New London — When, at 33 years old, Lt. John Smarz Jr. left home to report to the USS Thresher — which was stationed at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard located in Kittery on the southern boundary of Maine — he told his mother, “Mom, we’re going to make history.”
All 129 crew members, which included 16 officers, 96 enlisted men and 17 civilian technicians, were killed on April 10, 1963, when the USS Thresher sank about 220 miles east of Boston, after leaving the Portsmouth base for deep-diving tests. It was the first nuclear-powered attack submarine to be lost at sea.
Among the 129 men killed were residents of New London, Groton, Norwich, Gales Ferry, Mystic, Uncasville and Jewett City. Smarz left behind three small children and other family members, including his sister, Judy Douglas, who celebrated her birthday Saturday in New London at the dedication of a memorial for Smarz and the rest of the crew of the USS Thresher.
The dedication brought together city and state officials, veterans from the Groton and Thresher bases, members of the William Meredith Foundation, and family members of those who served on the submarine.
“What better way to celebrate than to honor my brother and his crew,” said Douglas, who remembered hearing how happy her brother was when he found out he was going to have a sister. “He thought that was the greatest thing,” she said.
The Thresher memorial, which features three commissioned etchings by Bulgarian painter Stoimen Stoilov and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet William Meredith’s “The Wreck of the Thresher,” will be temporarily located at the Public Library of New London until it moves to its permanent location at City Hall, once restorations there are complete. The New London City Council voted unanimously to work with the Meredith Foundation, the Disabled American Veterans and other community sponsors to establish the permanent memorial in City Hall. The memorial is funded by foundation sponsorship and private donations.
Meredith’s longtime partner Richard Harteis helped put together the dedication.
“I was in the Peace Corps, so I didn’t serve in the military,” he said. “As this project grew, it really took on a special meaning to me that these guys went and I didn’t.”
Meredith, who died in New London in 2007, served in the Navy.
“Looking through his documents and his files, he may have had as many as 25 or 30 revisions of a poem, but on this one I think it was really pretty direct,” Harteis said. “The inspiration came very quickly.”
City Councilor Michael Passero, who was an advocate for the memorial, was in first grade when the Thresher sank. His family grew up with the Krag family members, who live on Ocean Avenue. The father, Lt. Cmdr. Robert Lee Krag, was aboard the Thresher.
“You always remember what happened to that family,” Passero said. “When I drive by that house, to this day, that’s what I think about. I think about the Thresher.”
With tears in his eyes, Bruce Harvey remembered his dad John W. Harvey, who was commanding officer of the USS Thresher. His father also served on the USS Nautilus.
“He was a great dad, loved the Navy. Football player. I just get too emotional,” Harvey said, while fighting back tears.
One positive to come out of the Thresher tragedy was the Navy’s creation of a submarine safety program or SUBSAFE program. Created within two months of the Thresher incident, the program developed new submarine safety standards.
“It is a very stringent program to make sure that all of the things that happened to Thresher ... do not happen again, ever,” said Master Chief Jay Gladu, with the Naval Submarine Base in Groton, during his remarks at the dedication.
Gladu said he has served on four different submarines, and has been underway on about 20 or so of them.
“I feel more comfortable in a submarine than I do in an airplane crossing the Atlantic Ocean. You know when you’re in an airplane and you feel those jitters every once in a while and you’re thinking ‘oh boy.’ That doesn’t happen on a submarine,” Gladu said as the crowd laughed. “Not only do you not feel those jitters, but I feel safe and confident knowing that the SUBSAFE program, that came out of the USS Thresher incident, is working very well.” He added that the Navy continuously monitors the program, performing audits of the records among other things.
In his remarks, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said: “In the 48 years prior to the Thresher there were 16 noncombat caused instances where submarines sank, and in the 50-plus years since, there have been zero.”
That didn’t happen on its own, Courtney said.
“It was a lot of hard work with industry such as Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls and its predecessors working with the Navy to make sure that these systems are not going to fail,” he said.
Lt. Smarz worked his way up the ranks, and Douglas is proud of him for that. She noted that he didn’t go to college but was able to rise to the rank of lieutenant.
“It was a struggle, but he did it,” she said.
Smarz enlisted into the submarine service when he was 17 years old. “He loved the submarine service. That was his life,” Douglas said, adding, “He always said that if he was to die, that’s how he would like to die, under the water.”