The USS Nautilus (SSN-571)
August 4, 2021
When doing a job — any job — one must feel that he owns it, and act as though he will remain in that job forever. ~ Hyman Rickover
As you might imagine, with my having been a submariner during my time in the Navy, touring the first nuclear-powered US naval vessel the USS NAUTILUS at its permanent mooring in Groton, CT was definitely on my bucket list. I admit, if not a past submariner, I’m not sure this would peak to many people’s interest, but for me, this was a chance to see and learn a bit more about the modern USN submarines. Actually going on a submarine was a first for Sherry and she was impressed with the space in the living quarters and common areas of the sub thought she thought sleeping in the racks equated to sleeping on a shelf and could imagine banging her head on the rack above.
Captain Hyman G Rickover was assigned to work with the company General Electric out of Schenectady NY who developed nuclear power for naval destroyers. As a qualified officer for both surface and submarines, Rickover realized the value of the creating of nuclear-powered submarines. As with so many visionaries, he had to fight “tooth and nail” to realize the vision. It was said that the decision-making Naval community was so against his idea that he was passed over for promotion to Rear-Admiral, which would force him into retirement at his 30-year point according to congressional law. However, Rickover was not one to take no for an answer.
Admiral Chester Nimitz, who not only had a history with submarines but was also Chief of Naval Operations at the time, was an ally of Rickover and supported Rickover’s vision for nuclear-powered submarines. Nimitz was an integral force involving Congress for an exception to the 30-year promotion rule as well as adding Rickover’s name to the naval promotion list. Convincing decision makers to reverse their decisions to allow Rickover’s promotion was a difficult thing to do in 1953. In the end, Rickover received his promotion thus paving the way for the building of the first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS NAUTILUS. Imagine what would need to happen in today’s political arena to accomplish such a feat! In 1983, after 63 years of service, Hyman Rickover retired as a full (four-star) Admiral, and is known as the father of the nuclear navy.
Construction of the USS NAUTILUS began in 1952 with the keel being laid in June of that year. Upon completion the USS NAUTILUS was commissioned in September 1954. The design was based on three previous classes of submarines – the GATO, BALAO and TENCH classes. Looking at the basic shape, the USS NAUTILUS has the look of a boat that is designed to be on the surface but it is operational under water as well. Today’s submarines are just the opposite – designed to operate under water but can also operate on the surface. It may seem like semantics, but when looking from submarines built in the 40s and those in the 80s, there is a distinctive design change due to the different philosophy of where the “boat” operated (on top of the sea vs underwater).
What are some of the advantages of a nuclear-powered submarine, you might ask. One clear advantage is the fact that there are no emissions because the propulsion system doesn’t require air. Another is how long the submarine can stay submerged. The length of time a “boat” can be submerged is as long as the crew can survive, which is limited only to the amount of food and supplies that can be carried.
Submarines have on-board oxygen generators whose function is solely to separate oxygen from hydrogen in water. Together with CO2 scrubbers, carbon dioxide is removed from the air, and the result is clean breathable air. Another piece of equipment – the evaporator distiller – refines salt water into fresh, drinkable water. Finally, human waste goes to a sanitary pressurized tank where it is forced out of the boat when needed. Other than food and supplies, the submarine is self-contained and overall, better for the environment due to the reduction of emissions.
Many of you already know how I found myself in the Navy, for those of you who don’t, I had dropped out of college and went to work for White Industries in St. Cloud, MN on a freezer assembly line. In September, 1980, I was laid off as the US entered a recession. Being out of work and with no prospects in sight, I made the decision to join the Navy. My focus was to get a marketable skill so that after my enlistment I would have a better choice of employment. After my initial training, I was accepted to the nuclear program as a reactor operator. Once I reached the end of my training there were two choices offered – surface or submarine. I could make more money serving on a submarine and be a part of a smaller crew. Serving on an aircraft carrier (surface) meant being part of a crew of around 5000 (too many for me). So, it was a pretty straight-forward decision.
Once getting to my boat, USS GEORGE WASHINGTON CARVER – SSBN-656, it was very easy for me to become a part of the crew and form relationships with my shipmates, better described as my brothers. Some of those relationships remain today. I could go on about life on a submarine for hours and have presented talks to a handful of groups over the last few years, as it is a life like no other.
I do recommend if you are in the area to consider visiting the USS NAUTILUS and Navy Museum located in Groton, CT. Allow yourself three to four hours to appreciate all she has to offer.