Summer in the Arctic has interesting features. One of the most fascinating is the fact that there are 24 hours of sunlight for six months out of the year.  And, in 1958, a secret mission went 1,830 miles in four days hiding in this unsetting sun. Most people may already know the story. You don’t have to be a submariner to know the tale or what it meant not just for America but for the world. The story of the Nautilus is not a Navy story. It is a moment in history that changed the tide for all countries and opened the door for faster travel, trade routes, and the growing technological advancements of the day. On August 3, 1958, history was made as USS Nautilus made it to 90 degrees North.

The 1950s was a period in world history that will always stand out. Students in classrooms across the world were being taught about the space race and there was growing tension between the United States and the Soviet Union over nuclear weapons.  The decade is remembered for its famous spies and secret missions. What made people so fearful during The Cold War was the public’s awareness that America was behind in terms of rocket power.  There was a very real fear that rippled through communities that a nuclear missile could land on American soil at any time.  Children practiced air raid drills in school, hiding under their desks, afraid of any new noise in the sky.  President Eisenhower had the difficult job of not only keeping up with the new technologies but keeping the American people feeling safe. The President felt the urgent need to show the American people that they were not only as technologically advanced as the Soviets but superior.  In 1952, Admiral Rickover’s idea of a nuclear navy was achieved with the start of construction on SSN-571, USS Nautilus – the world’s first nuclear submarine. The Navy’s ability to excel in submarine development was exactly what Eisenhower needed to show America’s technological supremacy.

In 1957, Commander William R.  Anderson, Captain of the Nautilus, suggested a submerged trip under the North Pole to test the strength of America’s new nuclear Navy. At the time, no ship had ever made it to the North Pole due to the depth of ice in the area. An initial attempt was made in 1957 but the ice proved a powerful opponent and the Nautilus returned home unable to complete the mission.   In April of 1958, she set off from New London heading west through the Panama Canal with stops in California and a brief period in Seattle. On June 9, 1958, Nautilus left Seattle to begin “Operation Sunshine,”

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

the top-secret mission of reaching the geographic North Pole.   It was a fitting name for an excursion that found itself operating during 24 hours of daylight. After some delays due to shallow water, she finally departed Pearl Harbor on July 23, 1958, and successfully made it to the Bering Strait.  The crew of 116 submerged under the icecap at Point Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point in the United States. Nautilus surfaced in the Point Barrow area in order to photograph the area and to find the sea valley on the ocean floor which would allow for a smooth trip. In a press conference following the mission, Anderson commented that they moved quickly through the area due to their proximity to Russian waters. During her trek under the icecap, a closed-circuit television monitored the journey. The Arctic daylight made visibility easy and allowed Nautilus to speed on.

At 11:15 PM Eastern Time on August 3, 1958, Nautilus passed directly below the North Pole. The event was only marked by Anderson’s comment to the crew of “For the World, our Country, and the Navy – The North Pole.” The crew didn’t pause and simply continued on.   Anderson didn’t notify Washington DC until some 36 hours later when they surfaced in the Greenland Sea.   All that was sent to the President was the message “Nautilus 90 North.” Once in Iceland on August 7, Anderson was flown back to the United States to meet with President Eisenhower. The commander was awarded the Legion of Merit, and the Nautilus a Presidential Unit Citation, the first one ever conferred in peacetime.   Once Anderson was back with the crew, USS Nautilus began its journey back the New London. She entered New York Harbor with a hero’s welcome and a parade.

Nautilus entering NY. Photo: USN 1037458

Her journey home established another first – traveling over 3,100 miles submerged in six days with an average speed of more than 20 knots.  She finally returned home to Connecticut on August 29, 1958, for an upkeep period and a well-deserved rest.

“Operation Sunshine” created a new and shorter route from the Pacific to the Atlantic.   At the time, it was said that it was normally 11,200 miles from London to Toyoko.   This new route would save ships 4,900 miles, opening up greater opportunities.   The Nautilus journey also created new technology with advanced navigation and guidance systems.   A normal magnetic compass did not work in the North Pole. A ship could lose her bearings quickly with the old system, either going in circles or ending up where she had begun.   The crew experimented with a new design of the gyro-compass. This design was more reliable than the previous system since it did not rely on magnetics, which were not accurate in the Poles.   The new system used inertial navigation that compromised of motion sensors and gyroscopes that continuously calculated position and orientation.   Beyond the technological discoveries made on the voyage and the shortcut for world travel, Nautilus’ trip to the North Pole was a reminder to the American people of their country’s strength and perseverance.   The story of SSN 571’s trip is worth retelling because it is a part of our history.   It represents America’s pioneering spirit and the ability to achieve the impossible.   It symbolizes and conveys a message that should be passed on for generations to come.

Nautilus in her current home at the Submarine Force Library and Museum

To learn more about the historic trip to the North Pole, check out the book “Arctic Mission” on sale now in the museum store and website.