What Would Rickover Do

My brother, Tim Oliver, has served for eight years as the President of the Capitol Chapter of the Naval Submarine League. For his last meeting today he invited me to speak. I have therefore poached a little from my upcoming book (Against the Tide).

For those who may not know, after he had served in the Fleet for a few years, Rickover returned to school. Following a year of electrical engineering refresher training in Annapolis, Admiral Rickover attended Columbia where he met his first wife and received a Masters in Engineering. Building on this education, the Admiral subsequently made many fleet improvements in electrical engineering, and some years later was assigned as the head of the Electrical Section of the Bureau of Ships during almost the entirety of World War II. One of his wartime innovations was the modification of the Air Cooled Breaker, or ACB. He adapted this breaker, which is used for selective tripping in the electrical plant on all Navy ships, to make it much more resistant to inadvertently opening under shock. Rickover was justifiably proud of this professional and personal achievement.

In fact, he was so identified with this one accomplishment, he wrote a monogram about it during the war. In addition, early in the nuclear power program Rickover wrote, published and made us all annually read a scathing case study about a submarine commanding officer who tried to blame the ACB equipment aboard his ship instead of accepting than a particular incident was caused by the individual operating the ACB. Because the submarine force was small, and tribal knowledge is pervasive, everyone in the submarine force was very well aware of the Admiral’s personal involvement in the ACB design.

Which of course is an invitation to disaster – and let me ask the Midshipmen today in attendance — why should that have been such an obvious danger?

Now I will relate two stories which involve the good Admiral and his ACBs. I will give you forewarning that the second story will involve both my brother and me, which is only right, since this is the last meeting at which Tim holds the gavel for this group.

I once was operating the engineering plant in a nuclear ship alongside a pier in New London, Connecticut and one of the large turbines generating power for the ship suffered what is termed a turn-to-turn failure. Now that sounds gentile. What actually happened was all the power from one phase shorted to another producing a lighting bolt through the structural steel I beams and puddle the machine copper into a twenty-foot spray that splashed the engine room with molten bee-bees.
Very disruptive. Very exciting. Only through the Grace of God was no one killed. And the entire engineering plant crashed, scramming the reactor plant! Just what Admiral Rickover’s ACBs were supposed to prevent!

Because even the battery breakers didn’t open, the entire electrical system was grounded by melted copper and the only light I had was flashlights and the flames of the fire. Flashlights don’t actually put out a great deal of light. In fact, we put the Reactor into Emergency Cooling before we foamed the fire completely out.

As you might suspect, it was a multimillion dollar casualty and took five or six months to rebuild the generator, reweld the hull and get back on line. In the meantime, I had reported events as I witnessed them – the casualty was due to multiple electrical failures –the turbine generator had been improperly overhauled and the ACBs were faulty.

Now, at that time, there was an ongoing fight over culture in the submarine force. The people in charge of navy shipbuilding and repair wanted to “let a thousand flowers bloom” and permit each submarine shipyard to establish its own processes and standards. We might be changing the test depth of submarines from the 212 feet of my first diesel boat to many times that, but the Washington (e.g. diesel boat) establishment was more interested in finding a replacement for Rickover than considering any fangled ideas of professionalism. In fact, their preferred replacement for Rickover was the Engineering Duty Admiral currently in charge of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

On the opposite end of the technical spectrum, Rickover believed that all engineering standards needed to be standardized, centralized and significantly tightened, and, of course, that he should remain in charge of nuclear ships for a bit longer. He also frequently stated that Portsmouth Naval Shipyard did not operate at the highest standards and did not deserve a nuclear contract. Of course Portsmouth took this as an insult since they had historically done the brunt of the diesel submarine new construction and overhaul work.

After eight different nuclear submarine classes had been successfully built at Electric Boat, the Navy people not in Rickover’s corner, which were many, forced the first nuclear ship contract award to Portsmouth. This was for the 594 class – and Portsmouth had performed as Rickover had feared – the initial ship of the class, the USS Thresher was lost with all hands due to shoddy shipyard workmanship and bad decisions by the very admiral who was being endorsed as Rickover’s replacement.

There was a subsequent investigation of the disaster, but many of us felt the hearings did not adequately address the role of either Portsmouth Shipyard or its Commander. While some in and out of the Navy were still trying to cover up this problem rather than lance the Portsmouth abscess, Nautilus surfaced under the carrier Essex during at sea exercises and was directed to Portsmouth for repairs. The inferiority of their work consequently led to my exciting experiences that afternoon in New London.

Now at the time, I was ignorant of all this history swirling about. I was merely a Lieutenant, newly married, working long hours, trying to do my best, my khakis inevitably stained with oil from some leak I had brushed against and not yet fixed. I knew that Rickover had designed the Air Cooled Breakers. But I also knew what I had seen in the instant before all the lights went out that afternoon. None of Rickover’s breakers had worked!

So I reported that fact up the chain of command.

Some people tried to save me from myself. Others didn’t like the extra paperwork involved in taking a position. Very few supported my report. I got calls from senior officers strongly recommending I change my report. I didn’t. It was what I had seen.

Five months later, we had a new turbine generator and were ready to start the reactor back up. As we prepared to do so a long white panel truck unexpectedly pulled up to the head of our pier. Two men got out and began hammering a long copper pole into the tarmac. To the pole they installed a knife switch and began running a cable down the pier. They wanted to lug it to our main bus bars. Inside the truck were thirty or so sensitive recording devices.

It turns out that there was no simple test for an ACB at the time, so we were there to record what happened when we brought the reactor up to power and then they replicated another turn-to-turn failure. My commanding officer called Admiral Rickover, Yes, that is what he wanted done.

It promised to be an exciting experiment if the breakers didn’t work — as I expected. I wrote a short procedure. The officer assigned as Engineering Officer of the Watch resigned his qualification and walked off the ship. I took over the watch. I could supervise myself. I had already done this once before. See one, teach one.

We established self-sustaining conditions and at my command the two men on the pier threw the five-foot knife switch down. In a flash everything died and the reactor again drifted into emergency cooling (this time I had men standing by the breakers with insulated rubber electrical gloves to manually trip the breakers, but the surge still scrammed the reactor and I couldn’t get cooling flow back for some time).

Different people learned different things that day. The organization learned that the shipyard had installed the ACB trip mechanism internally backwards and there needed to be a method of checking the breakers.

I learned that one of the few people in the entire chain of command, in the seven layers between me and Admiral Rickover, who was even willing to consider that a lowly lieutenant was correct, was the very man whose name was attached to the design of those breakers. He was actually a very humble man.

Now we need to fast forward a few years, in which I was busy doing my own thing. I was now a Commanding Officer of a fast attack submarine.

In the intervening years, Admiral Rickover’s staff had developed a procedure, which happened to be termed Operating Instruction 62, or O/I 62 in the jargon of the day. This test checked the proper operation of electrical equipment that directly affected the safety of the reactor (including his ACBs of the previous story).

One day I hear through the grapevine that, while conducting the test aboard a ship on the other coast, an electrician had been electrocuted. I wrangle a copy of the investigation. The report was brief and straight-forward – the procedure had been precisely followed, with proper safety supervision present, but the electrician conducting the operation had been careless, permitting his arm to brush against a powered 450-volt copper bus bar. He was instantly killed.

Now the nuclear submarine business was particularly dangerous in the early years, and I had by this time already seen several men die aboard and around boats. But you know what? No one had ever died when they were being properly supervised.
In fact, this happens to be a rule you can wrap up and take to work with you — people don’t die when they are being properly supervised.

. Six months later, standing in the San Diego submarine officer’s bar, I overheard someone gossiping — another electrician had been lost while conducting O/I-62.
An inquiring telephone call informed me that both the latest death and its subsequent investigation were believed to be none of my business. Nevertheless the submarine force is small. Within a week an unmarked envelope containing a copy of the official report appeared in my inbox.

I was in command of a submarine, so I essentially had my own test platform available. And since I was in command of a submarine, unless I checked for myself before the next time we were scheduled to accomplish O/I 62, there was the chance I might very well be shipping the body of one of my young electricians home.
Now if you buy my book, Against the Tide, when it comes out in November, it will tell you that essentially I decided to do the test myself and nearly died and subsequently a chief petty officer and I redesigned the equipment to make the process safe. For this luncheon, we will skip ahead to what happened when I submitted this change up the chain of command.

My boss, who would the next year be selected for the rank of admiral, soon called me up to his sea cabin. His lair was on the fifth deck of the large repair ship moored just across the pier from my submarine.

As soon as I was standing at attention in front of his desk, he used the tips of his fingers to slowly push our document across his desk toward me. He accompanied his disdainful gesture with comments that frankly seemed mildly discouraging:

“We all know Admiral Rickover is the most renowned electrical engineer in the Bureau. We all know he personally designed these breakers being tested and is particularly proud of that achievement. If he says an electrical procedure is safe and correct, I, for one, am not going to challenge him!”

He spoke again, his voice rising, “How dare you make a change to your engineering plant to attempt to prove that something unauthorized would work? Who do you think you are?”

I went back to my ship and asked the Yeoman for a mailing box. I dropped the procedure inside, addressing the box to Admiral Rickover at his home and included a short personal note,

“Dear Admiral Rickover,
If you want to stop killing people, read this.
Very respectfully,
Dave Oliver
Captain, US Navy”

I was later informed by my brother, Tim, who was on Rickover’s staff at the time, that the day after the mail system delivered my box; Rickover simply brought it in from home and handed it to the head of his electrical section. Rickover asked it be evaluated – and directed that no one in the electrical section was to leave work until the assessment was completed (a standard Rickover practice greatly appreciated by those of us who had difficulty getting any of our letters answered by other Navy functional organizations).

When the head of the electrical section reported to Rickover that the recommended change was correct, Rickover took several actions.

Rickover first directed that the change be issued as a message change, precisely as the Senior Chief and I had written.

Secondly, Rickover fired the head of his electrical department. Two men had died and his electrical head should have picked up on the problems in the investigative reports long before I did. Rickover’s sense of personal responsibility was almost always at a perfect pitch. When I later heard about his action, I mentally applauded.

Finally Rickover picked up the telephone and called my Commodore.

I don’t recall what I was working on that day when the Commodore unexpectedly called my Executive Officer and requested all my officers and crew fall in at attention on the pier between our two ships.

The buzz was big and everyone moved with alacrity. It was only when the Commodore began addressing the crew by telling them that he wanted everyone to hear his “sincere apologies to their Commanding Officer” that I sensed today was NOT going smoothly.

You see, the hero of our story, Admiral Rickover, was one of those unique individuals who could simply accept that he (or one of his closest advisors) had been wrong – even if the issue involved a personal accomplishment in which he had previously taken great pride. When it was determined he was in error, Rickover always looked anew at the evidence, chose a better path, changed course and never looked back. He was the best I have ever seen at accepting correction.

However, Rickover had a flaw. He expected others to be equally grownup. Unfortunately most supervisors in the world, including my Commodore that day, are not nearly as mature and magnanimous.

You have heard that no day in San Diego can be a very bad day? Well Admiral Rickover made it possible for that day in San Diego to be classified at least as poor.

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  1. Dave, great stories as usual. Although the Navy and other military services spend a great deal of time teaching leadership, it is difficult for most people to put “doing the right thing” in front of doing what they believe is politically acceptable. Nice to hear that Admiral Rickover wasn’t one of them… Thanks, marv

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