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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/

Tomcat Down!

Just off the coast of Scotland, a large naval exercise was underway. “Teamwork 76” included hundreds of ships, from a dozen NATO countries, in which staged (joint) maneuvers were underway. Among those watching the maneuvers were dozens of news reporters, all of whom were invited to photograph and report on the exercise. (And thanks to a previous collision that had occurred between an American navy frigate and a disguised Soviet sub, all knew that Soviets were also in the area.)

At the center of the exercise was the USS John F. Kennedy, an aircraft carrier that was carrying planes that were performing “realistic strike operations.” NATO was counting on the press to show the world, and especially the Soviets, that it was prepared. A standout of the exercise was a twin-tailed Grumman F-14 Tomcat, the newest and “hottest thing in the sky”. The Tomcat was aggressive to the eye in the sky and a picture of it would send a hell of a message. Continue reading “Tomcat Down!”

Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire: NR1’s Next Adventure

NR-1’s next trip would take it to the Mediterranean, which hardly gave her a welcoming embrace. On one of its first evenings, the NR-1 quietly rode along the Mediterranean floor; a small vessel in the ominous darkness. The sonar showed nothing – exactly what CO Warson wanted. Nestled in behind the pilot chairs, he was taking a much needed rest. Suddenly, the 2nd pilot reached around and shook Warson roughly. Warson woke up irritated, but surrounded by views that chilled his bones. The external video cameras showed that the NR-1 was smack dab in the middle of a mine field. Somehow the sonar had failed to pick up the WWII mines. Warson, now fully awake, shouted “Don’t Move! Don’t Do Anything!” for he knew that the mines became much more sensitive when submerged in salt water. If the NR-1 would even slightly brush one of those mines, she and her crew would be history.
Continue reading “Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire: NR1’s Next Adventure”

Welcome Aboard, Sir! The continuing saga of NR-1

After doing its part for the NATO project AFAR – helping to place Acoustic towers beneath the waters surrounding the Azores – NR-1 and her crew headed back to her home port in Groton, Connecticut. In its short time afloat, NR-1 had gone from being “Rickover’s Rubber Duck” to a full-fledged part of the Navy’s submarine service.

NR-1’s first crew had dealt with her trials and tribulations with eagerness, ingenuity, and professionalism. They had shared something few could ever claim, but as the old adage says: all good things must come to an end. In the words of one her crew, “they had been present at the creation, but the NR-1 was not their property…and their role, like it or not, was done.” They departed, one-by-one, heading out down their individual paths.

Dwaine Griffith, the CO of NR-1, was replaced by a young Naval Academy graduate, Toby Warson. Warson was considered to be, by many, an up-and-coming sailor that possessed a golden ticket. He was bound for an outstanding, highlighted career, of that they were sure. He accepted the billet of NR-1’s second command, never having heard of the ship or its missions. Warson underwent training for his command on NR-1 at the Prospective Commanding Officers School, but nothing could truly prepare him for the adventures and trials he was about to undergo aboard the Navy’s smallest and secret submarine. Continue reading “Welcome Aboard, Sir! The continuing saga of NR-1”

Rickover’s ‘Little Ship That Could’: NR-1 story continues

After many years of dancing and darting through red tape, fiscal uncertainties, and seemingly never-ending engineering hurdles, Admiral Rickover’s ‘Little Sub that Could’ was successfully built.
Throughout the lengthy build process, the crew of the NR-1 spent their time viewing training movies, working on simulators, and training for something the Navy had never seen before; all while waiting and wondering if the $100 million nuclear submersible/undersea research vehicle/submarine would actually be built. If the crew had doubts, ADM Rickover did not. He ensured that everything moved forward, including the readiness of the people charged with its use and care. And in Rickover’s mind not just any crew would do. Many times he made it clear that only the best-of-the-best would be allowed to sail on her and with only a dozen men onboard (including 3 officers and 9 enlisted men), they all had to know the boat – fore and aft – and be able to run it.
Continue reading “Rickover’s ‘Little Ship That Could’: NR-1 story continues”

NR-1: The beginning

In honor of the museum’s newest upcoming exhibit, we will be sharing stories of the Research and Recovery vehicle, NR-1 and the crew that sailed on her.

After the tragic loss of the USS THRESHER (SS 593) and all that served on her, the Navy designed rescue vehicles that were built with one mission in mind – to “find and save the lives of sailors trapped on crippled subs.” This led to the creation of the Deep Submergence Systems Project and its centerpiece, the Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle (DSRV), a piloted mini submarine
In the early 1960’s, Admiral Hyman G. Rickover began kicking around the idea of a making a nuclear powered DSRV that could drive (yep, drive) along the ocean floor. Rickover believed that the inclusion of nuclear power would blow the doors open on the future possibilities of the submarine force. He knew that the usage of compact nuclear reactors would lead to vehicles that “would not depend on batteries and could be entirely self-contained.” There was only one question – would it be logistically possible? To find out, Rickover “ordered parameters drawn up for a small submarine that could go deeper than any current manned sub, and with a nuclear reactor powering it, could stay underwater indefinitely.”
Continue reading “NR-1: The beginning”