By Norman Polmar
(Editor’s note: This is the 24th in a series of blogs by Norman Polmar—author, analyst, and consultant specializing in the naval, aviation, and intelligence fields. Follow the full series here.)The U.S. nuclear attack submarine Thresher sank during sea trials off the New England coast on 10 April 1963, with the loss of all 129 men on board. The Thresher was the world’s first nuclear submarine to be lost and, in terms of casualties, remains history’s worst submarine disaster.
A week or so after her loss, I received a call from Lieutenant Commander David Cooney of the Office of Navy Information. He said that a major publisher wanted to produce a book on the Thresher disaster and that he had recommended me. Would I talk to the publisher? My first book—entitled Atomic Submarines—was about to be published and Cooney felt that I was in a good position to write about the disaster. (Cooney later served as Chief of Navy Information for five years and retired as a rear admiral.)
I was very hesitant. The Thresher was the Navy’s most modern submarine: Details about her were highly classified, and the Navy would probably not talk about such a major disaster so soon after the event. But I agreed to meet with the publisher. A short time later I was having dinner in a Chinese restaurant in Washington, D.C., with Thomas B. Allen, managing editor of Chilton Books.
Subsequently, with the encouragement of two of my mentors, Rear Admiral F.J. (Fritz) Harlfinger and Commander Dominic Paolucci, I agreed to undertake the project. Through their efforts I was able to meet and interview the Thresher’s first commanding officer, Commander Dean Axene, as well as several other Navy officers and civilians associated with the submarine. *
Tom Allen/Chilton Books published Death of the Thresher in 1964. It was a success, having eight printings with a revised edition being published in 2001. My conclusion that a “reactor scram” was the incident that began the chain of events that caused the loss of the submarine has stood the test of time.
Chilton arranged for me to do several radio and television interviews about the book. I did a couple of shows in Philadelphia and Tom was kind enough to invite me to stay at his home in nearby Wayne, Pennsylvania. I met his wife, Scottie, later an accomplished potter, and their three children.
I learned that Tom had joined the Naval Reserve at age 18, and in the 1950s, as a journalist, spent almost two years on active duty at the naval training center at Bainbridge, Maryland. His “sea time” in the Navy was a couple of two-week cruises in a destroyer. Thus, he had a “soft spot” for Navy-related books.
Leaving Chilton in December 1965, Tom joined National Geographic Books in Washington, D.C., and moved to nearby Bethesda, Maryland. We kept in close contact and we saw each other, often with our wives, on a regular basis. Later we all would take mini- vacations together and we all had a two-week, research-holiday trip to England and Italy.
In the late 1960s I began writing a biography of Admiral H.G. Rickover, head of the Navy’s nuclear propulsion program. I had spoken to Rickover on several occasions (by telephone)—see the earlier blog in this series—and I had read his many volumes of congressional testimony and his articles with keen interest. Having by then written two books about nuclear submarines (Atomic Submarines and Death of the Thresher), as well as several articles on the subject, I had made many friends and contacts in the field, I felt comfortable writing about the nuclear submarine programs and the Navy with regard to Rickover’s career and activities. But I was uneasy when it came to the “people” side of the Rickover story.
After several discussions, Tom—at the time senior book editor at National Geographic —and I agreed to collaborate on the biography. Following many interviews and considerable research, and threats by Rickover to halt the publication of the book, Rickover: Controversy and Genius was published by Simon and Schuster in early 1982. Its publication was almost simultaneous with Admiral Rickover being forced out of the Navy. The book was a success, subsequently appearing in a revised paperback edition.
Meanwhile, Tom and I went on to write books on our own and with other collaborators. Tom has written some 30 books, several novels among them, one made into a movie for television. But as our close relationship continued “post-Rickover,” we realized that our joint effort had been both productive and enjoyable. Thus, over the next couple of decades Tom and I collaborated on another half-dozen books:
- Ship of Gold (1987 and 2014; a novel)
- Merchants of Treason: America’s Secrets for Sale from the Pueblo to the Present (1988; “This should be required reading for every security officer in the United States”—Tom Clancy)
- World War II: America at War 1941-1945 (1991; “A unique and valuable look at the war”—General James Doolittle)
- Codename Downfall: The Secret Plan to Invade Japan and Why Truman Dropped the Bomb (1995).
- Spy Book: The Encyclopedia of Espionage (1997; “The definitive Spy vs. Spy”—Time magazine)
- Rickover: Father of the Nuclear Navy (2007; for high school students)
All of these books originally were in hard back editions with subsequent paperback printings; most also were translated into other languages, especially Russian, Polish, and Japanese. And, with our friend Cliff Barry, Tom and I wrote the book CNN: War in the Gulf: From the Invasion of Kuwait To the Day of Victory (1991), which sold a couple of hundred thousand copies in English and Japanese editions.
Tom and I also coauthored several articles for newspapers and magazines, including a cover story on anti-submarine warfare for The New York Times Sunday magazine. Tom and I shared the Rear Admiral Ernest M. Eller Prize for writing from the Naval Historical Center in 1996, and Tom’s writing for Naval History magazine earned him the Naval Institute’s author of the year award in 2004.
Despite our very different political views, Tom and I got on famously—and continue to do so, on both a professional and personal basis. Tom had two sisters and I have one. Neither of us had male siblings; consequently, over time we came to look at each other as “brothers.” Yes, we argue—almost invariably over politics; but we are always “there” for each other; we are each other’s greatest critics when it comes to writing, but also each other’s greatest supporters.
Fifty years ago Tom thought that a book on the Thresher disaster had to be written. He was correct… and I like to think that he and Dave Cooney were correct in getting me to write it.
* Harlfinger retired as a vice admiral; Paolucci as a captain; and Axene as a rear admiral.