Tennessee Pride Runs Deep

April 10, 2011

by Patrick W. Ryan

As a land-locked state, Tennessee doesn’t strike most people as having a deep Navy tradition. But they would be wrong. Many men and women from the Volunteer State have served as American Bluejackets and many ships have carried the names of Tennessee cities, counties, and the State itself. It was the third ship named USS Tennessee that survived the devastating blow at Pearl Harbor in December 1941 to be repaired and serve with great distinction through to the end of the war, participating in most of the greatest naval battles fought.

The Tennessee namesake is carried on by a submarine, as nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines replaced the disappearing battleships as America’s “capital” ships – the most powerful vessels in the fleet carried states names. These craft sail the seas as a key arm of America’s deterrent force seeking to prevent war through the readiness of its crews. Besides the word “Volunteers,” the USS Tennessee’s emblem carries the words, “America at its best.”

News came this week about another proud Navy ship, named for a Tennessee city. USS Memphis, the sixth ship with the name, carried as its motto “In defense of human freedom may she ever prowl the sea.” Nevertheless she was ending 33 years of very distinguished service in defense of the nation. Memphis was built to “fight” the Cold War with the Soviet Union, as an attack submarine that would seek out and, if “hot” war came, destroy enemy ships, especially Russian ballistic missile submarines that targeted the American homeland. As a submariner during a large part of my Navy days I had the honor of sailing aboard Memphis during her first deployment to the Mediterranean. It was my first glimpse of the, then, brand new Los Angeles class attack boats and she was impressive. After the Soviet Union cracked, in part a tribute to the years of undersea patrols and deployments by ships like Memphis and the men who sailed in them, she continued to compile an envious service record – much of it sensitive work that does not receive the public acclaim it deserves.

Like the Memphis the USS Thresher, also in the news this week, was built to fight the Soviet Navy, but in an earlier era when nuclear attack submarines still followed their World War II predecessors with names from “denizens of the deep.” Submariners remember her not for distinction in operating against potential foes but for the tragedy that befell her and the 129 men aboard her 48 years ago today. She sailed from Portsmouth, New Hampshire for a shakedown, to test repairs and modifications made during a shipyard overhaul.

USS Thresher

On the morning of April 10, 1963 Thresher’s surface escort received a garbled message from the submarine, “..minor difficulties.. attempting to blow..” But the high-pressure air blow to remove seawater from the ballast tanks, used to surface the ship, was unsuccessful and Thresher slid into the deep Atlantic, crushed by the tremendous pressures of the sea. Some time later remains of the Thresher were discovered scattered about 8,400 feet below the waves. An investigation concluded a cascade of mechanical failures led to the ship being unable to reach the surface after a weld in a seawater piping system failed, flooding the engine room. The loss of Thresher resulted in a crash program to correct design, construction and maintenance processes and procedures on every submarine in the U.S. Navy, the so-called “SUBSAFE” program that mandated the most demanding standards. The loss of Thresher resulted in nearly half a century of submarine service, millions of man-days of submarines underwater, with an unprecedented record of engineering safety.

The proud traditions of the submarine force, and the motto “Pride Runs Deep,” that protected America throughout the Cold War were built upon the service of its forerunners in World War II. They comprised two percent of the Navy’s forces but accounted for over 30 percent of enemy shipping sunk in the Pacific, the untold story of how the tide of that global war was turned. It was ships like the first Thresher, with 15 combat war patrols to her credit, and the men who sailed in them who paid a heavy price for their successes – the loss of 52 boats and over 3500 men.

The American public may not know as much as they should about this small segment of the United States Armed Forces, after all it is called the “Silent Service” due to the requirement for secrecy about many of its missions. But Tennesseans should be proud of the contribution its service members have made to the defense of the nation, and of its namesake ships. And speaking as one “sub-vet” among those who call Cookeville home I was happy to hear of the effort to have the sail, the conning tower, of the USS Memphis installed as a monument in the Volunteer State.

Patrick Ryan is a writer who lives and works in Cookeville, Tennessee. During his 26 year Navy career he served in American attack and ballistic missile submarines. His essays are available at www.ThePatRyanReport.com

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: