By Karen Zautyk
On the morning of April 10, 1963, the USS Thresher (SSN 593), one of the U.S. Navy’s then relatively new fleet of nuclearpowered submarines, was conducting deep-diving trials 220 miles off the coast of Cape Cod.
On the surface, the ship USS Skylark maintained radio communications with the sub, which was circling beneath it, deeper and deeper into the sea. Then the transmissions from the Thresher became garbled, and gradually they ceased.
Continued attempts to contact the sub were futile.
Fifteen Navy ships were dispatched to try to locate her, another futile enterprise.
By 6:30 p.m., she was declared missing. She had been lost with all hands: 112 crew members and 17 civilian technical advisers. The Atlantic had become the grave for 129 souls; the Thresher, their coffin. Flags across the U.S. flew at half-staff.
Those of us old enough to remember the tragedy remember it vividly, not only the sorrow and the shock, but also the fear. Were all those men still alive, knowing there was no escape, facing a slow but certain death?
On May 22, oceanographic research vessels detected the Thresher’s shattered hull on the ocean floor, about 8,400 feet down. And from June through September, a deep-diving bathyscaphe searched for, found and photographed the debris field.
The explanation of the probable cause as described by naval researchers is complicated, but it can be summed up as an implosion, shattering the sub into thousands of pieces. It can be assumed that the 129 died quickly, which was some small mercy.
Last Wednesday marked the 50th anniversary of the disaster, and one of those 129, a native son of Nutley, was memorialized along with his shipmates at a special ceremony in front of Town Hall, where stands a monument to the young man, Seaman Pervis Robison Jr.
The event was sponsored by the Department of Public Affairs Military & Veterans Affairs Bureau, in partnership with the Nutley Veterans Council.
Robison biographical info from Public Affairs Commissioner Steven Rogers, himself a retired U.S. Naval officer, noted that the sailor was born Dec. 15, 1941, in Nutley, the Robison family’s residence for two generations.
Robison graduated from Lincoln Elementary School, Nutley Junior High and Nutley High School (Class of 1960), where he excelled as a member of the track team.
Following graduation, he enlisted in the Navy, completed his recruit training at Great Lakes, Illinois, and received further training at the Navy Radio School in Bainbridge, Md.
Robison was assigned to the Thresher on Jan. 11, 1963, and lost his life on the sub almost exactly three months later. He was 21 years old.
Among those attending the 50th anniversary tribute were Robison relatives and family friends who had traveled up from Delaware, representatives of various veterans’ organization, members of the KHS History Club and Nutley residents who had grown up with Robison or gone to school with him. Fred Romonowski, also NHS Class of ‘60, remembered Pervis as being “very personable, a happy-go-lucky kid.”
Barbara Sicoli, who had known Pervis from grade school through high school, brought along copies of his NHS yearbook photo, under which it states, “A quiet manner is the devil’s workshop.” It shows a handsome young gentleman with a hint of mischief in his eyes.
Another friend was Patti Williams of the Nutley Historical Society, who told us, “I saw Pervis on his last leave. It was that Sunday [before the sinking]. I didn’t know what happened until I saw his picture in the paper. And then my heat sank.”
Williams’ mother, Ruth, was chosen by then-Mayor Harry Chenoweth, to chair the memorial service held for Robison at Nutley High School after the Thresher tragedy.
At last week’s program, Williams and Historical Society President Domenick Tibaldo displayed a framed tribute to Robison prepared by the society and featuring the sailor’s portrait and emblems of the Thresher, which bear the submarine’s motto Vis Tacita (Silent Strength). It will hang in the Nutley Museum on Chestnut St.
Vis Tacita could also be applied to the most moving part of the program, performed in solemn silence: the unfurling and then folding of an American flag by members of the U.S. Marine Corps, the presentation of the flag to Rogers, representing the town, the banner’s placement atop the Robison memorial, and a final formal slow salute.
The ceremony, the prayers, the remarks, the remembrances were all deeply moving. But on the sun-drenched lawn, where spring flowers had started blooming, there was also a sense of – how can we put it? – peace. And hope. And gratitude for this nation’s having been blessed with men like Pervis Robison and his shipmates.
In his speech to the gathering, Rogers said, “As time marches on and the front-page stories about America’s past heroes become footnotes in history, it is our job, those of us who live in this great land of liberty today, to preserve those front-page stories by keeping them on the forefront of the minds and hearts of all who are willing to listen and learn why we are a free nation today.”