The Saga of the

World's First True Submarines

The following artical is reprinted from the September 1967 issue of ALL HANDS Magazine.

The USS Nautilus SSN 571 slides down the ways into history.
Jan. 21, 1954

0n17 Jan 1955, approximately 200 diesel powered submarines were in commission in the U. S. Navy.
On that day they became obsolete, as did all the other submarines in the world. That was the day when the hull SSN 571 (later to he known to the world as USS Nautilus), the first nuclear powered submarine, put to sea for the first time. That was the day that then-Commander Engene P. Wilkinson, commanding officer, sent the message which was to change permanently the concept of seapower:

“Underway on nuclear power."

Before Nautilus became a reality, a submarine was more or less a small surface ship that could submerge for short periods of time. In 1955, the submergence time and the average submerged speed of a submarine had not greatly changed from those of submarines in operation .‘30 years earlier. The trouble was, diesels needed oxygen to operate. So did crewmembers. When submerged, that oxygen supply was cut off. The boat depended for its power on electric batteries; the men depended upon the air trapped within the hull or carried in bottles and chemicals. The whole concept was limited by one of the basic facts of life – men and machines must breathe to live.

A NUCLEAR SUB was different. Its nuclear reactor eliminated the diesel engines which had limited a sub’s range and speed; had eliminated the need for diesel fuel and resultant storage spaces; had eliminated the need to surface periodically to recharge batteries.

The power plant of a nuclear submarine is based upon a nuclear reactor which provides heat for the generation of steam. This, in turn, drives the main propulsion turbines the ship’s turbo-generators for electric power.
The primary system is a circulating water cycle and consists of the reactor, loops of piping, coolant pumps and steam generators. Heat produced in the reactor by nuclear fission is transferred to the circulating primary coolant water which is pressurized to prevent boiling. This water is then pumped through the steam generator , and back into the reactor for reheating in the next cycle. From the steam generators, steam flows to the engine room where it drives the turbo-generators, which supply the ship with electricity, and to the main propulsion turbines, which drive the propeller. After passing through the turbines, the steam is condensed and the water is feel back to the steam generators by the feed pumps.
In the steam generator, the heat of the pressurized water is transferred to a secondary system to boil water into steam. This secondary system is isolated from the primary system.
None of these steps require the presence of air or oxygen. Thus, any ship so powered is able to operate completely independent of the earth’s atmosphere for long periods.
During the operation of the nuclear power plant, high levels of radiation exist around the reactor, and members of the crew are not permitted to enter the reactor compartment. Heavy shielding protects the crew so that a man receives less radiation on submerged patrol than he would from natural sources ashore.

1960, 14 nuclear powered submarines were commissioned, demonstrating that production was rolling, only a few years after the pioneering work that had brought about the world’s first nuclear ship, USS Nautilus. Here’s the background:

At the request of then-Captain (now VADM) H. G. Rickover, USN, the first study of the application of a high-pressure, water-cooled reactor for a submarine was undertaken at Oak Ridge, Tenn., in September 1947. In January 1948 the Department of Defense requested the Atomic Energy Commission to design, develop and build a nuclear reactor which would propel a submarine.

In August 1949 the Chief of Naval Operations established an operational requirement to develop a submarine nuclear propulsion plant with a ready-for-sea date of January 1955. The late Admiral Forrest P. Sherman, then CNO, recommended the construction of a nuclear submarine to Congress on 25 Apr. 1950, and the following August, the President signed Public Law 674 which authorized construction of Nautilus.

That same month saw the start of construction of the Nautilus land-based prototype (submarine thermal reactor, Mark I) at the AEC’s National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho. Mark I (Nautilus was known as STR Mark II) was built from the start inside a submarine hull, complete with a surrounding tank of water, on the assumption that it was a true seagoing power plant. Breadboard techniques and engineering shortcuts were riot allowed. The model went critical at 11:17 PM, MST on 30 Mar 1953 – an occasion which marked the first production of significant quantities of useful nuclear power in the world. About three months later, on 25 June, Mark I commenced a 96-hour sustained full-power run, simulating a submerged crossing of the Atlantic.

Meanwhile, in August 1951, the Bureau of Ships (now the Naval Ship Systems Command) awarded contract for the construction of the first nuclear powered submarine. From this point onward, events moved rapidly. Nautilus’ keel was laid 14 Jun. 1952 at Groton. She was christened on 21 Jan 1954 and was commissioned '30 Sept 1954. Her nuclear power propulsion plant was first operated at power on 20 December and first developed full power alongside the dock on 3 Jan 1955. A s mentioned earlier, it was on 17 Jan 1955 that Nautilus, putting to sea for the first time, signaled her message: “Underway on nuclear power.” Her Mark II reactor, a refined version of the prototype Mark I reactor, behaved beautifully. During her first sea trials, she completed high speed test runs, both surfaced and submerged, and dived more than 50 times. After further testing, she was accepted by the Navy on 22 Apr. 1955.

SHE THEN PROCEEDED to smash just about every existing record that pertained to subs. On her shakedown cruise in May, Nautilus steamed submerged from New London, Conn., to San Juan, Puerto Rico, traveling over 1300 miles in 84 hours – more than 10 times further than any submarine had ever traveled while submerged. It was the first time that a combatant submarine had maintained such a high submerged speed (about 16 knots) for longer than an hour, the longest period spent submerged by a U. S. submarine, and the fastest passage between New London and San Juan by any submarine, surfaced or submerged, She later made an even faster submerged passage from Key West to New London, a distance of 1397 miles, at an average speed of more than 20 knots. After more than two years of operation and evaluation, nautilus was refueled in April 1957. On her first core she had steamed a total of 62,562 miles, more than half of which was submerged. To cover this distance, a conventionally powered sub the size of Nautilus would have required more than two million gallons of fuel oil. She then resumed operations with the Fleet, deploying to the Pacific via the Panama Canal and, upon her return to the Atlantic, participating in NATO exercises in Northern European waters. She completed several excursions under the polar ice cap and penetrated to within 180 miles of the North Pole.

This was merely prelude. On 12 Aug. 1958, she completed a trans-polar voyage from Pearl Harbor to Portland, England. After diving under the ice near Point Barrow, Alaska, on 1 August, she became the first ship to reach the geographic North Pole, passing beneath it on 3 August. She surfaced in the Greenland Sea two days later after steaming 1830 miles under the ice in 96 hours. For this achievement, which demonstrated the strategic potential of the Arctic, she was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation (the first such to be awarded in peacetime) and her commanding officer, Commander William R. Anderson, the Legion of Merit. In May 1959, she was again refueled and received her first regular overhaul – after more than four years of intensive operation. She had steamed more than 153,000 miles on her first two reactor cores, 115,000 miles of which had been submerged. During her first four and one-half years of operation, she had been submerged for more than one year.

By September 1966 she had completed 300,000 miles of steaming on nuclear power, more than 250,000 of which were submerged.

The reliability of Nautilus’ nuclear propulsion plant was considered to be due in large measure to the experience gained in the construction and operation of the land prototype plant. After being refueled in late 1955 following two years of nearly continuous operation and testing, the prototype completed a continuous full power run of 66 days with its new core installed. This would have been sufficient to carry Nautilus twice around the world without refueling, and served to demonstrate the virtually unlimited cruising range of nuclear powered hips, even at high speeds. The prototype again refueled in early 1958 and late 1960 and now being refueled with an advanced design core, is used today as a test facility for investigating new concepts in the technology, design and operation of advanced nuclear power plants as well as a training facility for crewmembers of nuclear powered ships.

Preliminary development work had involved the investigation of many concepts. Of these, only two – the pressurized water and the liquid metal (sodium) – were of sufficient interest from a naval standpoint to warrant a prototype and shipboard installation. The pressurized water concept was first applied to Nautilus; the liquid sodium concept to the Navy’s second nuclear powered sub – Seawolf
. As with Nautilus, the development of the Seawolf liquid sodium plant involved the construction of a land prototype" plant. Known as the Submarine Intermediate Reactor, this was built at the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory at West Milton, N. Y. Seawolf’.s keel was laid 15 Sep 1953, and she was launched 21 Jul 1955. However, trouble developed in her reactor and she was not ready for her sea trials until January 1957. After acceptance, USS Seawolf (SSN 575) operated as an active unit of the Atlantic Fleet and on 6 Oct. 1958, completed record-breaking 60-day submerged run, traveling a distance of more than 13,000 miles submerged with completely sealed atmosphere. Although she was able to operate satisfactorily for almost two years on her sodium-cooled reactor, technical and safety considerations indicated that the concept be dropped. In December 1958, the sodium-cooled reactor was removed and was replaced with a pressurized water plant similar to that in Nautilus. When she shut down her sodium plant for the last time, she had steamed a total of 71,000 miles, of which 57,000 were submerged.
With her new pressurized water plant installed, Seawolf was recommissioned on 30 Sep 1960. In May 1965, she was refueled for the first time since the installation of her pressurized water reactor. On this core she had steamed more than 160,000 miles, of which more than 130,000 were submerged.

USS TRITON ( SSN 586) was designed to be fast enough to operate with a fast carrier task force.One of the largest submarines ever built, Triton is 447 feet long, displaces more than 7700 tons submerged, and carries a crew of approximately 170. Her keel was hid 29 May 1956, she was launched 19 Aug. 1958, and was commissioned 10 Nov. 1959. She has two pressurized water reactors, one for each of her two propellers.

On 16 Feb. 1960, she departed New London on a submerged circumnavigation of the world. Following the same route taken by Ferdinand Magellan in 1519, Triton proceeded to St. Peter and St. Paul’s Rocks in the Atlantic and crossed the equator on 24 February. Two weeks later she rounded Cape Horn and entered the Pacific Ocean. From there, she sailed to Magellan Bay in the Philippines, thence south through Lombok Strait and rounded the Cape of Good Hope. She again reached St. Peter and St. Paul’s Rocks on 25 April and proceeded via the Canary Islands and Cadiz, Spain, to the United States. Surfacing off the coast of Delaware on 10 May, she had traveled '36,000 miles completely submerged in 83 days and 10 hours. For this voyage, she received the Presidential Unit Citation and her commanding officer, Captain Edward L. Beach, was awarded the Legion of Merit. She has since been refueled once, and now operates with the Fleet as an attack submarine.

The need for a nuclear propulsion plant similar to that of Nautilus but smaller, suitable for smaller subs, soon became apparent. Bettis Atomic Power Lab was given the assignment.
This plant, know as the Submarine Fleet Reactor uses pressurized water reactor similar to that used in Nautilus, hut is much simpler and contains several improvements in operation and maintenance.
Five subs – Skate (SSN 578), Swordfish (SSN 579), Sargo (SSN 583), Seadragon (SSN 584) and Halibut (SSN 587) – are powered by this type plant. The first four of this class are attack subs; Halibut is the first Navy submarine to be designed from the keel up as a guided missile submarine.
Skate was commissioned 23 Dec. 1957. On 24 Feb. 1958, she departed New London on her shakedown cruise and, eight days and 11 hours later, arrived at Portland, England. Her 176-hour submerged transit of the Atlantic had set a new west-east record. On her return trip, Skate surfaced off Block Island seven days and five hours after departing Lizard Head, breaking still another record. She was the first submarine to make the transatlantic voyages to England and return while submerged. In August, Skate crossed under the North Pole while exploring undersea routes beneath the polar ice cap. During this trip, she spent 10 days and 14 hours and traveled slightly more than 2400 miles under the ice.

She surfaced within the icepack nine times. One of these surfacings was near the International Geophysical Year’s Floating Ice Station Alfa, where scientific information was exchanged with the resident scientists.
With only a slight air of facetiousness, she claims to be the first submarine to go around the world in one hour. She circumnavigated the North Pole on a circular course within one mile of the pole.

In March 1959, she made another extensive trip under the polar ice cap – this time in winter. During this trip, she traveled 11,495 miles, 11,220 of which were submerged and more than 3000 under the polar ice cap. She broke through the polar ice to surface on 10 occasions.
Slightly less than five years after her commissioning she entered the yards to receive her first refueling and overhaul. She had steamed 120,862 miles, of which 105,683 were submerged, on her first core.

SWORDFISH was commissioned on 15 Sept. 1958, and Sargo followed with her commissioning on 1 October. Sargo also did extensive polar exploration. Sailing from Pearl Harbor, she entered the Arctic Basin by way of the Bering and Chukchi Seas. Fitted with a new ice-berg-detecting sonar, she proved that it is possible for a nuclear powered submarine to cross this shallow route at any time of the year.
Numerous ice ridges, some extending as much as 100 feet deep, were encountered. On many occasions, it was necessary for her to split the distance from the ice to the ocean floor, clearing each by just a few feet.
She returned to the open Pacific through the Bering Sea. She had traveled 6000 miles in 31 days, and surfaced 20 times. Usually, it was necessary to break through the ice before she could surface.
Assigned to the Pacific Fleet after her commissioning on 5 Dec. 1959, Seadragon reached the Pacific via the Northwest Passage during August 1960. She remained in the Arctic Basin during August and, on the 24th, became the fourth U. S. submarine to reach the North Pole. Another, but less-than-monumental first was ,achieved – the first baseball game held on the pack ice between the officers and enlisted members of the crew.
Two years later, on 2 Aug. 1962, Skate and Seadragon rendezvoused under the ice at the North Pole, conducted antisubmarine warfare exercises and surfaced together at the Pole.

Design of a single screw nuclear propulsion plant suitable for installation in a submarine of higher displacement and higher speed than Nautilus also was undertaken by Bettis. Much of the experience gained from the Submarine Fleet Reactor was used to incorporate improvements and advancements in this type of plant. It is now being used extensively in both fast attack and Fleet ballistic missile class submarines.

This type of plant, combined with the cylinder-of- revolution hull form developed with USS Albacore (SS 560), resulted in the USS Skipjack (SSN 585) class. Commissioned 15 Apr. 1950, Skipjack’s clean design enabled her to break all existing submarine speed records. Most nuclear submarines built since that time have been based upon the Skipjack concept.
While Nautilus was still undergoing operational testing, the Navy began development of an intermediate range ballistic missile. Brought from conception to operation in five years, the Polaris Fleet ballistic missile system was combined with nuclear propulsion to produce a missile-firing submarine essential to the United States’ deterrent concept.

Each Polaris submarine carries 16 solid-fuel, two-stage ballistic missiles powered by solid fuel rocket motors, guided by a self-contained inertial guidance system, providing a combined explosive power greater than the total of all the bombs dropped by all aircraft alluring World War II. Nuclear propulsion enables these sub' to remain on patrol, hidden beneath the surface of the sea, always ready to launch their missiles.

On station, a Polaris sub maintains complete radio silence, receiving radio messages hut sending none, lest it give away its location. Each ship has two complete crews, the Blue and the Gold, of some 130 men each. The crews alternate on two-month patrols, providing the greatest possible on-station time for the FBM submarines.

USS GEORGE WASHINGTON (SSBN 598) was the first ballistic missile submarine to be built. Originally designed to be a Skipjack-class fast attack sub, her partially constructed hull was cut and a 130-foot missile section added amidships. Commissioned 30 Dec. 1959, she successfully test-fired two Polaris A-1 missiles while submerged six months later. In November 1960, she departed for her first armed Polaris missile patrol, remaining submerged for more than 66 days. After deploying on 15 submerged patrols and steaming more than 100,000 miles, she was ready for refueling and refitting for longer range missiles. Four other FBM submarines, USS Patrick Henry (SSBN 599), Theodore Roosevelt (SSBN 600), Robert E. Lee (SSBN 601) and Abraham Lincoln (SSBN 602) are included in the George Washington class. Although originally designed to carry the A-1 missile, all five were, in March 1967, being converted to handle the A-3 missiles.

USS ETHAN ALLEN (SSBN 608) was the first ballistic missile submarine to be designed from the keel up as an FBM submarine. This class, consisting of Ethan Allen, Sam Houston (SSBN 609), Thomas A. Edison (SSBN 610), John Marshall (SSBN 611), and Thomas Jefferson (SSBN 618) are 410 feet long, displace 6900 tons and can handle the A-1 (1200-mile) and A-2 (1500-mile) Polaris missiles.

On 23 Oct. 1961, Ethan Allen fired the first submarine-launched A-2 missile; on 8 November she set a missile-firing record by successfully launching six out of six Polaris A-2 missiles; and on 6 May 1962 she fired a Polaris in what was the first complete test of a ballistic missile, including detonation of the nuclear warhead.

The USS Lafayette (SSBN 616) class, third class of FBM submarines, is approximately 425 feet long, and displaces approximately 7000 tons. These 31 ships can accommodate the A-l, A-2 or A-3 missile.

On 28 Sept. 1964, a ship of this class, USS Daniel Webster (SSBN 626) began her first deployment, carrying the first shipload of the A-‘3 missiles. On 25 December, a sister ship, Daniel Boone (SSBN 629) departed her operational base in Guam loaded with 16 A-3 missiles, marking the first operational deployment of a Polaris missile submarine in the Pacific.

Will Rogers (SSBN 659) last of the 41 currently authorized FBM submarines was launched 21 Jul. 1966, and completed her sea trials in February 1967. Will Rogers marks the completion of the currently planned FBM shipbuilding program.

Where They Came From

An impressive roster.

All were made possible through the cooperation and hard work – and taxes – of thousands, if not millions, of U.S. citizens, and through the foresight and planning of countless organizations from Congress and the President on down.

However, a major role in the development of these nuclear craft has been assumed by the Atomic Energy Commission and the Navy Department through the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program. Its objective has been the design and development of improved naval nuclear propulsion plants for installation in ships ranging from small submarines to large combatant surface ships.

The program is directed by VADM Hyman G. Rick-over, USN, Director, Division of Naval Reactors, U. S. Atomic Energy Commission and Deputy Commander for Nuclear Propulsion, Naval Ship Systems Command.

Design and development of these plants is carried out by AEC’s Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory, Pittsburgh, Pa., and Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory, Schenectady, N. Y.
The program also operates and maintains six land prototype nuclear propulsion plants. Two are located at West Milton, N. Y., one at Windsor, Conn., and three at the Atomic Energy Commission’s National Reactor Testing Station, Idaho.
In addition to testing power plant designs, the land prototypes are used to train the men – both officers and enlisted personnel – who operate the shipboard plants.
Approximately 2500 officers and 14,000 enlisted men have been trained at these prototypes to date. The nuclear power training program is divided into two phases. The first consists of a 24-week course at the Nuclear Power School located either at Bainbridge or Mare Island. This is followed by orders to one of the prototypes for six months. Courses are on a college level for most enlisted men and on a graduate level for officers.

CONGRESS HAS AUTHORIZED 107 nuclear powered submarines including 41 Polaris missile-launching type and one deep submergence research vehicle and six nuclear powered surface ships.
Of these, 70 nuclear powered submarines and four nuclear powered surface ships are now in operation and have steamed over 9,150,000 miles. Not once has a mission been aborted because of a failure in the reactor.

A total of 234 nuclear cores have been ordered to date, and 92 are in operation today.(1967) The first core for Nautilus’ cost more than four million dollars and enabled her to steam 62,000 miles. The second cost three million dollars on which she steamed 91,000 miles. The long-life cores now installed in nuclear submarines cost about three million dollars and will propel the ship for about 400,000 miles. Naval nuclear propulsion plant components, including the nuclear reactor and its special instruments and controls, are obtained from private industry on a competitive fixed-price basis. More than 500 industrial contractors – 150 large and 350 small businesses – are engaged in the fabrication and supply of this equipment.

Five private shipyards and six naval shipyards are engaged in the construction or overhaul of naval nuclear powered ships.

Shape of Ships to Come

Included in the Navy’s fiscal year 1967 shipbuilding and conversion program are one nuclear powered attack carrier (CVAN), one nuclear powered guided missile frigate (DLGN) and five nuclear powered attack submarines (SSN). Here’s a brief description of each:

Nuclear Powered Attack Carrier (Project 102.67) – This ship will he nuclear powered with the new two-reactor plant that has been under development in recent years.
It will be the most modern warship in the world and will be an improved successor to USS Enterprise (CVAN 65) which has performed so well in both peacetime and wartime environments.
She will have a full Naval Tactical Data System and an Integrated Operational Intelligence Center. Automation in areas of main propulsion, ordnance handling, ship control and other areas will be included as possible wherever safety can be improved and manning reduced.

Guided Missile Frigate (Nuclear) (Project 241.67) – The nuclear powered frigate will operate offensively, independently or with strike, antisubmarine or amphibious forces against submarines, air and surface threats.
It will be equipped with the most advanced sonar and ASW weapons as well as two dual Tartar surface-to-air missile systems, thus providing an effective combination of both AAW and ASW capabilities.
It will also have two conventional guns, making this highly capable multipurpose escort for any task group.

Nuclear Powered Attack Submarines (Project 300.67) – These ships are essentially the same as the attack submarines in the 1966 programs. They are characterized by high submerged speed, good ship control and quiet operation.
Emphasis on the elimination of self and radiated noise is continued and makes excellent sonar performance at high submerged speeds possible.
These ships will incorporate all the modifications developed by the submarine safety program.

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