Sitting off to the side of the museum entrance stands a piece of submarine history that is just as historic as the Nautilus. The Nautilus began the way of innovation within the submarine force. Nuclear power would forever change the way the Navy operated, creating faster and more powerful weapons. With the invention of the nuclear bomb, the world began to envision ways to harness this power and strengthen their military arsenal. The US Navy developed an idea that would come to fruition on July 20, 1960.

George Washington’s keel was laid on November 1, 1957 at Electric Boat in Groton, Connecticut. SSBN-598 was the world’s first ballistic missile submarine. Launched on June 9, 1959, she was sponsored by Mrs. Robert B.


Anderson, the wife of the 56th United States Secretary of the Treasury. The 1950’s were a tumultuous time in American government and military operations. At the height of the Cold War, America found itself locked in a geopolitical struggle with the powers of the Eastern Bloc, mainly the Soviet Union and its satellite states. This tension most famously led to the Space Race. In August of 1957, the Soviets successfully launched the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile. This led the United States to make a change in their military armament that most people are unaware of. The George Washington’s original keel was laid down as the attack submarine USS Scorpion (SSN-589). It was during construction that she was given a ballistic missile section by an insertion of 130 feet. With this change, she was renamed the George Washington and another submarine under construction received the original name and hull number. Inside of the George Washington’s forward escape hatch was a plaque that bore her original name. The missile compartment that was added during construction was designed with a deeper test depth rating than the rest of the submarine because of its intended use in later ship classes.

On July 20, 1960, SSBN 598 launched the first of two Polaris missiles. She had left Groton for Cape Canaveral, Florida on June 28, 1960 and headed to the Atlantic Missile Test Range, where Rear Admiral William Raborn, the head of the Polaris submarine development program, was waiting to board as an observer of this first launch. At 12:39, George Washington’s commanding officer sent President Dwight Eisenhower a message that read: “Polaris – From out of the deep to target. Perfect.” Less than two hours later the second missile was launched.  Forty days later, the Soviets would make their first successful underwater launch of a submarine ballistic missile. Despite this proximity in feats, by the time the Soviets had their first SSBN with 16 missiles in 1967, the United States had built 41 SSBN’s, nicknamed the “41 for Freedom.”

The George Washington performed a total of 55 deterrent patrols in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, with its final ballistic missile patrol in 1982. In 1983, under the SALT I treaty, her nuclear missiles were removed and she was converted back into an attack submarine. The SALT I treaty, between the US and Russia, was the first time the countries agreed to limit the number of nuclear missiles in their arsenals. The George Washington was decommissioned on January 24, 1985 with her sail being given to the Submarine Force Library and Museum. A fun fact for many visitors is that the sail on display actually holds pieces of the USS Abraham Lincoln. A collision in 1981 with a Japanese commercial vessel caused repairs to the sail that utilized pieces from the Lincoln which was awaiting disposal at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard.

Sail of SSBN-598 with a Polaris Missile in the background. Image courtesy of Erica Buell

The Polaris missile and George Washington sail that stand guard at the gate of the museum serve as reminders of the great advancements that were made in the early 1950’s and 60’s that paved the way for our current nuclear navy.