Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette, better known as the Marquis de Lafayette arrived in the American colonies in 1777. Just 20 years old, the French nobleman had become caught up in the cause of American freedom and arranged through an agent in his native land to become a major general in the Continental Army. Forbidden to leave Europe under penalty of arrest, Lafayette boarded a sailing vessel disguised as a woman. When he learned that the ship’s captain intended to stop in the West Indies to sell some of his cargo before continuing on to America, Lafayette feared he would be found and arrested. So he simply purchased the entire cargo himself.
Lafayette would go on to become one of the Revolution’s finest military leaders and a tireless crusader for the American cause. He was so beloved by his adopted homeland that when he died in 1834 he was accorded the same honors as former presidents—multiple-gun salutes were fired, flags were lowered to half-staff for 35 days, and all Americans were instructed to dress in black for a month. Although he died and was buried in Paris, his son sprinkled dirt from Bunker Hill over his grave. An American flag, raised permanently over his final resting place after World War I, is still exchanged for a new one every year on American Independence Day in a joint American-French ceremony; it flew even during Paris’s occupation by the Germans during World War II. In 2002, Lafayette was granted honorary United States citizenship, a distinction which has been conferred upon only six other people, including Winston Churchill, William Penn (British citizen and founder of Pennsylvania), Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg (savior of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews during World War II), and Mother Teresa.
So it is perhaps not unusual that when the Navy went looking for a name for its tenth POLARIS-missile submarine, it chose Lafayette’s. But the date on which USS LAFAYETTE (SSBN-616) was laid down, 17 January 1961, was important for a reason having nothing to do with the long-dead Frenchman—it was the sixth anniversary of the date on which USS NAUTILUS (SSN-571) became the first submarine to get “underway on nuclear power.”
At 11:00 AM, the precise time at which NAUTILUS had relayed her historic message, the initials of Secretary of the Navy William B. Franke and French ambassador Herve Alphand were welded into LAFAYETTE’s keel plate. NAUTILUS herself played a critical role in the event: power from the welding torch came directly from the revolutionary sub, which was moored a few hundred feet away. Spectator seating and a press area were set up on her deck. “Press stand is forward of the brow,” an unnamed PR person wrote in an overview of the ceremony, “and here I think they are going to be in trouble. I believe the camera people, despite an excellent angle, are going to feel they are too far removed and somebody better rig for collision as I anticipate some of the media will jump their space and move in closer on the Nautilus deck.” There is no indication in articles written about the event as to whether the fear turned out to be grounded.