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First Round of Declassified USS Thresher Documents Expected in September

USS Thresher in 1961 ahead of its commissioning. US Navy Photo

The first of a new tranche of declassified documents from the investigation from the USS Thresher (SSN-593) disaster could be released to the public as early as September, according to a Navy status update from an ongoing freedom of information lawsuit.

Following a judge’s order in February to begin releasing the material, the Navy asked for a stay in releasing 600 documents because the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic had closed the offices that would review the documents for sensitive information. On Monday, the stay was lifted, allowing the review to continue.

Retired Navy Capt. James Bryant, a former Thresher-class submarine commander, sued the Navy in 2019 for the documents related to the 1963 loss of the nuclear attack submarine that went down during a test dive with all hands.

In July 18 status update to the court, the Navy said it had found resources to process the documents that had been handed over from Naval Reactors starting in August.

The Navy “has identified and approved [two to three] reservists to travel and enter the necessary buildings to process the USS Thresher documents associated with Mr. Bryant’s FOIA request. These reservists have been approved for use [one to two] days per month,” reads the service’s update to the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.
“The Navy anticipates beginning a rolling release of records in September 2020.”

Meanwhile, the Navy is developing a plan for informing the remaining family members of the 129 sailors who died in the incident on April 10, 1963, off the coast of New England as part of the service’s response to the order to release the material.

“The Undersea Warfare Division of the Chief of Naval Operations in conjunction with Commander, Submarine Forces is developing a notification plan to ensure family members of the Thresher crew are given advance notification of the release of this historic information,” Lt. Timothy Pietrack told USNI News on Wednesday.
“The Navy is committed to ensuring the maximum amount of information from the investigations into the loss of USS Thresher is released to the public while being considerate to the families and friends of the brave men who perished with these ships.”

The loss of Thresher prompted the Navy to create the SUBSAFE program, an exacting series of procedures and quality checks for components during construction to ensure that a submarine can safely make it to the surface in the event of an emergency.

Though the Navy is continuing the review and release process, it’s unclear how extensively the documents will be redacted.

The reasons for Thresher’s fatal end have remained an open question to those like Bryant who feel that more can be learned from the disaster. His goal is to bring a greater degree of certainty to the loss.

“Even though the SUBSAFE program has already brought lifesaving changes, there may be more to be learned. It is time for the Navy to fully share all the evidence pertaining to this historic watershed naval loss,” Bryant wrote in Proceedings in 2018.