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St. Marys commemorates sunken sub
The USS Thresher was conducting deep sea diving tests about 220 miles east of Cape Cod 50 years ago when tragedy struck.

The crew of the 3,700-ton, nuclear-powered attack submarine transmitted a garbled message at 9:17 a.m. to the rescue ship that accompanied it on the test dive, the USS Skylark, indicating trouble.

The Skylark's navigator, a World War II naval combat veteran listening to an open connection on the Thresher's acoustic phone, heard the distinctive sounds of a doomed boat breaking up, according to a Navy report after the accident.

Within a few hours, searchers realized they were no longer dealing with a rescue situation, but a salvage operation.

The disaster aboard what was the most technologically advanced submarine in the world claimed the lives of 129 sailors and civilians. The boat's wreckage was found weeks later after an extensive search 8,400 feet below the surface.

While an exact cause was never determined, Navy officials suspect a piping failure led to a loss of power and to the inability of the vessel to blow the ballast tanks rapidly enough to avoid sinking.

Little was recovered from the wreckage, but there are a few artifacts remaining, including ones in a USS Thresher display at the St. Marys Submarine Museum, 102 St. Marys St.

Keith Post, museum manager, who is also a St. Marys City Council member, said he plans to attend a ceremony in Portsmith, N.H. on Saturday, where more than 600 family members of the crew are expected to attend. Post said he will also attend a ceremony in Maine on Sunday, where a 129-foot flagpole - one foot for every person who died - will be dedicated.

Post said the Thresher display at the museum will soon have new artifacts donated by the widow of one of the original crew members, as well as items from the two memorial ceremonies. Those items will be added to the display within two months, he said.

Natalie Figueroa, a museum employee, said the display of Thresher artifacts has generated more interest as Wednesday's anniversary approaches.

"A lot of people don't know we have the display," she said.

The artifacts include original items from the boat's commissioning ceremony in 1961, cloth patches with the ship's logo, old photographs, a ship's ashtray, a box of matches with the Thresher logo, a letter opener, a small model of the boat, original news accounts of the accident and an envelope with the boat's letterhead.

Another anniversary of a tragedy at sea closer to home is also approaching. On April 8, 1942, two American oil tankers, the SS Baton Rouge and the SS Oklahoma, were sunk by a German U-boat about 15 miles off the coast of St. Simons Island.

Olaf Olsen Sr. was on Cumberland Island at the time, and took his boss's 42-foot yacht to the scene, where he rescued 54 sailors floating in three life boats near the burning oil tankers.

Another 18 or 19 sailors died in the attack, said Sonja Olsen Kinard, daughter of the man who rescued the sailors.

Kinard said she was 8 years old at the time and remembers seeing the rescued sailors after they arrived in Brunswick.

The following day, another ship, SS Esparta, a cargo vessel carrying bananas and coffee, was sunk off the coast of Cumberland Island by a German U-boat, Kinard said.

Several of the sailors killed in the attack of the two oil tankers off the coast of St. Simons Island are buried in a Brunswick cemetery.

* Reporter Gordon Jackson writes about government and other local topics. Contact him at, on Facebook or at 265-8320, ext. 323.

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