USS Skate (SSN-578) hung below the Arctic ice like a matchstick suspended an inch from the ceiling of a large room. A knot of sailors in the control room stared intently at an instrument inscribing patterns of parallel lines on a rolling paper tape. The pattern looked like an upside down mountain range.
“Heavy ice, ten feet,” said one of the sailors.
Suddenly the lines converged into a single narrow bar. “Clear water!” the sailor called out.
Commander James Calvert, the skipper, studied the marks on the paper closely. He stopped the submarine, ordered “up periscope,” and peered into the eyepiece. The clarity of the water and the amount of light startled him. At this same depth in the Atlantic—180 feet—the water was black or dark green at best, but here in the Arctic, it was pale blue like the tropical waters off the Bahamas. The crew laughed nervously as Calvert reported seeing nothing but a jellyfish.
Calvert turned toward the man in charge of the ice-detecting instrument. “How does it look?” The sailor flashed him the okay sign.
“Bring her up slowly,” Calvert said. The three-thousand ton sub began drifting upward like a giant balloon. The diving officer called the depth as the Skate rose.
Otherwise the room was deathly quiet. A wrong move or a miscalculation would endanger the mission or even the ship. Calvert continued to peer through the eyepiece. When the top of the periscope came within sixty feet of the surface, he spotted heavy ice to the side. He flipped the prism to look straight up, but saw nothing except the same blurred aquamarine. Sweat appeared on his forehead as he felt all eyes in the control room bear down upon him. If the sub rose too slowly, it could drift away from the opening. If it rose too quickly and struck ice, the collision could tear open the pressure hull and send the sub and all ninety men on board to the bottom.
Calvert, one of the most decorated naval officers of World War II, had survived eight war patrols in the submarine Jack and later became the third naval officer selected by Admiral Hyman Rickover to command a nuclear powered submarine. It was one of the Navy’s most demanding jobs, for it required the intellect and the courage to operate the Navy’s most sophisticated and dangerous propulsion system. This success of this mission would help Navy planners determine whether submarines could navigate safely under Arctic ice, a question with grave implications for national security, given the emerging Soviet submarine threat.
Calvert ordered the ballast tanks blown. The roar of high pressure air seemed earsplitting after the tense silence of the last few minutes. Upon surfacing, Calvert ordered the hatch opened, then climbed up to the bridge. The sky was slightly overcast and the damp air felt like an unseasonably warm February day in New England, with the temperature hovering near freezing. The submarine’s black hull stood out in stark relief against the deep blue of the calm lake in which the ship now floated. Beyond the lake, stretching to the horizon in every direction, was the stark white of the permanent polar ice pack. The officer who had climbed to the bridge with Calvert called the skipper’s attention to the port side of the ship. There a full grown polar bear was climbing slowly out of the water and up onto the ice.
The date was 11 August 1958 and the Skate had just become the first submarine to surface at the North Pole.