Fifty-nine years ago today, USS NAUTILUS (SSN-571) became the first submarine to get “underway on nuclear power.” On the fiftieth anniversary of the event, Wilkinson gave a speech in which he described the lead-up to the transmission of those now-famous words.
“Our detailed schedule called for us to get NAUTILUS underway at 1100 on January 17, 1955.
“To prepare to do that safely, we insisted on having the ship to ourselves for four days. We called it a fast cruise—tied fast to the dock, to check out ourselves, and the ship, and the systems.
“…I was a Commander. During that fast cruise period, two Navy Captains from CHINFO [U.S. Navy Chief of Information] arrived…to talk to me.
“They said, ‘You’re about to get underway. This is a historic event. You should send a historic message.’
“ ‘Listen,’ I replied, ‘we’re doing our part getting ourselves, the ship and its systems checked out and ready. You gentlemen are public relations experts. Write a historic message and we’ll send it.’
“That took care of them for a day and a half. Then they gave me a message that was one-and-a-quarter typewritten pages long with some elegant sounding words. But my Quartermaster Rayl was going to send it by flashing light to the tender FULTON at state pier. I wrote a briefer message, ‘Underway on Nuclear Power,’ which my Communications Officer, Ned Dietrich, released and Rayl sent.” It remains one of the most momentous messages in navy history.
Wilkinson, who retired as a vice admiral in 1974, passed away this past 11 July, just a month short of his 95th birthday. He is buried in Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego, CA.