.

He reported to the Thresher, his first submarine and the Navy's most advanced, in 1960. Goldman, who was trained as an engineman while serving on a destroyer previously, worked on the mechanical systems alongside machinist's mates. Soon, the submarine force required that he, too, become a machinist's mate.

Since he knew how to do the job, Goldman said, he was told he could simply sign a document to change his title. Or, he could go to school and learn everything about being a machinist's mate so he wouldn't be at a disadvantage later, when he had to take advancement exams.

Goldman graduated from the Machinist's Mate "A" School in Illinois on April 8, 1963. His superior on the Thresher told him to check in at the Naval Submarine Base in Groton, where the submarine would be homeported after the testing finished. If all had gone as planned, Goldman would've likely been sent to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard after a day or two in Connecticut.

When the Navy lost contact with the Thresher, Goldman was called into an admiral's office and asked who he knew on the submarine.

Just about everyone, he said.

Goldman was sent to Portsmouth to comfort the crew members' families. By about the fourth day, he said, many of the wives couldn't accept what had happened, but they were calmer. Then a magazine published a depiction of what it could have looked like on board as the Thresher was sinking.

"It showed a torpedo room and three sets of hands reaching out of the water," Goldman said, crying as he lifted his hands above his head. "That sent all the wives back to the hospital. It was awful."

His wife, Jacqueline, was pregnant at the time. She said she miscarried because she was so upset over what could have happened to her husband.

Goldman said he was nervous the next time he was on a submarine that dived, but he managed to put his fears behind him and serve in the Navy until 1978. He retired as a master chief.

He still flips through his Thresher scrapbook every so often, and he adds to it whenever he finds anything related to the sub.

The first half of the book has photos and articles from major milestones in the submarine's life, including the launching and commissioning, and personal mementos, such as the patches he wore on his uniform, the Thresher postcards he mailed and the original card showing he was qualified in submarines. The second half has articles about the sinking, biographies of the crew members and pictures from the Requiem Mass.

Goldman said he is more emotional about the tragedy now that he is older. He is traveling to Portsmouth with his son, Scott Goldman, and son-in-law, Vance McKinsey, a retired master chief who is coming from Guam for the ceremony.

"I'll see the grandchildren of people I knew very well and hopefully some of the wives and families we knew, and I'm not sure how I'll react to that," he said. "I'm just not sure."

Local ceremonies

The public is invited to attend two local ceremonies for the 50th anniversary of the loss of the USS Thresher.

• Mitchell College will hold a memorial ceremony on the lawn near the flagpole next to Mitchell Hall in New London at 9 a.m. on Wednesday. Parking is available at the Henry Hall parking lot on Pequot Avenue. A bell will be struck 129 times, once for each man who was lost aboard the sub, and a wreath will be laid in the Thames River.

• The U.S. Submarine Veterans Groton Base will hold a ceremony at the National Submarine Memorial East in Groton at 1 p.m. April 14. Rear Adm. Richard Breckenridge, the commander of Submarine Group Two, is the scheduled guest speaker.


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