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Misinformation About the Loss of THRESHER and the SOSUS Detection Thereof

By Bruce Rule - July 1, 2013

The Prologue to the THRESHER BOOKLET ( states (quote) putting together the history of the development of the SUBSAFE program as it was established and evolved by collecting stories, recollections of events, and related documents from those that participated would be worthwhile. (end quote)

Statements in the THRESHER BOOKLET by CAPT Zeb Alford (1925-2009) are provided below in full. Those statements of special interest are foot-noted (1) through (8) with references to Navy Judge Advocate General THRESHER Court of Inquiry documents that provide information related to those statements.

if you have difficulty accessing the websites provided below, go to the Navy JAG site: scroll down the date and event columns to 1963/THRESHER, then click on each of the four documents listed as Parts I through IV.

Comment to IUSSCAA members: it is very difficult to understand how CAPT Alford could have been so misinformed. Regardless of why he was so misinformed, his statements are an example of the erroneous assessments extant in the public domain about the loss of the USS THRESHER and SOSUS detections of the event. I went back to the publisher of the THRESHER BOOKLET but did not receive a response.

Bruce Rule

CAPT Zeb Alford statements in the THRESHER BOOKLET (quoted in full as follows from page 6):

I was CO of the USS SHARK at that time (of the loss of THRESHER) and on a special op. I couldn’t believe the message we received.

The CO of THRESHER, Wes Harvey, was a close friend and one of the most qualified nuclear engineers I ever had the honor to serve with. We put the USS TULLIBEE nuclear prototype and USS TULLIBEE, our first nuclear SSK, in commission. Wes was the engineer for both and I was XO.

In November 1963 ADM Rickover had me ordered to the Pentagon to OP 31. VADM Dennis Wilkerson was my boss there. The task he assigned me, among others, was to get together all the information pertinent to the loss of the THRESHER, and write the presentation to Congress by VADM Red Ramage (OP 03) concerning the case. I was also assigned as project manager for the SUBSAFE program for CNO. My saddest memory was listening to the tapes of the underwater phone conversations between Wes and the submarine rescue vessel (1), which was his escort for his sea trials, after a major overhaul at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Wes had relieved him as CO while the sub was in the shipyard.. The first conversation that I remember well was Wes telling the sub rescue vessel to "stand clear, emergency surfacing from test depth, flooding in the engine room." (2)

His voice was calm and easily recognized. I could hear the air blow start and the screw speeding up. In less than a minute, the emergency blow trailed off and the screw started slowing down. (3) Wes’s last report was “attempting to blow.” Wes knew and I knew that there were no orders that started with “attempting.” His voice was still calm even though he knew by then his sub was lost. I believe to this day that he was telling us something was wrong with the air blow system. Even someone as good an engineer as Wes couldn’t figure out why the air blow stopped. The next thing on the tape some minutes later was the collapse of the first bulkhead, followed shortly after with the others collapsing. (4) Calculations later estimated the sub reached 300-400 feet depth before the flooding stopped her ascent. (5) Six weeks later when she was located, the bow was buried about thirty feet deep. (6) Calculations show she was going over 100 knots when she bottomed. (7) The front half of the sub was vertical and the sub broke in two at the reactor compartment. (8) I could read the name of the next to last reactor watch officer on the log sheet on the bottom of the ocean from the hundreds of pictures taken



(1) During Congressional hearings on the loss of THRESHER held on Thursday, 27 June 1963, RADM John Maurer, Director, Submarine Warfare Division, in response to a question from Representative David Bates, NH, stated: (quote) All of the ASRs are equipped with recorders now. This is since the (THRESHER) incident. At that time, they did not have recorders. (end quote) Page 51 Congressional Record for 27 June 1963.

Because the USS SKYLARK (ASR-20) did not have the capability to record the underwater communications with THRESHER, the content of those communications was established by the Court of Inquiry (COI) through extensive, direct examination of those aboard SKYLARK who were present when the communications occurred. The transcript of that direct examination is provided by

(2) THRESHER Court of Inquiry (COI) Fact 16 provides the agreed (among those onboard the SKYLARK) content of an underwater telephone (UQC) transmission by THRESHER at 0913 on 10 April 1963 to have been: (quote) Experiencing minor difficulties. Have positive up angle. Am attempting to blow. Will keep you informed. (end quote). No THRESHER COI document discusses the (quote) stand clear, emergency surfacing from test depth, flooding in the engine room (end quote) transmission attributed to THRESHER by CAPT Alford.

(3) There is no discussion in any THRESHER COI document of the THRESHER (quote) screw speeding up (end quote) or subsequently (quote) slowing down. (end quote) Additionally, there was no Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) acoustic detection of THRESHER main propulsion activity nor was there any detection of a Doppler component that would have been produced by the such activity. As of March 2007, the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) still held a photo-copy of the original SOSUS time versus frequency visual display (LOFARgram) upon which this assessment is based. There were no SOSUS tape recordings of the period during which THRESHER was lost, only the visual displays.

(4) From a human perception standpoint (had there been a tape recording), there would have been only one audible collapse event. The LOFARgram data ONI may still hold confirms the duration of the collapse event, which occurred at a subsequently revised time of 09:18:24, was the reciprocal of the bubble-pulse frequency or about one-tenth (0.1) of a second, the period during which the THRESHER pressure-hull and all internal compartments were destroyed and the pressure-hull fragmented into sections that sank independently from the collapse depth of 2400 feet. Additionally, as discussed above. SKYLARK had no record capability. Much of the acoustic information derived from analysis of the LOFARgram displays by the writer, and provided to the THRESHER COI in closed testimony on 18 April 1963 is contained in COI OPINION 46 in

(5) There is no discussion in any COI document of calculations that indicated THRESHER (quote) reached a depth of 300-400 feet before the flooding stopped her ascent. (end quote)

(6) There is no discussion in any COI document that the THRESHER (quote) bow was buried thirty feet deep. (end quote). Such an impact would have been detected by SOSUS as seismic and/or acoustic energy at the event range of 30 nautical miles from the nearest hydrophone array. No such detection occurred.

(7) Appendix A to Naval Ordnance laboratory ltr ser 69-160 of 20 January 1970 states the average sink-rate of the fully-flooded USS STERLET (SS-392) hulk was 12.9 knots in 10,700 feet of water. Acoustic data provided by the writer to ONI in October 2009 indicates the average sink-rate of the USS SCORPION (SSN-589) hull sections was less than 28 knots. Open source data indicates the intact MIKE Class Soviet nuclear submarine, fully flooded with the exception of the first compartment, had an average sink-rate of 10-12 knots. The conclusion that THRESHER, which was destroyed when the pressure-hull collapsed, impacted the bottom at a speed of (quote) over 100 knots (end quote) would, if still intact and in a vertical bow-down position, have required more than half a million shaft horsepower to reach a terminal velocity of 100 knots. Note: no WWII depth charge, even those designed to be as hydrodynamically efficient as possible, had sink-rates in excess of 50 f/s (30 knots). Also note: the propulsive power requirements of a given submerged submarine of a given displacement vary as a cube of the speed. (Concepts in Submarine Design; Roy Burcher and Louis J. Rydill, Oct 27, 1995) Given, for the sake of this discussion, that THRESHER was still intact (not in six major sections) and had achieved a sink-rate of 30 knots in a bow-down position, to achieve a bottom-impact speed of 100 knots (about 3.5 times her maximum speed which required 15,000 shaft horsepower) we have 3.5 cubed (42.9) times 15,000 or about 650,000 shaft horsepower to achieve 100 knots, and CAPT Alford says "over 100 knots."

(For those who remember the statement in BLIND MAN'S BLUFF that the Soviet K-129 impacted the bottom at 200 knots - attributed to an unidentified Navy report - which is approximately 14 times greater than the 14 knots that the K-129 could achieve with 5,400 HP, we have the following calculations: Fourteen cubed is 2744 which, times 5,400 horsepower, equals 1,480,000 shaft horsepower for the K-129 to achieve 200 knots.)

(8) There is no discussion in any COI document that indicates (quote) The front half of the sub was vertical... (end quote). Imagery of the THRESHER site is reported to have confirmed the wreck was in six major sections, the result of destructive collapse (fragmentation) 6000 feet above the sea floor.

Note: the depth value (2400 feet) and energy yield (22,500 pounds of TNT) of the THRESHER collapse event were derived using the empiric relationship between the volume of a collapsing structure and the bubble-pulse frequency discussed on page 134 of the WINTER 2012 issue of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW. The formula is discussed on page C4 of Naval Ordnance Laboratory ltr ser 69-160 of 20 January 1970, USS SCORPION (SSN-589) RESULTS OF NOL DATA ANALYSIS (U).