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: navy.mil

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. http://store.submarinemuseum.com/Book-Arctic-Mission-6974/

Leave a Reply