Mitchell College Remembers Loss of USS Thresher Fifty Years Later

Mitchell College President Mary Ellen Jukoski, Ed.D. with alumnus William Pennoyer of Westerly, RI, whose memory of Mitchell's tribute to the Thresher in the aftermath of the accident in 1963 inspired the college's memorial event.

Mitchell College President Mary Ellen Jukoski, Ed.D. with alumnus William Pennoyer of Westerly, RI, whose memory of Mitchell’s tribute to the Thresher in the aftermath of the accident in 1963 inspired the college’s memorial event.

by Susan Cornell
While conducting deep-dive tests, the nuclear-powered submarine USS Thresher  (SSN-593) sank on April 10, 1963, resulting in the loss of all 129 on board. Shortly thereafter, on the lawn overlooking the water, the Mitchell College community held a ceremony in the lost submariners’ honor.
Fifty years later, Mitchell hosted a memorial program on the anniversary of the exact moment of the sinking. The college’s 50th Anniversary Thresher Memorial honored the military personnel and civilians on board, as well as the community’s long connection to the Submarine Service.
Rich Cheatham, Veterans’ Admissions Counselor at Mitchell College as well as a submarine veteran, took the lead in coordinating the memorial program.
Cheatham explained that Mitchell College President Mary Ellen Jukoski received a letter from a 1963 alum who recalled the ceremony held in the same timeframe as the sinking of the Thresher. “The question he asked was what were we doing this year to remember it. That got everyone thinking,” Cheatham said.
Cheatham communicated with sub vets in Groton, who he said have been “outstanding, giving guidance in shaping the program and the items that we need to include in a program.”
The event included the presentation of colors, tolling of the bells 129 times with the name of each soul lost at sea announced in between, taps by a SubVet bugler, invocation and benediction by a SubVet chaplain, and the laying of a wreath on the Thames River.
Dr. Jeffrey Turner, a professor at Mitchell College, donated a Thresher artifact for the memorial. In his words, it was “an original cigarette lighter, complete with the USS Thresher’s name and logo engraved on its outer surface.  It is over 50 years old and deemed priceless by several independent appraisers. I would like to offer it to this program as a commemorative gesture.  Perhaps it can be placed with the wreath and returned to the sea, where it belongs.  The submariner who carried it remains unknown.
“God rest the ship and the sailors we lost on that tragic day.”
Dr. Turner’s request was fulfilled as the lighter was returned to sea with the laying of the wreath.
David Cornell, a resident of Mystic, was one of those impacted by the tragedy. Cornell said, “In 1959 I went to Portsmouth Shipyard to help outfit the USS Seadragon (SSN-584), which is where I met a fellow submariner who became a good friend, Robert Gaynor. Prior to the Seadragon leaving for Pearl Harbor via the North Pole, Robert was transferred to the USS Thresher.”
He explained, “Because of the scarcity of nuclear-power-trained personnel I was kept on board and Bob went in my place. Think about it: I could have not been here today. I think about it a lot.
“You can say I owe my life to the captain of the USS Seadragon for keeping me on board.”