Happy Birthday Rickover!

On January 27, we celebrated the birthday of one of the most recognized names in the US Submarine Force. The Father of the Nuclear Navy – Admiral Hyman George Rickover. The story of Rickover and his contributions to the Navy are well documented. He was known for being so strict that many who knew him did not like him. He would ignore Naval traditions, leaving many to downplay his place in Naval history till after his death. These facts about Rickover are widely known but little is known about the personal life of Hyman George Rickover. Here are some short reflections based upon his relationship with his son, Robert.

Rickover was born Chaim Godalia Rickover in Makow in 1900 in what is now Poland. At the time of his birth, Makow, which is 50 miles north of Warsaw, was part of the Russian Empire under the last Russian tsar- Nicholas II. During the first five years of his life, Jews were being targeted and eliminated in pogroms. Pogroms were anti-Jewish riots that began in the 19th century as the Russian empire acquired more land with a more diverse population. It is believed that between 1903 and 1906, some 2,000 Jews were killed trying to defend their families during these riots. Rickover’s parents made the decision to flee and Rickover, his mother and his sister arrived in New York in 1904. His father had previously come to the United States to make provisions for the family. The family would eventually settle in Chicago where Rickover grew up before entering the Naval academy in 1922. He went on to study electrical engineering at Columbia University and then did submarine training in New London. After serving aboard submarines and the battleship USS New Mexico, he was given his first command on the USS Finch in 1937. After WWII, Rickover was sent to Oak Ridge, Tennessee to study nuclear physics and engineering. It was after his time at Oak Ridge that Rickover took charge of the Nuclear Propulsion Program and the rest, as they say, is history. But behind the tough exterior was a man who had fled his native land as a young boy. A man who worked his entire life to make his parents proud. And he was a father who would write letters to his son Robert from on board more than 126 nuclear-powered ships. When Rickover was asked about why he demanded such stringent safety requirements, he said, “I have a son. I love my son. I want everything that I do to be so safe that I would be happy to have my son operating it. That’s my fundamental rule.”[1]

One of the earlies letters sent was from the Sea-Wolf:

Dear Robert.

We have just returned from the first sea trials of the Sea-Wolf. The ship got underweigh [sic] from the Electric Boat Company dock, Groton, Conn. At 070 Monday, 21 January.

At first, we operated in Long Island Sound, and then steamed out into the Atlantic beyond the 100-fathom curve to have water deep enough for submerged full-power operation at submergence greater than 200 feet.

The most spectacular test was the reversal of the engines from full power ahead to full power astern. I believe we did this in record time for a large vessel. Trials included operation at full power-surface and submerged.

The trials all went smoothly, and Captain Laning and his crew are, of course elated that their ship has finally gone to sea. We returned to our mooring at Groton at 1700, having steamed 312 miles, 212 of which were submerged.

I believe it to be no overstatement to say that the Sea Wolf is the most complex machine man has ever devised.

Your father, H.G. Rickover.

Most of the letters sent to Robert were the standard kind that were sent to the permanent list of addresses of people who regularly received letters from the boat. However, Rickover requested that Robert’s name be added to the lists of other commanders as they made their Arctic voyages. One letter that stood out was the one he received in August 1958 from Commander William R. Anderson who wrote from the Nautilus, “I’m sure you realize that this historic trip was made possible by the brilliant and untiring work of your father in giving nuclear propulsion to the NAUTILUS and the Navy.”  Again in 1960, similar praise is given, this time from Commander George P. Steele from the Seadragon in 1960 where he said, “As the whole world known, your father is the naval engineering genius of our time. We could not have seriously attempted this trip without the results of his work.”[2] These letters, both from Rickover and others provide a different look at the Father of the Nuclear Navy. While many of the letters may have been somewhat mundane with simple facts of the trial, they show Rickover not just as the stern creator of the nuclear submarine, but as a father who wanted to share this journey with his son. But these letters only tell part of the story.

 

Rickover and Robert at age 1

In his eulogy to his father, Robert Rickover recognized, as we all do, that his father’s career in the Navy was well known. Rickover had a reputation for doing whatever he deemed necessary to see his work accomplished, and accomplished in the manner in which he wanted. He demanded the highest standards from those around him and his interviews with young officers are famous. However, to Robert, Rickover was more than the legend. He was more than the man he heard on the phone at home either yelling at a contractor or being respectful to a congressional representative. Robert proceeded to tell the story of a Rickover that the world had never seen. Robert remembered his father traveling a lot but also that Rickover would do his best to be home for at least part of the weekend. He told how his father was thrifty but at the same time generous with his money. Rickover had donated all proceeds from his books and the honorariums for his speaking engagements to a Jewish orphanage in Chicago. Rickover never forgot where he had come from. Robert recounted story after story in his eulogy of how his father would do for others. Whether it was paying for a staff member’s expenses after their death, arguing with a contractor who damaged a secretary’s car, or bringing home airline soap bars in dozens after his wife had mentioned how she was able to put them to good use. Robert also discussed the personal responsibility Rickover felt over every nuclear submarine produced. Robert said that, “When he heard the news about the Thresher, he stayed up all night hoping against all odds that she would be found and that her crew would be ok. When she was located at the bottom of the sea, broken apart into six sections, he wrote personal letters of condolence to the relatives of the 129 officers, crewmen and civilians who had been on board. He didn’t talk about it very much, but my mother told me that he agonized over this loss for years, long after it had became clear that faulty welding during repairs in a Navy shipyard-something over which he had no control-was the cause of the disaster.”[3] Robert ended his remarks speaking how much his father loved his country, the one that took him in during his youth. During the latter part of Rickover’s life, he worried about how nuclear power would affect the world and the security threats posed by the Soviet Union and China during the Cold War. Robert believed that Rickover’s fear over security threats was one reason his fathers harsh demeaner could be explained, but also noted that, “He was a man who cared deeply for the Jewish values of family, charity and justice.”[4]

Today we know Rickover by his work persona, and that’s ok. If it was not for his rigid and strict direction of the nuclear propulsion program, it very well may not had succeeded. His standards are still the very ones that keep our nuclear Navy so safe today. But as we recall his birthday, let’s also remember the man who started from such humble beginnings. Let’s remember him the way Robert remembers him. Maybe with this understanding, his title as Father of the Nuclear Navy can take on new meaning. Not only did he create it, but he also protected it and watched it grow- always making sure, he was there to catch it if it fell.

 

 

[1] Naval History Magazine- October 2015

[2] Naval History Magazine-October 2015

[3] https://www.rickover.com/

[4] https://www.rickover.com/

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