Captain Shepherd Martin “Shep” Jenks (1926-2014)

Captain Shepherd Martin “Shep” Jenks, USN (Ret), passed away in Martinez, California, on Wednesday, 26 March 2014. He was 87 years old.

Jenks was born on 29 September 1926 in Berkeley, California. He came east to attend high school at St. Albans in Washington, DC, and then, as he put it, “walked across the river to the Naval Academy,” graduating in 1949. The entry beneath his senior-yearbook photo notes his love of sailing, although “as a result of this activity one fisherman is probably still wondering what species of sea monster parted his nets one stormy night on the Chesapeake.” Sadly, no further description of the incident is provided.

At first Jenks was disappointed with the first ship to which he was assigned: the attack transport USS BAYFIELD (APA-33). That changed when he discovered the vessel’s commodious hold had more than enough room for his MGB sports car. According to his wife, Nancy, Jenks made friends with the Chief Boatswain’s Mate, who ensured that the bright red roadster was the first thing off the ship when she pulled into port and the last thing aboard before she put to sea.

Although life on the surface was good, Jenks must have felt the call of the deep because he volunteered for submarine duty. After graduating from Submarine School in 1952, he qualified aboard USS BLACKFIN (SS-322). He applied for nuclear-power training in 1954, but was turned down. He tried again the following year and was granted an interview with Hyman G. Rickover, the program’s notoriously difficult head. Jenks knew Rickover had seen his earlier application, so when he showed up to the interview he asked Rickover, “Don’t you remember me?” Rickover threw him out of his office—but accepted him into the program.

In 1956, Lieutenant Jenks reported aboard USS NAUTILUS (SSN-571), the newly-commissioned nuclear-powered submarine, first of her kind in the world. Given his position as navigator his nickname, “Prince Henry,” was perhaps inevitable. In 1958, after the Soviets’ launch of Sputnik, President Dwight D. Eisenhower turned to NAUTILUS for a similarly unprecedented response: a journey beneath the Arctic ice to the North Pole. The mission, top secret, was codenamed “Operation Sunshine,” and the president and his representatives made sure the boat had everything she needed to complete it. Jenks later recalled the crew’s nicknaming her “Lola” after a line from a song in the 1955 musical Damn Yankees: “Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets.”

After the first attempt to reach the pole failed, NAUTILUS’s commanding officer, Commander William Anderson, sent Jenks north to conduct aerial reconnaissance flights in order to determine when, or whether, the boat should try again. But there was a catch: the mission was still classified, so no one could know why Jenks was headed to the frozen north. A cover ID was concocted: Jenks would be a “special representative of OP-33, a branch of the office of the chief of naval operations that had absolutely nothing to do with submarines,” Anderson wrote in his book The Ice Diaries. After spending several days peering out the nose of a bomber as it flew triangular patterns over the ice, Jenks was convinced that conditions were improving. On his way back to the boat, he purchased an Inuit doll for his daughter. In order to ensure secrecy, it was stored in the sub’s top-secret safe.

At the end of July, NAUTILUS set out again. Jenks navigated precisely and almost continuously for the entire trip. “If Shep Jenks took time off to sleep during our transit, I was not aware of it,” Anderson wrote. “His attention to detail and meticulous planning were a true inspiration to the members of his navigating team, as well as to me.” At 11:15 PM (Eastern Daylight Time) on 3 August 1958, Jenks’s perfection paid off as he announced to Anderson, who announced to the rest of the crew, that NAUTILUS had become the first seagoing vessel to reach the North Pole.

When her accomplishment was revealed to the public, NAUTILUS’s crewmembers became instant celebrities. New York City even threw a ticker-tape parade in the men’s honor, although, Jenks groused, “I didn’t get to participate in the parade because I had duty that day.” He did not, however, miss out on the Presidential Unit Citation, the first ever awarded in peacetime, that President Eisenhower bestowed on the crew.

Jenks remained in the Navy until 1971. He served aboard USS SKIPJACK (SSN-585) and USS GEORGE WASHINGTON (SSBN-598); as the commissioning engineer aboard the latter, he was present for the first-ever launching of a POLARIS missile from a submerged submarine. He also served as the commanding officer of USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN (SSBN-602), the Nuclear Power Training Unit in West Milton, NY, and the submarine tender USS FULTON (AS-11).

Jenks worked briefly at a defense contractor after retiring from the Navy, and then embarked on a new path—as an Episcopalian minister. He was ordained as a deacon in 1981. Twenty-three years later, in April 2004, his previous career caught up with his current one in somber fashion when he was asked to officiate at the funeral of Rear Admiral James B. Osborn, first commanding officer of GEORGE WASHINGTON (Blue Crew), under whom Jenks had served. Other ministerial duties were much happier: as a resident, at the time, of the state of New Mexico, Jenks gave the invocation at the naming ceremony of USS NEW MEXICO (SSN-779) in December 2004.

Just days before Shep Jenks’s death, NEW MEXICO, participating in Ice Exercise 2014, crossed beneath the pole that he and his shipmates were the first to visit more than half a century ago. Before doing so, they picked up the Chief of Naval Operations and a reporter from the New York Times at a snowy outpost 150 miles north of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Its name: Ice Camp Nautilus.

15 Responses to “Captain Shepherd Martin “Shep” Jenks (1926-2014)”

  1. DENNIS STIFFLER, YN2(SS), USN(RET.) says:

    As the XO of USS George Washington SSBN598(B), Capt. Jenks was the officer who signed me in upon reporting to the GW fresh out of Submarine School in August 1962. In September, 2006 (44 years later), Shep and Nancy Jenks were in Bremerton, WA for the Nautilus reunion and we invited them to our house for dinner which just happened to be Capt. Jenk’s 80th birthday. Many many blessings to Nancy Jenks.

  2. I knew Capt. Jenks at the USSVI Mare Island Base. He gave us a fascinating presentation about his preparation for, and passage under the North Pole.
    Sailor, Rest Your Oar!

  3. A top notch skipper and human being! I was Shep Jenk’s Navigator and Engineer Officer during his entire tour as Commanding Officer, USS Skipjack (SSN-585).

    • Brother Thomas Julian+ OFC says:

      Shep’s funeral will be held on May 2, Friday at 11.00AM at St.Paul’s Episcopal Church, 1st and J streets in Benicia California.. I am told there will be a Naval presence.
      Brother thomas Julian + OFC

      • Education Specialist says:

        Thank you for letting us know. We have posted the information, along with an obituary, on the Museum’s Facebook page.

    • Michael J Egan FTG 2 SSN585 says:

      Do you remember Twford, That should have not happened.

  4. DENNIS STIFFLER, YN2(SS), USN(RET.) says:

    I have just spoken to Mrs. Jenks as both myself and a shipmate received return mail from the East Kuhland Alley address. Mrs. Jenks replied that the current address for mail is 300 East H Street – Space 208, Benicia, CA 94510. I regret that I posted the old address as I had asked Mrs. Jenks in March if they were still at the Benicia address and she thought I had the new address. The telephone number that I posted is correct. Please resend any cards and letters that might have been returned. Mrs. Jenks has approved posting her address. Sincerely, Dennis Stiffler

  5. Gary S. Dannenbaum says:

    I had the good fortune of being able to attend Shep’s funeral a couple of weeks ago. The huge church was packed with people from all walks of life. I had the distinct pleasure of serving aboard George Washington with Shep. We were both Plank Owners. He was a gentleman’s gentleman, and he will be sorely missed. God Bless you Nancy. You, too are a very special personl Thankfully, I had the opportunity of talking with Shep on the phone,
    a couple of weeks before his death. Gary S. Dannenbaum RMC(SS) Ret.

  6. Irwin P. Linzer says:

    Irwin P. Linzer EN 2
    I served in under Shep on the first Patrol Of the George Washington, ( Blue Crew ) as well as the 2nd Blue Patrol, as a Auxileryman in the scrubber room.. He was a Great officer and a great guy… And it was a great part of my life……
    Irwin Linzer

  7. George Fleming says:

    I was Captain Jenks’ orderly on the USS Fulton in 1970, State Pier, New London CT. He didn’t mind my reading Two Years Before the Mast as I sat outside his office. We brought him to the ship in the morning and back home in the evening in the Captain’s gig, but he steered. He lived ashore a few miles up the Thames River in Gales Ferry. That was a cold ride for the two-man crew in the winter, standing at parade rest in the stern while the Captain had her at full throttle. It helped to make men of us. I am sure that is what he had in mind. I never heard him raise his voice. My respects to a fine man and a worthy life.

    • George, your comments were very much enjoyed regarding the Captain and his driving the Captain’s Gig. There are some stories about Shep taking his sailboat to Hawaii and at his passing he was still the owner of a diesel trawler. In 1999 I was honored to visit with Shep and Nancy in Tacoma, Washington while they were on their way up to Canada for the holidays with a relative of Nancy’s. Since Shep was the Great Navigator, I knew he would appreciate me getting him a street map of Vancouver, Canada at a local truck stop before we met for lunch. He always had that great smile and calmness about him. I have a couple of pictures if you are interested stifflerdennis@wavecable.com. Regards, Dennis

      • George Fleming says:

        Dennis, glad to know you liked that story. It has been forty-five years, so I have forgotten more than I can remember about that time. But here is another one. The Captain was nothing if not a thorough-going sailor. He was determined to make the Fulton ship-shape. One day he got down into the bilges for a look around and discovered that most of the gate valves were frozen up. For the next several months, the machine shop spent a good part of its time taking those valves out, freeing them up and lapping them in.

        In the off hours, some of the machinist’s mates used the shop to customize their Harleys. The Captain did not object. A happy crew was his first priority.

        The Fulton was built in 1939. I guess copper was cheap back then, because what do you suppose they used for ballast down there in the bilges? Thousands of copper billets, each weighing about 100 lbs.

        She had diesel-electric drive, and the old GM engines had a tendency to leak diesel fuel into the lube oil. When we went to sea every few months, the main job of my engine room rating was to take a sample of the lube oil every hour, to see how much fuel oil had gotten into it since the last time we checked.

        In the recent PBS show about Admiral Rickover, there was some footage from the cruise of the Nautilus when she was the first submarine to pass under the ice at the North Pole. At one point there was scarcely five feet of clearance between the top of the conning tower and the bottom of the ice. If they had increased the clearance, they would have run aground. I can see why Navigator Jenks did not get much sleep on that cruise. I didn’t recognize him in any of those shots, but he proved to be the man to put her through.

        I would like to see those pictures. Is there some way you could publish them here?

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