On Aug. 1, 1958, the revolutionary submarine USS Nautilus (SSN-571) submerged underneath the polar ice pack near Point Barrow, Alaska. The boat’s orders called for the nuclear-powered submarine to use her ability to stay submerged for months at a time to travel underneath the polar ice cap to the North Pole, and reemerge on its other side. The operation was a total success. Eleven days after submerging, Nautilus arrived in England and into the history books. It not only showed the benefits of nuclear propulsion to the Navy, it succeeded in answering the scientific and strategic challenge posed by the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of the Sputnik I satellite.
While Nautilus’ senior command staff received many well-deserved laurels, the operation was not possible without specially trained sailors who possessed the skills to operate a nuclear power plant. Today, the Navy employs thousands of sailors on aircraft carriers and submarines to operate these plants. Yet in the early 1950s, there were only a few dozen.
Throughout its history, the Navy took advantage of technological advances. With each new technological advance, the Navy created a new type of sailor to operate the equipment. When the Navy accepted its first steam powered warships in the 1840s, it created an engineering department and a new rate of sailors known as “firemen” to operate the machinery and shovel coal into the fireboxes. The first electrical rates started to appear when the Navy introduced electric lighting and automatic ammunition hoists. When the Navy’s first aircraft carrier, USS Langley (CV-1), went to sea in the 1920s, there were sailors onboard trained to prepare aircraft for takeoff and sailors trained to bring to land the aircraft safely back on board.
These advances paled, however, in comparison to the technology of the submarine force. In the 1940s, the submarine force had boats propelled by diesel fuel and electric batteries. In 1953, writer Jack Alexander wrote in The Saturday Evening Post that the Navy had to find and train sailors that were “combination sailors and physicists” to man Nautilus when the boat was first being conceived. Finding sailors that met this criterion was not easy.
The Navy sent word out to individual submarine skippers to find men they thought would be successful in the program. Due to the secrecy of nuclear propulsion program, sailors could volunteer for the duty as none of them knew it existed. To qualify, the sailors had to be experienced in submarine engineering, be a petty officer in rate, and be less than 30 years old. Most importantly the sailors had to be willing sequester themselves from civilization for up to three years. Since it was considered shore duty, these sailors would be forced to give up their 50 percent bonus in pay that came with service on an active submarine. Due to these strict requirements, unmarried men were considered ideal candidates. The Navy later dropped this requirement when it discovered that many of the sailors recommended for the program had families.
Once selected for the program, the Navy sent the sailors to the Atomic Energy Commission’s National Reactor Testing Station in the deserts of southeastern Idaho (now called the Idaho National Laboratory) to for training at a nuclear power plant. One sailor described the training “as if I were to take my son out of the third grade and in one year of tutoring give him a high-school education.” Nonetheless, all the men expressed enthusiasm for the training and wished they were approached about it sooner.
While in the nuclear program, the sailors not only learned how to operate a nuclear reactor, but assisted civilian engineers in solving defects in the reactor’s design. In some cases, the sailors taught the engineers a few things that were unique about a submarine, such as the pressure caused by being underwater, a variable not initially considered by the reactor’s designers. As a result of their efforts, the first of sailors in the Navy’s nuclear propulsion program not only helped get Nautilus to the point where her captain could utter the famous line “underway on nuclear power,” but also helped get the Navy’s nuclear program as a whole off the ground, out to sea, and a permanent part of the Fleet.