News

Milford sailor was on the USS Thresher

Thursday, April 11, 2013

By KATHY CLEVELAND

Staff Writer

MILFORD – It was half a century ago, but every detail of the evening of April 10, 1963 is burned into her memory.

Betty Jones Stephenson’s father was at the Milford Police Station, where he volunteered, Her mother was reading a book about a submarine that dove under the Arctic.

Betty, who was 20, answered the first of two phone calls from the Navy saying the USS Thresher was late returning from a deep-water test dive 220 miles off the coast of Cape Cod.

That was not an unusual occurrence, but less than an hour later a second call came from a friend of Betty’s who was nearly hysterical as she asked for the name of the submarine her brother was on.

“I keep asking why,” said Stephenson, and finally the friend said the news was on television that the USS Thresher was at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

Her older brother, Richard Jones, and 128 other men were lost. The cause of the disaster is thought to be the bursting of a pipe-joint in the engine room, and Thresher likely imploded at a depth somewhere between 1,300 and 2,000 feet.

That night “I saw my father cry for the first time in my life,” said Stephenson, and he died six years later, “I think of a broken heart.”

And so many years later, Stephenson still cries when she talks about her brother,

“It never gets any easier,” she said, during a visit to The Cabinet last week.

Adding to her grief is the disappointment that few people remember the Thresher disaster.

But last weekend offered proof for Stephenson and other friends and family that the men lost at sea are not forgotten.

The Tresher was built at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, and at Portsmouth High School on Saturday, and in Kittery, Maine, on Sunday, ceremonies marked the disaster’s 50th anniversary.

Stephenson traveled from her home in South Carolina to attend, accompanied by Barbara Courage, the friend who made that second phone call 50 years ago.

“It was absolutely, unbelievably moving,” Stephenson said. Nearly 1,000 people filled the high school where the name of each man was read aloud, bells tolled and Senators Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., spoke about the sacrifices made by the crew of sailors and technicians.

On Sunday, a new flagpole, 129 foot high – one foot for each man on the Thresher – was dedicated in a Kittery memorial park.

“It was a touching, touching ceremony, and I heard over and over that they were pioneers and heroes,” Stephenson said.

Before joining the Thresher, Richard Jones had served on another submarine, the USS Diablo, and one of the most emotional moments of the weekend came when “a gentleman wearing a Diablo cap” came up to Stephenson and said, “You must be Jonesy’s sister. We served together.”

According to the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, the USS Thresher was the lead boat of her class of nuclear-powered attack submarines in the United States Navy, and her loss “was a watershed event that lead to the implementation of a rigorous submarine safety program known as SUBSAFE.

“Measured by lives lost, historic context and significance, the sinking of Thresher was then, and remains today, the world’s worst submarine disaster. As the first nuclear submarine lost at sea, its disappearance generated international shock and sympathy,” according to the entry.

Gov. Maggie Hassan ordered state flags to fly at half-staff on Wednesday in honor of the Thresher.

Across from the circulation desk at Milford’s Wadleigh Memorial Library there is an exhibit about the USS Thresher and Richard Jones on display, prepared by Janice Broderick and Polly Cote of the Milford Historical Society.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at kcleveland@cabinet.com or at 673-3100, ext. 304.

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