Scores of families were devastated when the nuclear submarine USS Thresher went down on April 10, 1963, but the blow to the Shafer clan of Connecticut was doubly brutal.
A total of 129 U.S. Navy sailors and civilian workers were lost aboard Thresher in the worst submarine disaster of all time. They were fathers, husbands, sons and brothers. In the case of Benjamin and John Shafer, they were brothers from the same bloodline.
Both were electrician’s mates, and both were career sailors. Benjamin, the oldest of the two, had achieved the rank of master chief petty officer, the highest standard achieved by enlisted men; John was a senior chief, the next highest enlisted rank.
They were also both fathers. When Thresher (SSN 593) was lost during sea trials more than 200 miles off the New England coast, Benjamin left behind three sons and a daughter, while John was survived by four sons.
Michael Shafer, Benjamin’s youngest boy, would grow up to devote 29½ years of his life to the Army, enlisting as a private and retiring as a major in 2005. As a military man, he understands the push to get the world’s most advanced submarine of its day into action. It was, after all, the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. As hindsight suggests, however, Thresher may not have been ready for the deep-dive tests it was conducting when it sank.
“They gambled and lost,” Michael said.
Both he and his sister Penny Shafer Craig take pride in the sacrifice their father and uncle made for their country, but acknowledge the heavy toll it took on the family.
According to a 1963 newspaper account that ran in the New London (Connecticut) Day in the wake of the Thresher tragedy, the Shafer brothers’ parents were so distraught they had to be placed under heavy sedation by a physician. Family members gathered in the parents’ home were in a state of shock that day, the report stated; Benjamin’s wife Joyce wept as she disclosed the fatal cruise was to be his last before transferring to another command.
And the Shafers’ mother, according to the newspaper, could be heard wailing repeatedly, “Both my sons! Both my sons!”
“Neither one of them lived long after that,” Clara Main, their only surviving sibling, said of her parents this week. “You can truly die of a broken heart — I believe that.”
Brothers and heroes
Benjamin Nathan Shafer was born in September 1926. He enlisted in the Navy in August 1944, after graduating from Robert E. Fitch High School in Groton, Conn. He then completed basic training in Sampson, N.Y., and served aboard the destroyer USS Doyle (DD 494), during World War II. Benjamin was awarded the Asiatic-Pacific Theater Service Medal, the World War II Victory Medal and other decorations earned prior to his discharge in May 1946.
He worked for a time as a welder at the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics in Connecticut, then according to Michael, opened an electrical repair shop. After his partner took off with the money from their business, Michael said, Benjamin re-entered the Navy in February 1949. He attended the Navy’s Electrician’s Mate School, and ultimately volunteered for submarine duty
He earned his coveted Silver Dolphins when he qualified as a submariner aboard USS Cobbler (SS 344), and attended the Nuclear Power Training Unit at West Milton, N.Y. He also served aboard the nuclear submarine USS Skipjack (SSN 585) before his assignment to Thresher in February 1961.
John Davis Shafer joined his older brother as a crewmember of Thresher in September of that same year.
“They asked to be on the same submarine,” Clara recalled. “They loved each other; they were brothers. They just wanted to be together.”
John was born in August 1929 in Fort Pierce, Fla. During his school years in Groton, Conn., he received awards in both spelling and history competition. Much of his free time was spent fishing, hunting and bowling.
After graduating from Robert E. Fitch High School in 1947, John enlisted in the Navy and entered basic training at the U.S. Naval Training Center in Great Lakes, Ill. He served aboard the aircraft carrier USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVA 42) and the heavy cruiser USS Salem (CA 139) before volunteering for submarines.
He followed his brother to Electrician’s School and proceeded to serve aboard the subs USS Harder (SS 568), Kingfish (SS 234) and Trutta (SS 421), earning his Silver Dolphins aboard Entemedor (SS 340).
A third brother — the oldest, Joe — was also a Navy veteran of World War II, while their father had served in France with the Navy in the First World War.
Michael, the retired Army major, takes solace in knowing the Thresher tragedy directly resulted in the creation of SUBSAFE, the Navy’s enhanced submarine safety program. No vessel has been lost after passing through SUBSAFE in the nearly half-century since Thresher’s loss.
Asked about his thoughts regarding the family’s legacy with the submarine, he cites “The Ballad of the Thresher,” a song by the popular folk band the Kingston Trio. Famous for such 1950s and ’60s hits as “Tom Dooley” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” the band paid tribute to the Thresher’s crew in verse shortly after the disaster. In the ballad’s chorus, the trio sings:
“Every man jack on board was a hero
Every man jack on board there was brave
Every man jack on board was a hero
Each man risked a watery grave”
“If you listen to that song, you’ll know,” Michael explained. “It says it all to me.”
‘I was Daddy’s girl”
In 1969, the 116-man Bachelor Enlisted Quarters at the Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center on Andros Island in the Bahamas was named Shafer Brothers Hall in honor of Benjamin and John.
“I was very proud that the Navy named this building after my father and uncle,” Penny said. “Even though it’s only a barracks, it’s not very often that they name buildings after servicemen.”
However, the decade was otherwise unrelenting on the family. Penny notes both sets of grandparents died in the 1960s, and just days before Christmas 1969 her oldest brother Steve — a high school senior — died in an auto accident. Their mother was “out of it” for a while after that, Penny said. She would listen to the Glen Campbell tune “My Baby’s Gone” and cry as the country artist sang, “Dry all the raindrops/hold back the sun/the world has ended/my baby’s gone.”
“That one almost did her in,” Penny said of her brother’s death. “Eventually, she came back to us.”
Joyce Shafer went to work at the Navy exchange on the New London Submarine Base in Groton, Conn., and eventually retired as private secretary for the head of research and development there, Penny said. She described her mother as independent, strong and stubborn, but said she rarely talked about the loss of her husband. Joyce never remarried and died of cancer at age 55. Penny was only 5 when her father died, while Michael was 6. They remember very little of their dad.
Penny recalled that he loved the amorous animated skunk Pepe Le Pew, and that a photo of herself at the age 2 or 3 wrapped around her father’s arm was inspired by her mother teasing that Benjamin was “MY daddy!”
“I was Daddy’s girl,” she said.
Michael said his father’s legacy as an honest, responsible family man provided him with a “measuring stick” that he applied as a standard while growing up.
“By all accounts he was a great guy,” Michael said, “but I never got a chance to know him.”
About a dozen members of the Shafer clan, including 79-year-old Clara, plan to attend 50th anniversary Thresher ceremonies in Kittery this April.
Impact on the American psyche
After its commissioning in August 1961, Thresher was considered the fastest, quietest, deepest-diving and most lethal submarine the world had ever known. Its loss was a stunning blow to the nation and the world.
It says something of the Thresher disaster’s impact on the American psyche at the time that in addition to the Kingston Trio’s tribute, legendary folk singer Phil Ochs also dedicated a song to the doomed submarine. “The Thresher” appears on Ochs’ first album, “All the News That’s Fit to Sing,” released in 1964. With haunting lyricism, Ochs captures the early enthusiasm surrounding the submarine’s construction “in Portsmouth town on the eastern shore/Where many a fine ship was born.”
“She was shaped like a tear/She was built like a shark/She was made to run fast and free,” he sings. But eventually a sense of impending doom creeps into his lyrics and the vessel becomes “a death ship all along.” He describes the sub’s final voyage, culminating in a stark final verse that conveys her fate:
“And she’ll never run silent
And she’ll never run deep
For the ocean had no pity
And the waves, they never weep
They never weep.”
LOST AT SEA
For a list of personnel who perished aboard Thresher, visit www.history.navy.mil/danfs/t/thresher1.htm
Source – Sea Coast Online