BRADLEY, Maine — Andrew Joseph Gallant was just two months from completing a 20-year career in the U.S. Navy when the nuclear submarine he was assigned to imploded and sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
In anticipation of retiring, Gallant and his wife, Edna, had purchased and were remodeling an oceanfront home in the coastal village of McKinley, now called Bass Harbor, where the chief hospitalman planned to open a pharmacy and ice cream parlor, family members recalled Thursday.
“I did say to him when he went on submarine duty, ‘Well, what happens if you go down there and you can’t come up?’ and he said, ‘That’s it.’ So he knew what he was getting into but he loved it,” Gallant’s sister Valerie Buchanan of Bradley said of the sinking of the USS Thresher.
The naval tragedy, which left no survivors, is the focus of a 50th anniversary commemoration on Saturday in Portsmouth, N.H. The Thresher was built and based at nearby Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery. Twenty-six members of Gallant’s family are among the more than 1,000 expected to attend the event, which is by invitation only.
In addition to the Portsmouth event, a 129-foot flagpole in Kittery is being dedicated Sunday in memory of the men who died in the tragedy, according to D. Allan Kerr of the Thresher Memorial Service Project. Maine Sen. Susan Collins is scheduled to speak.
Maine legislature has passed a joint resolution, and Gov. Paul LePage has signed a proclamation recognizing the anniversary, Kerr added.
Buchanan, one of her sisters and two sisters-in-law remembered their lost loved one during an interview at Buchanan’s home Thursday evening.
“We found out by television and his wife also did, too. We actually didn’t think he was on the submarine but he was. I guess they couldn’t get ahold of us by telephone to let us know,” she said.
Sister-in-law Joanne Gallant of Bradley was among the first in the family to hear the news.
“[Gallant’s] sister, Theresa, was moving and my husband was up in Old Town helping them. I had the TV on and I heard it and so I called up there,” she said. “ … I don’t remember which news station it was now but I called them and asked them to repeat it and they denied putting it on. I didn’t think much of it at the time but we found out after that [the news] never should have gone out until Edna was notified.”
“He wasn’t supposed to be on that submarine,” sister Vivian Henderson of Brewer added. “He was supposed to be home. He was going to recruit in Bangor and he had probably two months left before [leaving the Navy].”
He was 36 at the time, she said, noting that Gallant had enlisted in the Navy at the age of 17 after dropping out of Old Town High School before his junior year.
“His replacement that was supposed to go onto the sub didn’t show up, so they called him. They called the house and asked if he would come back and report to duty until his replacement showed up,” Henderson said.
“That’s the one thing in all of this that I can never get out of my mind,” she said. “I suppose if it’s God’s will, it’s got to be but it’s awful hard to take.”
“This memorial — 50 years — it brings it all crashing back again,” said Buchanan.
According to the United States Submarine Veterans’ memorial website on the tragedy, www.thresherbase.org, the Bradley native was one of 129 men who lost their lives when the nuclear submarine went down during deep diving exercises on April 10, 1963.
“In addition to her 16 officers and 96 enlisted men, the submarine carried 17 civilian technicians to observe her performance during the deep-diving tests,” Naval History & Heritage Command noted on its website.
“Fifteen minutes after reaching her assigned test depth, the submarine communicated with Skylark by underwater telephone, apprising the submarine rescue ship of difficulties. Garbled transmissions indicated that — far below the surface — things were going wrong. Suddenly, listeners in Skylark heard a noise ‘like air rushing into an air tank’ — then, silence,” the story continued.
“Efforts to reestablish contact with Thresher failed, and a search group was formed in an attempt to locate the submarine. Rescue ship Recovery subsequently recovered bits of debris, including gloves and bits of internal insulation,” the website said. “Photographs taken by bathyscaph Trieste proved that the submarine had broken up, taking all hands on board to their deaths in 5,500 of water, some 220 miles east of Boston.”
“Can you imagine what must have went through the men’s minds, knowing that they couldn’t come back up? Knowing they were going to die?” sister-in-law Ramona Gallant, also of Bradley, said during an interview at Buchanan’s home.
Buchanan said her brother had been having qualms about working on the Thresher before it went down.
“I think he thought that they were diving too deep and it was an experimental sub. He did say he was ready to get off,” she said.
A Court of Inquiry found that the loss likely was because of a casting, piping or welding failure that flooded the engine room with water. The flooding is believed to have caused electrical failures that automatically shut down the nuclear reactor, causing an initial power loss and the eventual loss of the vessel.
In the aftermath of the Thresher disaster, the Navy implemented a series of safety reforms, including the SUBSAFE Program.
Though none of the men’s bodies were recovered, Gallant’s family has a headstone for him at St. Joseph Cemetery in Old Town. All they have left of him are photographs, yellowed newspaper clippings — and their memories.
According to his sisters, Gallant — the second oldest of seven — helped raise them after they lost their parents as children, allowing the family to remain intact.
“Today if that happened it wouldn’t be allowed,” Henderson said. “You don’t see too many families with seven kids without a mother or father stay together.”
“They [the children] would all have been passed around,” added Ramona Gallant. “For losing their parents so young, the boys were just wonderful. They were very good people.”
“And the people of Bradley were so good to us,” Henderson said.
Buchanan, Henderson and Theresa Cote, who lives in Brewer, are the only surviving siblings. A sister, Lucy, and two brothers, Paul and Leon, have passed away, as has Gallant’s widow. Gallant and his wife had no children.
“He was a very happy guy. He was full of life and fun to be around. He had a great laugh. He was a wonderful brother and we had two other brothers and they were the same,” Buchanan said when asked to describe her brother.
Henderson said her brother loved the sea.
“He lived right on the ocean. He loved the ocean,” she said. “Of course, when the tide went out he could go down there on the beach. He used to love to do that. It was a beautiful place.”
Family members know Saturday’s event in Portsmouth will be bittersweet.
“We are looking forward to going to the memorial because we’ve never been to one,” Buchanan said. “My son did go down two years ago and he said it was wonderful. We’ll go loaded with handkerchiefs and Kleenex.”
A previous version of this story stated that Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is in Portsmouth, N.H. It is in Kittery, Maine.