At 11:47 in the morning of Jan. 21, 1951, first lady Mamie Eisenhower smashed a bottle of champagne on the bow of the USS Nautilus and America’s first nuclear submarine slid down into the Thames River in Connecticut.
It was a proud moment for the U.S. Navy, and submarine warfare would never be the same again.
On the team that made it possible was a tough U.S. Navy officer who was born in Russian Poland in 1900 and came to America with his parents when he was only 4, studied hard in school, joined the Navy and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.
He was Adm. Hyman George Rickover.
He would spend 63 years in the Navy — longest of any U.S. naval officer — thanks to a special act of Congress allowed him to serve beyond the mandatory retirement age.
His long career was a rocky one, but he served with distinction. During that time, he did his homework, knew what he was talking about, constantly ruffled the feathers of superior officers, courted members of Congress, always got the job done — and became a legend.
“I believe it is the duty of each of us to act as if the fate of the world depended on him,” he said. “Admittedly, one man by himself cannot do the job. However, one man can make a difference … We must live for the future of the human race, and not for our own comfort or success.”
After serving four years on submarines before World War II, his experience would pay off big time years later.
Twice Capt.Rickover was passed over for promotion and was about to be ordered to retire, but he had friends in high places — especially in Congress. He survived being put out to pasture and was promoted to vice admiral — eventually earning three stars.
The Navy provided Rickover with numerous opportunities to learn about nuclear power — including duty at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a power reactor facility in Tennessee that “became a leader in developing nuclear reactor technology and applying its expertise to what was perceived as an almost unlimited slate of applications.”
Rickover quickly saw the potential of one of those applications being to power Navy ships.
Originally, Navy brass wanted to start going nuclear with destroyers, by Rickover persuaded them to start with submarines.
In 1952, the Nautilus nuclear project got the approval of Congress and President Truman. The nuclear engine prototype would be built 700 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean in the high southeastern Idaho desert town of Arco near the Craters of the Moon Monument.
Adm. Rickover spearheaded a team that designed and built the STR Mark 1 prototype nuclear-powered propulsion engine. The STR meant “Submarine Thermal Reactor” and later called “S1W” for “Submarine, First design, Westinghouse.”
From that prototype, a nuclear-powered engine would be built and installed in America’s first nuclear submarine — the USS Nautilus (SSN-571).
At Arco, the prototype was built; its design flaws corrected, performance simulated and a submarine crew trained how to use it.
At the same time, 2,400 miles to the east in Groton, Conn., ship builder Electric Boat Shipyard — now part of defense contractor General Dynamics — was busy laying the keel for the USS Nautilus that would soon be fitted with the STR Mark II.
Both STR Mark I and II and later Navy reactors were designed to be powered by highly enriched uranium-235 fuel. The 9-pound Nautilus fuel bundle was about the size of a football and packed a 10-megawatt power punch equivalent to 5,760 tons of coal.
Under Rickover’s critical eye and unrelenting guidance, America’s first nuclear-powered submarine was ready within just 18 months.
Nautilus is 319 feet long with a 28-foot beam. One report said, “Nautilus was built for both comfort and speed. Accommodations included 2 and 3-berth staterooms for the 12 officers, a single room for the captain, and a wardroom. For the more than 90 enlisted men, each had their own rack, a mess that could seat 36 of the crew, or up to 50 for movies and lectures.
“A jukebox was hooked to the boat’s hi-fi system, along with an ice cream machine and soda dispenser. Better yet, the nuclear-powered system would provide unlimited fresh water and air conditioning.”
The huge crowd cheered as the boat was christened, and watched it slide down into the water.
In the following months, final construction was completed and the sub made ready for sea trials. On Jan. 17, 1955, the Nautilus headed for the open sea, with Cmdr. Eugene P. Wilkinson transmitting the historic message — “Underway on nuclear power.”
Nautilus was armed and ready for war, but was only used for testing submarine nuclear technology — setting underwater records for distance, a speed of 22 knots and depth of 700 feet.
In 1958, President Eisenhower ordered Operation Sunshine — a historic mission sending the Nautilus commanded by Cmdr. William R. Anderson to sail under the North Pole icecap.
It wasn’t easy. In some places that ice cap was 60 feet thick, with little room to the ocean floor — but they did it. Nautilus traveled 1,590 nautical miles under the ice in 96 hours before surfacing northeast of Greenland.
Nautilus became the first watercraft to reach the geographic North Pole.
Medals and honors were awarded the captain and his crew.
Today, Idaho is still part of America’s incredible submarine world.
At the Navy’s Acoustic Research Detachment (ARD) at Bayview on Lake Pend Oreille — once the home of Farragut Naval Training Station during World War II — new submarine and surface ship shapes and subsystems are tested using smaller than full-size models, utilizing the lake’s unique physical characteristics.
And on the other side of Idaho, nuclear power research continues at Arco.
The original testing site has undergone several name and mission changes since those early days, and is now the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) under jurisdiction of the Department of Energy.
More than 50 nuclear reactors have been built there. Former INL director John Grossenbacher said, “The history of nuclear energy for peaceful application has principally been written in Idaho.”
The old block building where the Nautilus nuclear power engine was created still stands, with the STR Mark I prototype locked up inside — an important historic artifact waiting for the Navy to decide what to do with it.
Late in his life, Adm. Rickover said, “I am not proud of the part I played in it. I did it because it was necessary for the safety of this country. That’s why I am such a great exponent of stopping this whole nonsense of war.
“Unfortunately limits — attempts to limit war have always failed. The lesson of history is when a war starts every nation will ultimately use whatever weapon it has available.”
Aside from the nuclear ships now sailing the seas, one of the lasting legacies will be a new generation of naval officers trained with the Rickover emphasis on details and quality control.
“He brought the nuclear navy into the force more efficiently, more quickly and safer than anyone could have done at that time,” said Henry Nardone Sr., a project officer on the Nautilus.
Hyman Rickover, the crusty and outspoken naval officer who became the “Father of the nuclear Navy,” died at his home in Arlington, Va., in 1986 at age 86. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery following a private ceremony.
More than a thousand attended his memorial service at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
Documentary filmmaker Michael Pack called him “a combative, provocative and searingly blunt, flamboyant maverick — a unique American hero.”
He is also reverently remembered for his tenacity, fearless dealings with superiors, meticulous attention to details without micromanaging, encouragement of creative thinking, prodigious interviewing of candidates to ensure recruiting the “best and the brightest,” and as he said:
“When doing a job — any job — one must feel that he owns it, and act as though he will remain in that job forever.”
In 1979, the Nautilus made her final voyage — sailing from Groton, Conn., to Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, Calif., and decommissioned a year later after 25 years at sea.
America’s first nuclear submarine was returned to Groton in 1985 and today is a submarine museum and National Historic Landmark docked on the banks of the Thames River — near where it all began.
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Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Admiral Rickover said it…
“Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must be driven into practice with courageous impatience. Once implemented, they can be easily overturned or subverted through apathy or lack of follow-up, so a continuous effort is required.”
— Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, USN
Lake Pend Oreille saves billions…
“The Navy’s Acoustic Research Detachment in Bayview, Idaho is all about saving the Navy billions of dollars in their quest for a more perfect submarine and surface combatant. It is almost fiscally impossible to build one-off prototype submarines anymore as the investment in dollars would be in the billions.”
— Tyler Rogoway, Foxtrot Alpha
USS Nautilus (SSN-571) career…
• Keel laid by Electric Boat Division, General Dynamics Corporation, Groton, CT: June 14, 1952
• Launched: Jan. 21, 1954; Sponsored by Mrs. Dwight D. Eisenhower
• Commissioned: Sept. 30, 1954, and commanded by USN Commander Eugene P. Wilkinson
• Crossed the North Pole: Aug. 3, 1958, under command of USN Commander William R. Anderson
• Decommissioned: March 3, 1980
• Number of Dives: 2,507
• Total nautical miles traveled: 513,550
• Now a submarine museum in Groton, Conn.
U.S. Navy tribute to Aussie submariner…
World War I decorated Australian hero Sir Hubert Wilkins failed at sailing his submarine Nautilus to the North Pole, but the U.S. Navy nuclear submarine Skate (SSN-578) carried his ashes to the North Pole and left them there on St. Patrick’s Day 1959.
Admiral Rickover’s wife Eleonore was listening to the radio when she heard the announcement that her husband was retiring from the Navy after 63 years of service. He’d just turned 82 four days earlier. The radio report was news to both of them. The old sailor had served his adopted country with distinction under 13 presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Ronald Reagan.
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