One man was instrumental in fomenting a revolution in the US Navy. What if you installed a nuclear reactor on a sub?, he thought.
What if you could replace the diesel engines and batteries with a new source of almost unlimited power?
One man, who had sailed on submersibles himself before World War II, pondered this and other questions. That man was Hyman G. Rickover. And because he was so instrumental in fomenting a new technological revolution, we’ll look at Rickover and his antics in deep. Because it was largely thanks to him that the first nuclear submarine put to sea and sailed to the center of the North Pole. So let’s introduce him.
Born Chaim Godalia Rickover on January 27, 1900, in eastern Poland that was then part of the Russian Empire, the Rickover family fled to the United States to escape a Russian pogrom against Jews in 1904, arriving in the US in 1905
Moving first to New York City and then to Chicago, where his father took up work as a tailor, the young Rickover – who now went by the more easily pronouncable name of Hyman – started his working life delivering telegrams for Western Union when he wasn’t at high school.
His parents could not afford college tuition. Thanks to his job with the telegraph company, Rickover had gotten acquainted with a US Congressman, who helped him get on the list for appointment at the Naval Academy, although low on the enrollment list. Thanks to hard work and study, he passed the entrance exam and enrolled, finishing in 1922 at the top of his class and assigned to warships, first the destroyer La Valette and later moving on to the battleship Nevada.
While there he continued studying engineering, becoming the youngest engineering officer of the squadron. The navy paid for continued studies at the Naval Postgraduate School and went to Columbia University, where he attained a master’s degree in electrical engineering.
He then volunteered for submarine duty but was initially turned down due to his age, 29. The story has it that Rickover then happened to bump into his former CO of the USS Nevada, who – like the Congressman earlier – put in a good word on his behalf. He then sailed on two subsequent submarines, the S-9 and S-49 from 1929 to 1933. In 1931, he married his first wife, Ruth Masters.
All the while the small and thin Rickover had made a name for himself as smart, hard-working but principled and stubborn young man in the Navy. His personality was edgy and he didn’t suffer fools, many of which in his mind were found in the upper echelons of the officer corps. He wanted to get things done, he knew how to get them done and if he met opposition, he just moved around it and got his way through other means. His propensity to speak his mind and not lick boots meant that promotions didn’t come easy.
After his stint on submarines he was assigned to the office of the Inspector of Naval Material, where he translated an influential book on submarines by a German admiral of World War I into English. It became a basic text book in the navy curriculum. He was then assigned to a US mine sweeper in China, and after a stint in the Philippines in 1937 returned to the US to end up at the Electrical section of the Navy’s Bureau of Engineering in 1939.
Rickover was still in Washington when war broke out. After being promoted to commander, he was shipped to Pearl Harbor to oversee repairs to USS California, one of the battleships badly damaged by the Japanese surprise attack. Rickover oversaw the repairs to the ship’s electrical plant and she was back in action early in 1944. After finally receiving the title of temporary captain, Rickover requested transfer to active duty, but instead was given assignments at supply depots and ports.
He seemed destined to be stuck with dull jobs forever. Late in 1945 he was assigned inspector general to the 19th fleet, which sounds impressive on paper until you realize thst the “19th fleet” was a reserve fleet. Rickover was to oversee mothballing. But he also got a big break. He was also assigned to work with General Electric at the Manhattan Project, today known as the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. It was and is the place where the US develops just about everything nuclear, including nuclear reactors. And that’s where Rickover got the atomic bug.
His assignment was to oversee the development of nuclear propulsion for destroyers. Like I said earlier, the idea of nuclear propulsion for ships had been around when Rickover was alternating between assignments in the 1930s, but now he had to come up with the real thing. Rickover’s hard-pushing, get-things-done attitude was much called for, but while at Oak Ridge, he figured that if you could install a nuclear reactor in a ship, you could also put one in a submarine. And so that idea became Rickover’s north star.
He started pushing his idea in true Rickover fashion, more or less demanding from his superior officers that they adopt his plan and, oh yeah, assign the job to him? That threw the top brass into a tantrum. And what do small minded admirals who don’t like guys who talk back do? They assign you to another shitty job, probably in hopes that the uppity shithead resigned. And so they dreamt up a lousy advisory position and, so the story goes, offered him an “office” (I’m making quotation marks here with my fingers) in an abandoned ladies room in the Washington office.
Not do be outdone, and again in pure Rickover fashion, he went around his direct superiors and managed to get a couple of minutes with admiral Chester Nimitz, a celebrated World War II hero and at the time Chief of Naval Operations, the last military rank before you bump in to the elected people. Rickover convinced Nimitz to pitch the idea for nuclear submarines to his boss, Secretary of the Navy John Sullivan, who signed up for it amid much snarling, jaw clenching and gnashing of teeth in the upper ranks of the Navy. Rickover had done it again.
A brand-new section called the Nuclear Power Division was set up in the Bureau of Ships, at the time the government branch concerned procuring new vessels for the navy, and captain Rickover was made the section’s chief, working hand in glove with Oak Ridge to develop the world’s first and smallest nuclear reactor to be put inside a submarine.
However, that still wasn’t enough to get things going. Rickover was perpetually hampered by petty Navy politics.
And so, to slice through the red tape, Rickover got himself simultaneously assigned as chief of the Division of Reactor Development at the newly established Atomic Energy Commission, and director of the Naval`Reactors Branch of the Bureau of Ships, where the string purse lay.
As such, chief Hyman G. Rickover sent letters with requests for funding, staff and material to director Hyman G. Rickover over at the Bureau of Ships.
Cue even more snarling, jaw clenching, gnashing of teeth and now also clenched fists among the top brass whom Rickover had bypassed. Oh, you want a promotion, huh? Gee, ah, Hyman, how about you don’t call us and we’ll call you, yeah? Bye now.
Rickover set to work together with Westinghouse Corporation to come up with a pressurized water reactor with a beam no larger than 8,5 meters, or 28 feet, to fit inside an existing submarine design. This would become the USS Nautilus, the first submarine to carry the ‘SSN’ abbreviation, signifying an attack submarine with nuclear propulsion and nothing less than a revolution for the US Navy.
Congress approved the design and cost for the Nautilus in 1951, with the keel laid by president Truman in the summer of 1952.
While the wharf was hard at work, Rickover was in trouble. The admirals he had bypassed didn’t just exercise all kinds of petty muscles, they also dragged their feet on the logical next promotion, that of rear admiral. This was a huge problem as Navy rules stipulated that captains were to automatically retire from the service after 30 years. That day was now coming fast and the brass didn’t call back.
The US Senate signed off on a list of names up for promotion to admiral. This was normally a routine affair, but not this time ‘round. The brass had left Rickover’s name off
By now Rickover had made somewhat of a name for himself not only within the Washington Beltway, but also among the press. News stories began to appear – Kryptonite to elected officials – and again a higher-up stepped in on behalf of Rickover. The US Secretary of the Navy convened a special commission that pushed the Navy to put Rickover’s name on the list for promotion. And so, finally, in 1953, a year before Nautilus rolled off the wharf, he was made rear admiral.
USS Nautilus was christened by First Lady Eisenhower on January 21, 1954 and underwent tests and trials. She was commissioned on September 30, 1954, and it was on January 17, 1955, that Nautilus made her first voyage under her own power, with the captain messaging back to port the historical report “underway on nuclear power”. She then submerged just outside New London, Connecticut and surfaced again at San Juan, Puerto Rico, traveling some 1100 miles or 2000 kilometers. That in itself set a record
She then travelled vast distances, also to allied ports where Americans used her as a marketing tool for nuclear reactors. The British were keen on developing their own nuclear submarines in concert with their American brethren. Everyone agreed that Nautilus was an impressive feat of technological prowess.
To the North Pole
On August 3, 1958, commander William Anderson of USS Nautilus recorded that he had navigated her to the very top of the world, under the thick pack of Arctic ice. Anderson was paraded around in Washington and he, his crew and the submarine itself received medals and citations. A full-blown PR offensive ensured that USS Nautilus is to this day remembered as a giant leap in submarine technology in which the Americans had the edge, and that it was one Hyman G. Rickover who was instrumental in achieving it, resulting in Time putting him on the cover of their magazine shortly after Nautilus’s voyage.
The warm glow would not last long, though, as the Soviets were in a dead heat, with the K-3 ‘Lenininsky Komsomol’ of the new Project 627, or November-class submarine reporting her own “under way on nuclear power” on July 14, 1958.
Rickover would go on to be one of the longest serving and oldest admirals, retiring only at the ripe age of 82 and only after being forced out because of alleged scandals. He died on July 8, 1986, having interviewed and guided nearly all officers on board nuclear submarines.