If you had been standing at the North Pole on 3rd August 1958, you would have been present when history was made, but as you gazed around you, you’d be forgiven in wondering what all the fuss was about. Almost 50 years since humans had first trekked overland to the North Pole, it was now the turn for the first visit to come in, not across the ice, but beneath it.
Below the North Pole that day sat the USS Nautilus, not only the first submarine, and first sailing vessel of any kind for that matter, to reach this spot, but also the world’s first operational nuclear-powered submarine.
We tend to hurl the word trailblazer around these days, but the USS Nautilus was exactly that, a piece of engineering that completely redefined naval warfare. With the Cold War now in full swing, this submarine inched the United States ahead of the Soviet Union in terms of submarine technology and combined with the emergence of the ballistic missiles, the USS Nautilus was a vessel that set off an era of deadly, nuclear-powered submarines prowling through the oceans capable of destroying large portions of the planet in an instant.
American War Submarines
Submarines had come to the fore during World War II. Particularly in the Atlantic, German U-Boats had caused catastrophic damage to the British and American merchant fleets. And while the threat of the U-boats eventually diminished in part thanks to the deciphering of the German Enigma codes, their legacy remained long after fighting ended.
The U.S had used several different submarines during the war. The Gato-class was the first mass-produced American submarine and 77 were built between 1941 and 1944. These were improved upon with the Balao-class submarines of which 120 appeared between 1942 and 1946.
The final class of submarine to fight in World War II was the Tench-class, which were larger, stronger and with a better layout than its younger siblings. While 29 of them were completed, 51 were cancelled as it became clear that with Japan now on the ropes, a vast armada of submarines would no longer be needed.
As war became peace, the need for such enormous armies and navies disappeared. But five years after the culmination of the largest bloodbath in history, the United States was now eyeing a very different type of enemy.
The Soviet Union was positioning itself as the natural competitor to the United States and its first atomic detonation in 1949 showed the Americans that the Soviets were hot on their heels. While a massive military build-up in terms of physical numbers wouldn’t happen again, the arms race was just getting started.
Traditional diesel submarines needed to surface every day for a few hours to charge their batteries, a fact that made them highly vulnerable when on the surface. Even after the introduction of submarine snorkels, the problem was not fully addressed because now while the submarine could remain underwater, its speed was limited and compartments inside typically saw an unhealthy build-up of CO2.
Design work began on what would be the world’s first nuclear submarine in March 1950 but it wasn’t until July 1951 that Congress officially authorised the construction of the vessel. At that point, she was known simply as SSN-571, but by the end of 1951, she had a new name.
The name Nautilus comes from Jules Verne’s classic 1872 book, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A story about a feared underwater monster that in fact terms out to be a cutting edge submarine. It seemed like an appropriate choice and actually the third time the U.S Navy had used it.
Her kneel was laid down by President Harry S Truman on 14th June 1952 at the Electric Boat Shipyard in Groton, Connecticut. She was first launched a year and a half later on 21st January 1954 and finally commissioned on 30th September 1954, under the command of Commander Eugene P. Wilkinson.
The USS Nautilus measured 98 metres (320 ft) in length and had a beam of 8.5 metres (28 ft). She had a submerged displacement of 4,092 tons which was pretty big at the time, but just to give you an idea of how big things went from here, the Soviet Typhoon Class submarines which began appearing in the early 1980s had a displacement of nearly 12 times that of the USS Nautilus. We have already covered the Typhoon on Megaprojects, so if you’re looking for a *deep dive* on Cold War-era submarines, why not give that a watch after.
The Nautilus was powered by a Submarine Thermal Reactor (later redesignated as the S2W) a pressurized water reactor built by Westinghouse Electric Corporation. The shell around the reactor alone weighed 35 tons while all of the biological protection put in place including lead, steel, and other materials layers, added up to around 740 tons. It came with an installed power of 13,400 horsepower and a top speed for the submarine of 23 knots (43 km/h – 26 mph).
As would be almost universal in the coming years and decades, the Nautilus’ nuclear reactor lay almost exactly in the middle of the submarine. Directly behind it was the engine room with the After Crew’s quarters located in the stern of the submarine. If you move forward from the reactor we have the control room, bridge, attack centre and periscope room.
Further forward is the galley, storerooms, the Captain’s Stateroom, the officer’s wardroom and the rest of the crews quarters. Located in the bow of the submarine is of course the torpedo room with six torpedo tubes standing by. The crew was composed of 13 officers and 92 enlisted men
Underway on nuclear power
Occasionally real life throws up some real zingers that any Hollywood scriptwriter would have been proud of and so it was on 17th January 1955. The historic words, “underway on nuclear power” said by Commander Eugene P. Wilkinson shortly before the USS Nautilus left port for the first time have gone down in Naval folklore and understandably so. For the first time in history, a naval vessel was venturing out at sea using nuclear power.
A few months later she set a course once again, this time for her shakedown (testing period) and records immediately tumbling in her wake. The journey of 1,200 nautical miles (2,200 km; 1,400 mi) between New London and San Juan Puerto Rico was completed fully submerged throughout and in less than ninety hours. This immediately became the longest submerged cruise by a submarine and at the fastest sustained speed (for one hour or more) ever seen.
Over the next few years, the submarine clocked up mileage like there was no tomorrow and by early 1957, she had reached 60,000 nautical miles (110,000 km – 69,000 miles). For the keen Jules Verne fans out there you might recognize that number as being what the fictional Nautilus had achieved in the early stages of the book.
Later that year, the USS Nautilus took part in NATO exercise for the first time and also made stops in Britain and France where American allies were treated to a tour of this next-generation submarine. But in October 1957, the United States and her NATO friends were not so much interested in what was in the ocean as what was in the sky.
When Sputnik 1 began signalling back to Earth as it orbited our planet on 4th October 1957, it sparked a series of events that would change both the Space Race and the Arms Race. With a Soviet-made object now passing freely and directly above the United States, it provided a new layer of fear and suspicion.
The Americans were of course well advanced in their rocketry program, but they had been beaten to the punch. In the coming years, the U.S would overtake the Soviet Union in the space race but in terms of arms, it remained neck and neck.
Towards the end of the 1950s, both nations were nearing another nuclear milestone, the submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), which would completely change the landscape of any potential nuclear war between the two sides. Once both nations had nuclear-powered submarines armed with SLBMs, the notion of trying to knock out a country’s nuclear capacity in a preemptive strike became impossible. By spreading the nuclear weapons around, both countries made sure that they would have plenty in reserve if any strike came.
But we’re still not quite at that point yet in our story. The first American operational ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) was the USS George Washington which was commissioned in 1959 and commenced its first nuclear deterrent patrol in November 1960.
Before that, however, U.S President Dwight Eisenhower wanted to test the feasibility of a polar transit that might garner support for the SLBM program as well as providing something of a prestige boost after the demoralising news regarding Sputnik 1.
By that point, the USS Nautilus was under the control of Commander William R. Anderson and on 25th April 1958, she began travelling north along California’s coast, stopping at first San Diego, then San Francisco and finally Seattle. After final preparations, the USS Nautilus began her historic trip on 9th June, but alas, it was not meant to be.
Ten days after leaving Seattle, the submarine entered the Chukchi Sea but was almost immediately turned back by deep drift ice in relatively shallow water. The crew onboard the Nautilus would have to be patient but nearly a month in Hawaii probably helped. After retreating from the ice, the Nautilus sailed on to Pearl Harbour and remained there until 23rd July 1958 when she once again headed north.
On 1st August 1958, the Nautilus disappeared below the waves and into the Barrow Sea Valley off the coast of Alaska. Onboard the submarine was a special gyrocompass built by Sperry Rand that had been installed specifically for this trip. Normally gyrocompasses become inaccurate above 85°N and there was a real danger that the submarine might lose its way beneath the ice. Apparently, Commander Anderson had planned to simply blast through the ice with torpedoes if it came to that – which is one way to do it I guess.
Another gadget that greatly aided this ground-breaking trip was the North American Aviation N6A-1 Inertial Navigation System (INS), a modification of what had first been used on the Navaho Cruise Missile, and had recently been successfully trialled. The INS uses a combination of instruments, including a computer, motion sensors and gyroscopes to continuously calculate the position, orientation, and speed of the submarine without relying on external references.
Shortly before midnight on 3rd August 1958, the USS Nautilus became the first naval vessel ever to reach the North Pole. The crew on board were now doubt electrified by Commander Anderson’s words,
“For the world, our country, and the Navy – the North Pole.”
Over the next twenty years, the USS Nautilus crisscrossed the globe and in May 1966, she logged her 300,000th nautical mile (560,000 km; 350,000 mi). As with much of what goes on behind the veil of military secrecy, we don’t know that much about the rest of this distinguished boat’s career.
What we do know is that she took part in the naval blockade of Cuba in 1962 as well as several NATO exercises, both in the Atlantic and in the Meditaarrean. In November 1966, she collided with the aircraft carrier USS Essex, but the damage was minimal and after a brief period resting up while being repaired, she ventured out into the open seas once again.
As ground-breaking as the USS Nautilus was in 1954, time stands by for nobody. Towards the end of its naval life, the submarine showed its age badly. Vibrations within her hull had become so loud that sonar was effectively useless at speeds of above 4 knots (7.4 km/h; 4.6 mph). She may have been a pioneering submarine, but the U.S Navy also learned a lot about what not to do from the USS Nautilus.
On 9th April 1979, the submarine began its final journey from Groton, Connecticut to the Mare Island Naval Shipyard of Vallejo, California where she would be decommissioned. Her final day at sea was 26th May 1979 and she was officially removed from the Naval Vessel Register on 3rd March 1980.
But that’s not the end of the story. In 1982, the USS Nautilus was designated as a National Historic Landmark and the following year it became the official state ship of Connecticut. After extensive renovations, she was towed back to Groton and on 11th April 1986, the Nautilus opened its doors – or hatches as we should probably say – to the general public as part of the Submarine Force Library and Museum. As she approaches her 70th birthday, the USS Nautilus now welcomes roughly a quarter of a million visitors each year.
It may be a far cry from its next-generation birth and its humming nuclear reactor, but this old submarine has cemented its place in naval history.