The time was twenty-five minutes past midnight in the early morning of June 9, 1958. On the waterfront in Seattle, Washington, sailors cast off the lines which moored an American submarine to Pier 91.
With little noise the low, gray vessel nosed out and disappeared into the darkness on a secret mission into the unknown. Once it was out of sight of land, two crewmen brushed gray paint over the white numerals 571 on the submarine's conning tower to conceal its identity as the USS Nautilus from prying eyes. Its hazardous mission was to attempt a penetration of the Arctic Sea far under the North Polar icecap.
The icecap, one of the world's most forbidding areas, had beckoned to daring explorers for years. In 1909 Admiral Robert E. Peary had led an expedition over the rugged icecap to plant the American flag at the Pole, becoming the first man to reach it. Seventeen years later, in 1926, another American, Richard E. Byrd, became the first to fly to the Pole by aircraft.
Where Peary had sledged across the ice and Byrd had flown over it, the mission of the Nautilus was to investigate the possibility of reaching the Pole by navigating under the ice. In the truest sense of the word, it was a voyage into the unknown. No one was sure how thick the polar icecap was or what dangers it might pose. No one could say that a submarine probing beneath the frozen shelf might not become wedged between deep-plunging ice ridges and the bottom of the Arctic Sea where, north of Alaska, it is relatively shallow.
For several reasons, though, it was important that the waters under the arctic ice be probed in spite of the risk. If the Nautilus found that the Arctic Sea could be penetrated as far as the Pole, a new and shorter route between the Pacific and the Atlantic would be opened up, a route which cargo submarines of the future might follow. Equally important, it was desirable for the Nautilus to find out whether U.S. Navy submarines could range through the frigid waters beneath the icecap on military missions.
The voyage on which the Nautilus was embarked in the predawn darkness of that June day in 1958 was not the first under-ice probe ever attempted, though. Twenty-seven years earlier, in 1931, an attempt to take a submarine beneath the ice to the Pole was made by the British explorer Sir Hubert Wilkins. The vehicle for Wilkins's attempt was the old submarine 0-12 which the explorer bought from the U.S. Navy and prophetically renamed Nautilus after Captain Nemo's submarine in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
Submarine pioneer Simon Lake modified the former 0-12 for under-ice use, affixing runners to the top of its hull. Wilkins was confident that the topside runners would permit the submarine, pushing upward in a state of positive buoyancy, to sled along on the bottom of the icecap. Lake also fitted it with three drills designed to permit Wilkins and his crew to bore holes up through the ice. This would be done if they failed to find spaces of open water in which their submarine could surface and replenish its supply of air.
To man his craft Wilkins hired a civilian crew, but the men he hired proved to be far less enthusiastic than their leader about submarining under the ice in a boat that the U.S. Navy had been about to scrap. The crew's misgivings were reinforced after the submarine had passed under the edge of the icecap between Greenland and Spitzbergen on its way to the Pole when ice began to form on the inside of its hull.
Compounding the Nautilus 's problems, Wilkins noticed increasing difficulty in controlling the submarine's depth — a difficulty which was perhaps the result of sabotage caused by a disgruntled crewman. Conceding defeat, Wilkins headed south into the open waters of the Atlantic, his visionary but premature attempt at an under-ice cruise to the Pole a failure. His Nautilus was scuttled in Bergen Fjord, Norway, where its unsuccessful polar cruise had begun.
In the years after Wilkins's attempt, under-ice operations by submarines were few. During World War II a small number of German U-boats cruised under the edge of the ice shelf to escape detection by Allied antisubmarine forces, but their penetrations never covered any great distance nor did they last for any considerable period of time.
After World War II the U.S. Navy became interested in the possibilities of submarine operations in arctic waters, and in 1948 the USS Carp made a 6-mile penetration under the ice shelf. Four years later the Redfin penetrated for a distance of 20 miles and remained beneath the ice for eight hours.
The mission of the USS Nautilus in June, 1958, was to make the deepest penetration of all and, in fact, to reach the Pole itself if possible. In its attempt the Nautilus was favored by an enormous advantage over any of the submarines that had probed beneath the ice before: it operated on nuclear power.
Its powerplant, developed under the direction of Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, was the world's first practical application of nuclear power for propulsion. Utilizing the heat of a controlled nuclear reaction, it generated steam which turned turbines and powered the 320-foot submarine's screws. Since no air was required for the nuclear reaction, the Nautilus , unlike conventionally powered submarines, had no need of surfacing frequently to take aboard fresh air for its engines.
To keep its air in good condition for its crew to breathe, the Nautilus used mechanical "C02 scrubbers" — machines which removed carbon dioxide and impurities from stale air, making it fresh and breathable again. By continuously scrubbing its air, the Nautilus could stay completely sealed for sixty days or more without ill effect. To keep its crew of ten officers and ninety-three men in good spirits during prolonged periods of submergence the Nautilus was equipped with such morale boosters as an ice cream machine, a soda fountain, and a hi-fi system. Movies were shown twice daily in the crew's messing compartment.
Vitally important to the success of the Nautilus 's planned venture beneath the ice was accurate navigation. Magnetic compasses, swinging wildly as the submarine approached the north magnetic pole, would be useless, and the icecap overhead would keep the submarine from surfacing for star sights.
The problem of navigation was solved by a complex and costly device known as an inertial navigator. Utilizing the almost immeasurably tiny variations in inertia caused by the changing position of the Nautilus in the earth's gravitational field, the inertial navigator was able to provide a continuous and accurate navigational "fix," making both magnetic compass and star sights unnecessary.
However, even with nuclear power and the inertial navigator, there was no assurance that the Nautilus could reach the Pole and return safely to open water. The threat posed by the ice was an unknown factor, and no one was more acutely aware of this than the submarine's captain, Comdr. William R. Anderson, as he took a last round of bearings on landmarks before giving the orders that took the Nautilus under the ice between Alaska and Siberia on June 14, 1958. Would plunging ice block the submarine's way? Might the frozen mass of it capriciously let the submarine through, only to shift and close off its escape? No one really knew the answers.
The Nautilus had not gone far under the ice before ominous signs were noted. The submarine's sonar recorded frozen ridges stabbing 30 feet deep into the water, and soon even greater depths were encountered. Anderson took the Nautilus riskily close to the bottom of the shallow Arctic Sea and cautiously the submarine probed on, its sonar pinging on the massive ice ridges that could be seen dimly through the periscope, hanging like solid and deadly draperies overhead.
With the Nautilus at a depth of 140 feet, and with only 20 feet of water between its keel and the bottom, the submarine's sonar showed a ridge of ice that plunged 63 feet down into the sea, reaching almost to the Nautilus 's conning tower. Anderson realized that his submarine could go no farther — that it was in fact seriously in danger of being wedged under, or trapped behind, the sheet of ice at that moment. Wondering if he was already too late in doing so, Anderson ordered the Nautilus around.
"I waited for and honestly expected the shudder and jar of steel against solid ice," Anderson wrote later. "In pure agony we stood rigidly at our stations. No man moved or spoke. Then suddenly . . . the gap between the ice and the Nautilus was widening. We had made it! By an incredibly scant five feet we had slipped under a mass of ice big enough to supply a 100-pound block to every man, woman and child in the United States."
The Nautilus had failed to reach the Pole and had in fact only narrowly averted disaster. From its experience it seemed possible that a voyage from the Pacific to the Atlantic via the North Pole might never be accomplished.
Nevertheless the Navy decided — with the full agreement of Comdr. Anderson — that another attempt would be made several weeks later when the edge of the ice pack would have receded farther to the north under the melting influence of the summer's sun. Perhaps then it would be possible to find a way under the ice to the deeper water near the Pole — water in which the Nautilus could submerge to a depth at which it would be safe from any plunging ice.
On July 23, 1958, less than two months after its earlier probe, the Nautilus again sailed north toward the ice, this time from the port of Honolulu. Again Anderson took his submarine under the ice shelf, and again he found astonishingly large masses of ice pressing dangerously deep into the sea above the shallow ocean floor.
Thwarted at several places in his search for a safe route, Anderson turned his submarine southeastward toward a last possibility — a trench in the sea known as the Barrow Sea Valley. If a passage could not be made through this avenue, then the Nautilus 's explorations would have failed again, this time perhaps for good.
On the first of August the submarine's fathometer showed increasing depth at the place where the inertial navigator indicated that the Barrow Sea Valley should be. Cautiously at first, and then more boldly, the nuclear-powered submarine slipped under the mass of ice hanging over the Valley. When the fathometer showed that the sea's floor was dropping away sharply, and the sonar showed nothing but clear water ahead, Anderson gave the order, "Come left to north."
At a speed of 20 knots the Nautilus bore steadily through waters that no submarine had ever traveled before. There was no sensation of motion — there never was in the Nautilus when it was running below surface turbulence as it was now at 400 feet. As always the temperature on board was a steady 72° F. and the humidity a comfortable 46 per cent.
After sixty-two hours under the ice, the Nautilus passed precisely through the Pole at 7:15 P.M. Seattle time on August 3, 1958, to the cheers of all hands. At the Pole the temperature of the seawater was 32.4° F. and the depth of the sea was 13,410 feet.
Thirty-four hours later the submarine emerged into the Atlantic between Spitzbergen and Greenland, having traveled 1,830 miles under the ice in ninety-six hours. Comdr. Anderson radioed to Navy headquarters in Washington the three-word message "Nautilus 90 north" which told of the submarine's success in reaching the Pole.
For Anderson events began to move fast and unexpectedly. A helicopter picked him up from his submarine (which he left in the command of his executive officer) and sped him to a naval base in Iceland. From there a plane flew him to Washington, D.C. After a greeting from his wife, he was taken to the White House where President Dwight D. Eisenhower presented him with the Legion of Merit.
The Nautilus was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, and each of its fourteen officers and ninety-eight crewmen were authorized to wear on the Citation's ribbon a bronze N in commemoration of the Nautilus 's historic nuclear voyage to the North Pole.
Following the Nautilus into service came several more nuclear-powered submarines, including the giant USS Triton . The Triton , 447 feet long and displacing 5,662 tons, cost $109,000,000 — about as much as the Navy's last battleships. It was the first submarine of the U.S. Navy to be commanded by an officer of the rank of captain, the same rank that commanded a battleship or an aircraft carrier. Designed as a radar picket submarine which would accompany surface task forces, the Triton was capable of speeds of more than 30 knots on the surface.
In 1960 it became the first vessel ever to sail entirely around the world submerged. The purpose of its marathon voyage was to test the ability of nuclear submarines and their crews to travel great distances and to remain submerged for long periods of time.
Beginning its voyage on February 16 when it submerged off the tip of Long Island, the submarine rounded Cape Horn on March 7, reached the Philippines on April 1, crossed the Indian Ocean, and rounded the Cape of Good Hope on April 17.
The voyage ended on May 10 when the huge submarine — as long as one and a half football fields — surfaced off the coast of Delaware. In the period of its long cruise, forty-two of its crew had been promoted, and the wives of eight had presented their husbands with new additions to their families. In all, the submarine had been submerged for eighty-three days.
Like the Nautilus , the Triton was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, and its crewmen were authorized to wear on the Citation's ribbon a miniature globe to signalize their globe-circling accomplishment.
In a matter of a few years after the Nautilus 's first cruise, a number of nuclear-powered submarines were operating with the fleet.
Attack Submarine 'Thresher'
One of them was the USS Thresher, the first of a new class of submarines designed to attack enemy submarines.
"The Thresher," wrote the commander of Atlantic Fleet submarines, Vice Admiral E. W. Grenfell, in the United States Naval Institute Proceedings of March, 1964, "was without question the most advanced operational attack submarine in the world. She was the fastest, deepest-diving, quietest, and best-armed submarine ever delivered as an operating warship to any fleet."
After her commissioning in 1961 the Thresher repeatedly exceeded expectations for ships of its design, and the Navy decided to build eleven more just like it, in addition to fourteen others that were basically similar.
Nevertheless, the greatest single disaster in the history of submarines was to overtake and destroy the Thresher , scattering its shattered metallic remains on the floor of the Atlantic.
In July, 1962, the attack submarine returned from its first term of service in the fleet to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in New Hampshire for an overhaul which lasted through the winter and into the spring. After extensive repairs and replacement of worn equipment, it put to sea again on April 8, 1963. Lt. Comdr. John W. Harvey, its captain, was at his station atop the submarine's "sail," as present-day American submariners call what used to be commonly known as the conning tower.
Under Harvey's orders the Thresher made its way out of Portsmouth harbor and set a course out into the Atlantic to meet the submarine rescue ship USS Skylark and begin the various submerged tests which a submarine must conduct after undergoing overhaul. First at shallow depths and then at greater ones the Thresher 's men tested its hull, fittings, and equipment in dives on April 9. Toward the end of daylight the submarine completed the first day's tests.
Early on the morning of April 10 the submarine and the rescue ship were about 220 miles east of Cape Cod. The Thresher was submerged because its crew — in common with all submariners — preferred the restful tranquility of the depths to the rolling and pitching a submarine experiences on the surface. The two vessels were in communication with each other by radio and by underwater telephone.
Shortly before 7 o'clock Captain Harvey informed the Skylark that he was taking his submarine down for a dive to its test depth — the deepest depth to which its designers said that it was safe for it to descend (for security reasons the Navy never announced the actual depth). The depth of the sea beneath the keel of the rescue vessel was 8,400 feet.
Step by step the Thresher went down, stopping at intervals to check equipment. The possibility of disaster seemed remote. Steadily through its descent the submarine was in voice contact with the Skylark , sending up data about its dive.
Nothing appeared to be amiss, but at 9:17 a garbled transmission from the submarine was received on the rescue ship. It is possible that the message from Captain Harvey was, "Exceeding test depth!" but no one will ever know for sure. Admiral Grenfell wrote that the garbling of the message might
"have been caused by the Thresher blowing air into her ballast tanks, but the same phenomenon can be observed when the submarine is passing through a thermal layer, or when there is turbulence around the receiving ship. The interruption of communications by itself was not necessarily a cause for alarm."
However, when the Skylark 's sonar operator heard through his earphones the sound of the bending and collapsing of metal, suggesting that the submarine was breaking up in the sea below him, the Skylark 's captain sent futile messages down into the depths. There was no reply; the Thresher had indeed sunk, taking with it Captain Harvey and a total of 128 officers, enlisted men, and shipyard technicians — the largest loss of life in a single submarine disaster.
Subsequently the Navy scoured the floor of the sea for months, and enough evidence was found to make it clear that the Thresher had disintegrated so completely that there could be no hope of ever determining the cause of the accident with certainty. However a court of inquiry, convened to investigate the circumstances surrounding the tragedy, reported that it was most probably caused by the failure of a tube admitting seawater into the submarine. If such was the case, an almost explosive blast of seawater poured into the Thresher through the ruptured tube, quickly causing the failure of electrical systems, and in short order, sinking the submarine. The Navy took immediate steps to eliminate the possibility of such failure occurring again.
While mourning the loss of gallant men and a splendid submarine, the Navy left no doubt that other submarines would carry on in the Thresher 's place.
"It is true that the sea has always taken its toll of seamen," wrote Admiral Grenfell. "But it is also true that no maritime power has survived unless her men have been willing to fight back with successively better ships manned by seamen who have profited by the lessons learned from past mistakes. Our Submarine Force will not fail the heritage we have assumed from the Thresher . We shall continue to inhabit the depths of the sea and to expand our domain there in support of the interests of our proud nation and those of the Free World."
'The Polaris — Missile Armed Submarines
Not long after the success of the Nautilus had shown that nuclear power was not only a practical form of propulsion for submarines but very nearly an ideal one, the Navy undertook to devise an intermediate range ballistic missile which could be carried to sea in a nuclear-powered submarine and be fired from the sea in the event of war.
Navy planners knew that if such a missile could be built, and if submarines could be built to carry and launch it, the result would be a nearly invulnerable weapons system. A force of missile-carrying submarines, moving silently in the depths of the sea for weeks or months at a time, ready always to respond on command with a devastating nuclear attack, would stay the hand of an aggressor nation as nothing else could.
However, the problems that stood in the way of building a missile that could be launched from a submarine seemed almost insurmountable. The missiles of the time — the mid-1950s — were powered by highly volatile and hard-to-handle liquids which were too dangerous to be taken aboard ship. As a substitute, the Navy began work to develop safer propellants of solid combustibles.
Another problem among the many was how to guide a submarine-launched missile to its target. Missiles launched from sites on land could have their guidance preset into them in the form of mechanical instructions for the controls. And with land-based missiles both the position of the launching site and the position of the target were fixed and known with accuracy.
The missile the Navy wanted, though, would have to be fired from a launching site that might be in motion — a moving submarine. To provide accurate guidance for such a missile the Navy set to work to adapt the inertial navigation system for missile use. This was the navigation system which had guided the Nautilus on its cruise to North Pole, giving accurate and continuous navigational "fixes" by measuring the minute inertial changes caused by the movement of the submarine in the earth's gravitational field.
By 1957 plans were completed for a missile which used a solid propellant, was guided by an inertial navigation system, and could be fired from underwater. The Navy called it the Polaris.
Work began on the construction of working models of the missile and the first test firing took place at a site on land at Cape Canaveral, Florida (now Cape Kennedy) on September 28, 1958. With high hopes, the launching countdown was completed. A button was pushed and a cloud of white smoke billowed at the base of the twenty-eight-foot missile as it lifted from its launch pad. Hopes were dashed, though, as the missile veered off course. A "destruct" button was pushed and the Polaris was intentionally blown up at 40,000 feet.
Two weeks later a second Polaris was fired, but again a malfunction caused erratic swerving, necessitating its destruction in midair. On December 30 a third Polaris was launched but, like the first two, it failed to function properly and was blown up. A fourth and a fifth shot were equally unsuccessful, and the newspaper-reading public was fast becoming dubious about the Polaris's chances for success. Navy men and missile scientists, even though they knew and reassured each other that the missile's troubles could and would be corrected, were glum.
The sixth Polaris test shot was scheduled for April 20, 1959. At Cape Canaveral the countdown was completed and the missile's bottle shape lifted into the air, gaining speed as it rose. The thumb of the range safety officer was again poised to push the button that would destroy this Polaris, too, if it veered from its planned flight path, but onward and upward the missile roared — on course. Minutes after it sped out of sight, its dummy warhead dropped into the Atlantic 400 miles away. The Polaris had scored its first success.
Meanwhile, as progress in the refinement of the Polaris continued, construction work on submarines to carry them continued also. On June 9, 1959, the first was launched at Groton, Connecticut. Named the George Washington, it displaced 5,400 tons and in its hull were sixteen "silos" to house missiles.
On July 20, 1960, the George Washingtonwas at sea on a mission to test fire the Polaris from a submarine for the first time. In two of its silos were missiles, complete except for dummy warheads. If the firings were to succeed, not only would the intricate workings of the missiles have to function perfectly but so also would each one of the submarine's thousands of fire-control circuits and components. The Navy and the nation anxiously waited for the final test of the multi-million dollar effort.
At 12:39 in the afternoon the first of the two missiles burst from the sea, expelled from its silo by compressed air like a torpedo. Once out of the water its propellant charge ignited and the missile sped upward into the sky. Minutes later its inert warhead fell into the sea 1,100 miles away — on target. In another three hours the Washington's second missile broke the surface, ignited and, like the first, sped down range onto its target, as if to prove that the first shot was no accident.
With the success of the Polaris and its submarine launching system demonstrated, the George Washington began out-fitting for its first operational assignment, which began on November 15, 1960. After a submerged patrol of sixty days the submarine returned to port where its first 140-man crew and captain were replaced by a second, which took it back to sea again for another patrol. The system of having two crews, each alternating with the other in the operation of the submarine for two-month patrols, has been followed by all Polaris submarines.
In July of 1966 the last of the 41-submarine Polaris force, the USS Will Rogers, was launched. By the end of 1966 the Navy will have some 656 submarine-borne missiles — most of them with a range of almost 3,000 miles — to deter attack. In a technological tour de force the nuclear-powered submarine has been effectively armed with nuclear-tipped missiles, the warhead of each having the explosive power of 3 trillion pounds of TNT. The result is a weapon which provides the United States and the free world with its best deterrent to any nation that might wish to start a general war.