Retired submariner hopes to shine new light on sinking of the Thresher

A retired submariner has filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Navy, seeking records relating to the sinking of the USS Thresher more than 56 years ago.

James Bryant, 70, a retired Navy captain living in San Diego, Calif., said the information could help shed light on possible causes for the sinking that have not been made public. He filed the suit July 5 in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

Bryant, who has publicly questioned the Navy's explanation of what happened, said that publicizing previously undisclosed information will allow experts, historians and the public to study the facts and evidence about the loss of the Thresher and the government's subsequent investigation. He is seeking, among other documents, the transcript, exhibits, photographs, charts, graphs, memoranda and technical reports produced during the investigation into the submarine's loss by a Naval Court of Inquiry in April and May of 1963.

"The intent is to inform the public that the loss of THRESHER may have resulted from the United States Government's intentional or unintentional failure to use appropriate precautions due to the tremendous pressure it was under to advance United States technology during an intense period of military-geopolitical competition with the Soviet Union," the lawsuit says.

The Navy did not respond to a request for comment by publication time.

On the morning of April 10, 1963, the Thresher reported by underwater telephone to the USS Skylark, designated as an escort to the submarine during sea trials, that it was starting a deep dive test.

Nearly 90 minutes later, the Thresher reported to the Skylark a message along the lines of: "Experiencing minor difficulties. Have positive up angle. Am attempting to blow. Will keep you informed," the disaster inquiry says.

Three minutes later, the Skylark received a garbled message believed to contain the words "... test depth," the inquiry says.

The Thresher sank approximately 220 miles east of Cape Cod. Everyone aboard — 16 officers, 96 sailors and 17 civilians — died.

The investigation by the court of inquiry found that the most likely cause of the sinking was catastrophic flooding from a ruptured seawater pipe in the engine room of the submarine.

Bryant, in his lawsuit, cites several works that debunk this explanation including that of his friend, Bruce Rule, a naval acoustic expert who testified during the investigation. Rule believes there was no flooding because the sounds of high-pressure water hitting the inside of the submarine were not detected during the analysis of acoustic data.

The Navy, at one point, planned to release more documents about the sinking of the Thresher and of the USS Scorpion in May 1968, according to a February 2012 memo from Rear Adm. Barry Bruner, then the director of the Navy's Undersea Warfare Division. The Day obtained the memo through a Freedom of Information request in 2018.

"This office no longer intends a one-time public release of all records associated with USS Scorpion and USS Thresher, and will not establish an electronic reading room on the Naval History and Heritage Command website," the memo says.

It goes on to say that the "material is mostly technical in nature, largely pertains to the subsequent search efforts, and does not contribute to any better understanding of the losses of USS Scorpion and USS Thresher. The publicity associated with such a release, and especially since the material does not add significantly to the historical record or provide any additional closure, will be unnecessarily traumatic for the remaining families and next of kin."

The memo says that the records are subject to "systemic declassification reviews," and that about 75 percent of the records have been declassified and are available for public release through FOIA.

Bryant contends that he has not received any of the documents he's requested on the Thresher through FOI requests, hence the lawsuit. He said he was hoping to get the documents before the dedication ceremony in late September for a memorial at Arlington National Cemetery honoring the Thresher crew — "a fitting time to re-examine the loss."

Kevin Galeaz, who spearheaded efforts to erect the memorial, said the families are mixed on whether they want to re-examine the loss. Some still are curious about what happened, while others see no value in releasing more information to the public, he said.

"One of the family members said to me that the people who need this information have it and that is the people who build, operate and maintain our submarines," Galeaz said.

j.bergman@theday.com

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