New Book Looks at Man Who Launched Nuclear Navy From Connecticut
It was the late 1950s and U.S. pride was hurting.
“In October 1957 the Soviets put Sputnik up,” Dave Oliver, a retired Navy rear admiral, recalls. “At the same time the Army was in Arkansas enforcing segregation, the Air Force had just dropped a nuclear bomb on a house in a little town in North Carolina, it wasn’t armed thank God, but they just screwed up and dropped it from an airplane. The Navy was in charge of making armed missiles go up and the highest they managed to get one off the ground was four feet before it tumbled over and burned.”
Against this backdrop of scientific failure and social unrest, President Dwight D. Eisenhower turned to the crew of the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear submarine, which had been built at the Electric Boat Shipyard in Groton and launched into Connecticut’s Thames River three years earlier. Eisenhower ordered the ship on a top-secret mission called “Operation Sunshine.” This mission would take the ship under the Arctic ice pack of the North Pole, a chilling nether-region where no other vessel dared venture. Under the ice sheet, navigation was difficult as standard compasses were inaccurate close to the globe’s pole, in addition in some areas the ice extended as much as 60 feet below the surface of the water and there was hardly any room for the ship to pass between the ice and the sea floor.
(Above, the USS Nautilus, the world’s first atomic powered submarine being launched at Groton, Connecticut, on Jan. 21, 1954).
In 1958, using a specially designed compass and a carefully chosen route, the Nautilus successfully traveled under the North Pole from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean. The 1,590 nautical mile journey took 96 hours and was soon announced to the world as proof that the U.S. had not fallen behind the Soviet Union in terms of scientific advancement.
Powered by a nuclear reactor, when the Nautilus first cruised out of Connecticut waters, for better or worse, it changed the face of modern warfare. Conventional diesel submarines could only stay underwater for limited amounts of time and could not travel fast.
“A nuclear submarine, once it’s submerged, it can stay down for as long as wanted. It made it’s own air, it made its own water so it would stay down for 90 days,” Oliver explains. And in contrast to slow moving diesel submarines, the Nautilus and subsequent nuclear submarines were breathtakingly fast. “The Nautilus could run around any surface ships. It just immediately became the killer of the seas and took over the seas,” Oliver says.
(Above, the USS Nautilus (SSN-571) submarine at Portland Harbour, Dorset, 12th August 1958. Photo by Bob Haswell/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The emergence of the nuclear Navy was largely thanks to the efforts of admiral Hyman G. Rickover, a legendary and polarizing figure known as the “father of the nuclear Navy.” Oliver, who served under Rickover, examines his former boss’ contributions to the Navy and leadership in a new book called Against the Tide: Rickover’s Leadership Principals and the Rise of the Nuclear Navy (Naval Institute Press, 2014). “Rickover has done so much for America and he was such a lightning rod, but people didn’t recognize what he had done for management, and I thought I should try to document that,” Oliver says, explaining the inspiration for the book.
Part of the secret to Rickover’s leadership success, says Oliver, was his laser-like focus on a limited number of priorities. “Rickover focused on safety and he focused on reliability and he focused on those two things for the 40 years he ran the Nuclear power program,” Oliver says.
Rickover (below) was born in 1900 to a Jewish family who lived in a part of Poland controlled by Russia. When he was 4 his family came to the U.S. and ultimately settled in Chicago. As an engineer, he rose up the ranks in the Navy. He had an unconventional personality that didn’t jive with many in the Navy and earned him his fair share of detractors and enemies. “He was an introvert,” Oliver explains. “It’s really hard in the military to be an introvert, generally it’s an extrovert’s society.”
Rickover overcame these challenges, and saw early on how nuclear power was going to revolutionize warfare. “In 1946 he was talking about putting nuclear weapons on the submarine,” Oliver says.
After his first marriage, Rickover lived for a while in Litchfield and it was Connecticut that would also be the site of his biggest accomplishment. At the time of the Nautilus’ construction, the Navy’s naval yard in Portsmouth, N.H., was the main submarine manufacturing area and the obvious choice to build the Nautilus. However, when Rickover visited the Portsmouth yard, the commander of that yard told Rickover that they were too busy building diesel submarines to build the Nautilus. Rickover immediately drove to Connecticut and got the project started here.
Rickover’s military philosophy was, “The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.” With that work ethic, he did whatever it took to get the Nautilus built. “He did it with parts from a dairy that had gone bankrupt, and some parts of ships that had been sunk during World War II, and parts from other ships that were scrapped, they put all these together and got this ship to sea,” Oliver says.
During his Navy career, Oliver (right) witnessed the power of the Nautilus’ successors firsthand, serving on nuclear submarines and as the chief of staff of the Pacific Ocean based Seventh Fleet. This was during the high tensions of the Cold War and Oliver used the Navy’s nuclear fleet to keep the Soviet Union in check. “I had the Soviets at bay, there was no way they could cross the Pacific,” he says.
The Nautilus was retired in the 1980s and is housed today at the Submarine Force Library & Museum in Groton where visitors can tour it. Oliver says a visit to the ship provides a close-up look at a stunning scientific achievement. “That monument up there, if you walk though and look how rough it is, it was before magnetic amplifiers had been invented, it was before anything had been invented that you have in your phone,” he says. He adds the ship’s primitive (in some ways) technology shows just how impressive its trip under the North Pole was, and how brave those involved with the mission were. “Those people took that under the North Pole so that President Eisenhower could have the commanding officer come to his Oval Office so that he could announce to the rest of the world that we were ahead of the Soviet Union.” It was a historic moment for the U.S. and for Connecticut.