Archive for August, 2018

Life after the Polar Crossing

“They [Nautilus and an airship 126719] were undertaken at a time when the Arctic was considered the last earth frontier. Both the nuclear-powered submarine and the airship were exotic, new, yet-to-be-proven additions to the fleet.” – Admiral Arleigh A. Burke, USN (Ret.)  Nautilus was unlike any other submarine that had come before. Nautilus had unlimited power from her reactor, was able to distill her own drinking water, recycle its own air and run an air conditioning system. She sailed away from Groton with an ice cream machine, a washer machine and the crew could shower every day. When Nautilus reached Greenland in August 1958, she had sailed more than 70 hours submerged. Operation Sunshine had changed the landscape for submarines forever. The impacts of Nautilus have been far-reaching, and she stands today at the museum as a testament to innovation.

Nautilus in New York Harbor during her return

In May of 1958, before Nautilus went on her fateful mission, Proceedings magazine described what crossing the Arctic would mean for the United States. This was of course based off previous missions (Operation Sunshine was a secret). They wrote that “Employing characteristics stealth, a missle-launching submarine can reach and maintain position in the ice pack without its presence being known. The submarine can remain undetected submarine can remain undetected indefinitely.” They added that, “A thorough knowledge of the region is a prerequisite to using it to fullest advantage and to understanding its relationship and effect on the rest of the world.” Proceedings Magazine was right in their assessment. The data pulled from Nautilus’ mission led to new technologies. Her crew returned home with more than 11,000 soundings and other measurements of the polar crossing. Priceless data, including water temperatures, optical transparency, and electrical conductivity have been compiled for military and civilian science.  The inertial guidance that became a standard for navigation and scientific research below the polar ice caps was now possible. The popularity of the mission-inspired children around the world to go into careers in science and technology. The Arctic could now become a staging area for submarine operations. During the rest of the Cold War, both U.S. and Russian submarines used the waters of the Arctic to keep an eye on the other. In the wake of Nautilus’ accomplishments came the Polaris submarines that began being deployed in the 1960’s. It was the Polaris program that provided a deterrent to Soviet nuclear aggression. A program that would not have been possible without Nautilus and her advancements. In March of the following year after Nautilus’ trip, the USS Skate became the first submarine to surface at the North Pole.  After breaking through, her crew spread the ashes of Sit Hubert Wilkins as he had requested.

Skate at the North Pole

In 1960, USS Triton circumnavigated the world. A new world of exploration had been ushered in by Nautilus’ polar crossing. Submarines would continue to use the route for transit since it was now the shortest route between the Atlantic and the Pacific.

Since Nautilus, submarines have used upward-looking sonar to monitor the thickness of the ice to determine breakthrough points. One advantage of these arctic missions is that we have been able to track the noticeable difference in ice thickness due to warming air and sea temperatures. When Nautilus was first launched, President Eisenhower believed that nuclear-powered cargo submarines could use the Arctic Ocean for transport. While this hasn’t happened, the diminishment of Arctic ice means the region is seeing an expansion of Arctic shipping, oil, gas, and mineral exploration. To continue arctic efforts, the Navy takes part in a biennial exercise known as ICEX where submarines test weapons, surface through the ice and perform other training. Capt. Whitescarver, Naval Submarine Base Commanding officer said that “by 2020, middle of 2025, we’re going to start spending more money on how we participate in the Arctic.”

Besides the scientific advancements made since 1958, Nautilus proved that nuclear power could be harnessed. Not one accident since Nautilus went on her journey has been attributed to nuclear propulsion. This is a record that the Navy is extremely proud of. She proved that anything was possible and with Rickover behind the Nuclear program, the safety measures put in place have been a shining example of what science can accomplish when handled wisely. By her end, Nautilus had logged more than 50,000 miles and shattered records for submerged distance and speed. When she was decommissioned, it was said that “The Nautilus belonged to Rickover, even more than to the nation that had paid for her, more than to the Navy that operated her, more than to the shipyard that built her. And the submarine was the world’s most revolutionary undersea craft to go to sea since the end of the previous century. The Nautilus was the world’s first ‘true submersible.’”   This year, as we celebrated the 60th Anniversary of the Polar crossing, a Nautilus reunion brought together those who had served aboard the ship that had forever changed the Navy. John Yuill in an article by The Day stated that it took 20 years to put what their crew did into perspective. “I sometimes think, what were we, nuts?”  The ice pack is easier to navigate today due to ice melt, so in 1958, they might have been. At the ceremony for the reunion, Retired Navy Adm. Steven White said, “Some of those crews were top notch (referring to commands he led after Nautilus). But for you Nautilus guys here, none of them compare to you.”  While every crew is compromised by amazing sailors, the Nautilus crew from that summer in 1958 will forever hold a place in the nation’s heart. Following her decommissioning, Nautilus was sent home to Groton to become a museum ship. She also would become Connecticut’s state ship in honor of her accomplishments. She will always be First and Finest.

Special Nautilus Exhibit

Ceremony at the museum celebrating the 60th anniversary of the polar crossing

Cake for 60th anniversary celebration. Was a replica of the cake during the festivities in 1958


60th Anniversary of Nautilus’ Polar Crossing

In late summer of 1957 Nautilus made her first attempt at crossing the North Pole. When William Anderson took command of the Nautilus in early 1957, he was determined to prove the naysayers wrong. He believed that this new nuclear powerhouse could do the impossible. Even Hyman Rickover, creator of the nuclear Navy, believed that the odds were against the ship he created. When Nautilus ventured towards the Arctic in 1957, they were faced with the very real realities that Rickover had warned them about making the crossing. Magnetic compasses don’t work that close to the North Pole. Gyrocompasses, which relay on the Earth’s spring to find true North, malfunction since the spin of the earth changes as you get closer to the poles. Instruments don’t function the way a crew expects. In her first attempt to make the Polar crossing, the crew would find themselves in a situation no other crew had ever faced. Anderson decided to surface in what appeared to be an opening in the ice pack. Upon ascending, Anderson checked the Periscope and found out that the readings had been wrong. Above them was solid ice, but it was too late- Nautilus hit the ice pack above. A recount of the incident in the book Arctic Mission writes,
“Anderson surfaced his command on 1 September, concluding eleven and a half days continuously underwater from New London- more than 3,9000 miles. Trigger (a diesel boat assigned to accompany Nautilus) holding station at approximately 80 degrees North, beyond the-ice margin, Anderson made preparations to dive at about 2100 on 1 September to run under the pack. Two topside echo sounders began recording ice coverage as Nautilus continued north under the ice at running depth from three to five hundred feet…. The boat was relying utterly on its machinery and equipment. Advancing in, scanning sonar topside, echo sounders, and a topside BGN (sonar) unit monitored the canopy. As yet no vessel had gained 90 degrees North. Not yet would Nautilus. On 2 September, a small block of ice damages the sail and periscopes while the boat was surfacing in a polynya. A reversal in course ordered, the boat tuned slowly, carefully- by reference its known turning radius. Holding rudder, ‘we hoped we were going south,’ Lyon remembers. But what South? At 87 degrees every direction is south. Back in open water repairs were made. At 2000 on 4 September, the boat having steamed to within 180 miles of the Pole, the decision again was taken to retire: the power supply to both gyrocompasses had failed (a fuse had blown). Ability to steer a known course stood problematic. Anderson dared not rely on dead reckoning.” (–pg. 64-65 of Arctic Mission by William F Althoff )

Figure 1 Anderson and Lyon

Nautilus wouldn’t have another attempt at crossing until 1958. But this time, Anderson would be prepared. With the help of Dr. Waldo Lyon, chief scientist for the U.S. Navy’s Arctic Submarine Laboratory, Anderson and the few members aware of the top-secret mission studied what they knew about the Arctic for months, finding the most precise time to reattempt the mission. Flying under the name Charles A. Henderson, Anderson carried false identification papers and boarded a plane from Connecticut to Seattle bound for Alaska. With him was Dr. Lyon, who traveled so often that his flight wouldn’t cause suspicion. But for Anderson, anonymity was key. No one could know about Operation Sunshine. The two were headed to the Alaskan village of Kotzebue. From there they charted a plane and flew over the Bering Strait. The purpose of the mission was to study ice. They noted places where the ice collided and where there was the most possibility for obstructions. This time Anderson would be prepared. He had done the trip before. He knew to not rely on his instruments. He knew that ice flows could change at any second. Conditions weren’t great as the two flew over the ice. But they both agreed that it was worth making the attempt.

Figure 2 Commander William R. Anderson, USN, Commanding Officer of USS Nautilus (SSN-571), far right, on the bridge during a period of low visibility as the submarine prepares to pass under the North Pole, August 1958. National Archives photograph, USN 1037145

Anderson later recreated the scene on board that fateful August day in 1958: “the juke box was shut off, and at that moment a hush literally fell over the ship. The only sound to be heard was the steady staccato of pinging from our sonars steadily watching the bottom, the ice, and the dark waters ahead. I glanced again at the distance indicator and gave a brief countdown to the crew. “Stand by, 10…8…6…4…3…2…1. Mark! August 3, 1958.” (Pg. 104-105 Arctic Mission)

Figure 3 The watch crew in the control room of the USS Nautilus. Source:

Another crew member on board remembered the announcement. “They were about to drill 90 degrees north latitude. Tenths of a mile remaining, Anderson stepped to the intercom to count down. Chief Engineer Early, off watch in the wardroom, was surprised to hear the CO’s voice: “It was very unusual for him to use the announcing system and I though, when he began, that it would disturb those off watch who were sleeping.” ( Pg 104) No one would be sleeping after that announcement. History had forever been changed. Years of expeditions, countless explorers, and what was once deemed as unfathomable had become a reality. Anderson and his crew were honoring the pioneers that came before them while creating a new frontier to be explored. We don’t just celebrate the Nautilus being the first of its kind performing a first of its kind mission. We celebrate what it represented to the world of exploration. As Anderson took that pre-mission flight as Charles A. Henderson, he knew his life what about to be forever changed.

For more information on Nautilus’s historic crossing and Polar exploration, check out Arctic Mission, available in store and online at the Submarine Force Museum Gift Shop, Nautilus Ship’s Store.