On August 12, 1958, the USS Nautilus arrived in Portland, England, after completing the first submerged under ice cruise from Pacific to Atlantic oceans. This cruise earned the Nautilus the Presidential Unit Citation, becoming the first ship to receive the award in peace time. The following article, published in the November 1955 issue of Proceedings, gives an account of the training the crew of the Nautilus went through before launching the first nuclear powered submarine, and making the historic under-ice cruise.
“SCHOOL OF THE BOAT” FOR THE NAUTILUS
By LIEUTENANT COMMANDER DEAN L. AXENE, U. S. Navy
THE Nautilus had been long a-building. During the greater part of her design, development and construction, she had been much in the public eye; the subject of many articles, both technical and visionary. During the past year the “labor pains” had begun in earnest and the “birth” of the first nuclear powered ship was fast approaching.
This article will be neither technical nor visionary, but will attempt to re-create the pre-commissioning story of the Nautilus as her crew saw it.
The author first became involved with the Nautilus and nuclear propulsion in October of 1953, about four months before the ship was launched. The story since that date is told first hand. The story prior to that dateand many years of hard work by many, many people went into it-is of necessity not first hand. However, mine was the job of Executive Officer on the Nautilus. This job has been a broadening one, with liberal and technical educations included, and it has permitted me to meet and learn to know most of the principals in the story of the Nautilus which follows.
By way of review, it will be remembered that the dust had hardly settled over Hiroshima in 1945 before American scientific personnel began dreaming and scheming ways to harness the tremendous power of the atom for useful purposes. There were many solid reasons which made such use of nuclear energy highly desirable, and this of course was the logical direction in which to move in this new field. Persons within the Atomic Energy Commission and the Navy’s Bureau of Ships led the way and accomplished much in the way of early feasibility studies on reactors which might generate power.
Many far-sighted naval officers envisaged nuclear powered ships and the revolutionary effects they might have on fleet operations. A selected group was educated in the ways of nuclear energy during a tour of duty with the Atomic Energy Commission at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Through their interest in the subject and their untiring efforts, these officers soon became the experts in the field of power reactors in the United States.
These officers were quick to realize the tremendous advantages that would accrue to the submarine propelled by nuclear power. Other factors undoubtedly influenced this choice, but in any case a submarine was chosen as the vehicle in which the first nuclear propulsion system would be built.
The Westinghouse Electric Corporation was awarded the prime contract for development and construction of main propulsion machinery utilizing a water-cooled reactor. An alternate effort was also made with the award of a similar contract to the General Electric Corporation. The General Electric reactor was, however, to be cooled by liquid metal. The Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics Corporation received the shipbuilding contracts for the submarines that were to carry these two plants. These ships are of course the Nautilus and Seawolf respectively.
STR are letters frequently encountered in connection with the Nautilus. They actually stand for Submarine Thermal Reactor and came into being during the design and development phases of the reactor which will power the Nautilus. The word “thermal,” strangely enough does not refer to the temperature of the reactor, but rather to the fact that the chain reaction within the reactor is sustained by neutrons of thermal energies. Thermal is therefore a word descriptive of the energy level of the important neutrons in this reactor.
The Submarine Thermal Reactor, Mark I (or STR Mk I), is the name which was given to the first version of the Nautilus power plant. It had early been decided- and wisely so, in the opinion of the writer-to build, first, a full size fully operative model of the power plant on land but within a hull section which would be the actual size of the eventual Nautilus. The purpose of STR Mk I was of course to provide operational experience with the plant in the comparative safety and comfort of a cement building at the National Reactor Test Station near Arco, Idaho, before actually sending it to sea in an operating submarine. “Critical” reactor operation with the STR Mk I plant was achieved in March, 1953. Operation of this plant since has provided a wealth of experience, know-how, and scientific data which will, without a doubt, make much easier the further development of this potent source of power.
At about the time that it became apparent that nuclear propulsion was in fact feasible and not just a pipe-dream, the Navy Department carefully selected a nucleus operating crew. Two submarine junior officers and a group of submarine enlisted personnel in the engineering ratings were ordered to the Westinghouse Atomic Power Division (WAPD) in Pittsburgh to begin a technical study of the power plant.
At this time there was no power plant in being; but the majority of the engineering problems had been solved, the plant existed on paper, and actual construction of the prototype was being readied at the National Reactor Test Station near Arco.
This initial group was given a thorough grounding in fundamentals: mathematics, physics, nuclear physics, etc.; and the design engineers at WAPD taught the systems and components which they themselves had designed. The course was quite flexible, and, in many ways, these first crew men grew up with the plant.
About one year after the first group of Navy people had started work at Pittsburgh, they were joined by a second carefully selected group. Together, these two groups comprised the prospective Engineering Department for the Nautilus. Ranks and ratings had been controlled so that the combined engineering group fit the contemplated engineering complement for the ship.
The second group of trainees arrived in Pittsburgh at about the time that serious construction of the prototype got underway in Idaho. By that time members of the first group were being ordered to Arco. Navy operating personnel thus were present at the National Reactor Test Station in sufficient time to witness the latter stages of construction and to assist in the debugging and testing of the prototype plant.
By the time STR Mk I was ready for initial operations utilizing the reactor, nearly all the Navy trainees (including the second group) were present and ready to fulfill their jobs as members of the operating crew.
The training that these men underwent was in many respects informal but it did cover all phases of the plant. It was a wonderful education and, absolutely unique. They had been trained not only in nuclear physics as applied to a power reactor, but also in steam machinery, electrical equipment, reactor control equipment, and plant instrumentation. As a result, they had an overall understanding of the plant that few associated with the project possessed. They were, therefore, better fitted to operate the prototype plant than any other group of men available.
Their purpose at Arco, though primarily to receive operational training to fit them for their later jobs on board the ship, was also to operate the prototype to obtain the scientific data and operational information needed before the Nautilus could be confidently carried to completion.
In March, 1953, the reactor in the STR Mk I was started up and a series of overall plant tests commenced which are still continuing today, and which have added immeasurably to the storehouse of information and operational know-how that we now possess in the field of nuclear power. It should be a source of great pride to the Navy to know that under the direction of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and the Westinghouse Corporation, STR Mk I has been operated since that first day in March, 1953, by a crew composed primarily of Navy junior officers and bluejackets.
The Nautilus, demonstrating the first useful application of the power of the atom, has always been a great source of national pride as well as a very potent potential weapon. For these reasons, and undoubtedly many more, the ship has been “pushed” from its inception. Thus it was that on June 14, 1952, long before completion of construction on STR Mk I, the keel for the Nautilus was laid at ceremonies at the Electric Boat Division in Groton, Connecticut, with Harry S. Truman, then President of the United States, officiating.
The concept under which the Nautilus was designed and built was a considerable departure from that which governed the design of the World War II American submarine. Nautilus was to be the closest approach yet to a true submarine and not just a submersible surface ship.
This change in concept has been in slow but sure process ever since the last war. The advent of the snorkel and lead-acid storage batteries of increased capacity have been steps in this direction. Experiments with close-cycle internal combustion engines have also pointed the way.
However, a source of power not requiring oxygen and sufficiently great to permit virtually unlimited continuous submerged operation was wholly unavailable until the first controlled nuclear chain reaction was demonstrated.
Nautilus was designed around this new source of power to have virtually unlimited submerged endurance at speeds in excess of those ever achieved in submarines before. This concept of course resulted in a different submarine.
This ship was designed to operate submerged and to proceed on the surface only on occasion. This divorce from surfaced operation necessitated the design and incorporation of ship’s atmosphere conditioning equipment as well as special measuring equipment to continuously monitor the composition of the ship’s atmosphere.
Long submerged operating periods necessitated close attention to habitability since human endurance was now an important factor. For this reason, living accommodations in the Nautilus are, in many respects, palatial when compared to the similar accommodations on other submarines.
The external appearance of the Nautilus is somewhat peculiar with her blunt bow and dorsal rudder but these features were necessary to give her good hydro-dynamic characteristics at her higher submerged speeds.
These are only a few of the features which differentiate Nautilus from all other ships, but serve to illustrate the changes already wrought by nuclear power.
On the day that STR Mk I was first started up, this radically different submarine was well under construction, and it was time already to start training replacement engineering personnel for the crew at Arco and to select the non-engineering ratings to fill out the complement of the ship.
In June of 1953, replacement engineers were ordered to Pittsburgh for a somewhat accelerated course of instruction which lasted for about four months. This group was nearly as large as the first two groups combined and was designed to take over operations at Arco (supplemented, of course, by Westinghouse personnel) in order to release the Nautilus engineering gang for duty in Groton and on board the ship. Further these people were to stay at Arco for a normal tour of shore duty of about two years and be a trained pool of engineering personnel on which the Nautilus could draw if necessary.
Later in the summer of 1953, all of the non-engineering enlisted personnel for the ship plus three non-engineering submarine officers (including the author) were selected and ordered on the Pittsburgh-Area circuit for a rather brief familiarization course. This training was not tailored to make nuclear physicists of the stewards but was designed to acquaint all hands with the propulsion system with which they were to be shipmates and to dispel any possible mystery or fear. This group spent six weeks at WAPD and then proceeded to Arco where they arrived early in December.
The training given the non-engineers at Pittsburgh was concerned primarily with the engineering plant systems and the various components used in those systems, but also included elementary instruction in nuclear physics and information on the types and physiological effects of the various nuclear radiations.
“School of the Boat” is an old institution in submarines and has been very effective in producing men who know their ships and fight them well. “School of the Boat” consists normally of each man learning enough about all the equipment and watch stations in a submarine so that in an emergency any man can take over any station and do an intelligent job of manning that station. The six weeks at Pittsburgh were as close to being a “school of the boat” in the engineering spaces as it was possible to make them.
The six weeks at Pittsburgh were followed immediately by about eight weeks at Arco for the non-engineering group. Here was an excellent opportunity for a fairly realistic “school of the boat.” The deck ratings were given lectures on engineering systems by their prospective engineering shipmates (still the operating crew at Arco), were required to trace out and prepare sketches and written descriptions of these systems, and stood instruction watches. The instruction watch program suffered somewhat from lack of physical space in the Mk I hull, and from the nature of the operations being conducted. Considerable in-hull time was achieved, however, by utilizing the non-engineers as data takers during special tests. Periods during which the plant was not operating afforded an excellent opportunity for these men to thoroughly explore the hull and examine in detail the physical layout and constructional features of the plant.
As the non-engineers’ training period drew to a close early in the new year, the replacement engineering crew (having completed their four months of instruction at Pittsburgh) arrived at Arco and commenced the job of relieving the Nautilus engineers. A scaled program of transfers among the Nautilus engineers was started, sending them a few at a time on to Groton, to commence the precommissioning work on the ship which was now nearly ready for launching.
On January 21, 1954, amid much publicity, and with the wife of the President of the United States, Mrs. Mamie Doud Eisenhower, as sponsor, the Nautilus received the traditional bottle of champagne across her bow, slid down the south building ways of the Electric Boat Division shipyard, and, waterborne for the first time, was moved to the fitting out pier.
By the day of the launching, the prospective Commanding Officer, three other officers (including the author), and a nucleus of ten enlisted engineering personnel and the ship’s yeoman had all reported to the Supervisor of Shipbuilding at Groton to commence the pre-commissioning work connected with the fitting out of the Nautilus.
Work was started immediately on the organization of the ship, the assembly of the outfit, and the further training of the crew.
Although the training of some of the crew members had started two and a half years earlier, this was the first time that the ship itself was available for study. The main propulsion plant, although nearly a duplicate of STR Mk I, had been improved in many respects. These improvements involved changes which had to be learned and understood.
Probably of even greater importance was the fact that this was the first chance that any of us had had to see at first hand (and learn) the myriad of other new and different systems and equipments. New types of hydraulic and air systems; new models of radio, radar, and sonar equipments; a new fire control system, air revitalization equipment, and new torpedo tubes were all being built into the ship. Even the hull itself and ballast tanks were different and strange to most of us in her crew.
The first order of business thus became a new and more basic “school of the boat.” A lecture schedule was prepared covering every basic system in the boat. These lectures were given to the entire pre-commissioning detail, which grew each week as more and more people were brought to Groton from Arco. Electric Boat design engineers gave the lectures on those systems over which each had cognizance. These lectures were paralleled by early morning periods in the boat (when the number of yard workmen on board was at a minimum) tracing out the system under consideration and making notebook drawings.
The entire “course” lasted nearly two months and was then repeated in its entirety, with the cognizant ship’s force personnel acting as instructors.
Another program that was undertaken in connection with the pre-commissioning work was the qualification of all personnel, in a formal manner, as watchstanders. Each watch station has a set of qualification requirements to go with it and each man has been required to complete these requirements before being permitted to stand any watch. The requirements vary, of course, with the watch station and cover watch stations all the way from Reactor Operator to Deck Watch. This work is continuing, and of course usually never ends.
The ship’s Organization Book, including Department Orders, was written early in the pre-commissioning period, was carefully reviewed by all hands, and is now undergoing its first major revision.
A considerable amount of time and space has been devoted to a description of the several “schools of the boat” which have been run for Nautilus personnel. This has been done at the risk of boring the reader but is believed warranted in view of the tremendous importance of this type of training to the crew of any ship. It seems doubly so on the Nautilus where each piece of equipment is either new or different.
Much other work has also been accomplished. All hands have had refresher training in radiation health physics, first aid and artificial respiration, use of the .45 caliber pistol, and use of the Submarine Escape Appliance. All outstanding medical and dental work is being done. And, of course, many existent Navy schools have been utilized for specialized training in individual cases.
At this stage of progress most submarines would be ready to proceed on to sea trials and delivery to the Navy. This would have been the case with the Nautilus also, except for the discovery late in September that some defective steam piping was installed in the ship.
At the time the casualty occurred which led to this discovery some dock trials had been completed and the ship was actually very close to commencing trials at sea. Unfortunately, some delay now occurred.
However, abundant proof has been obtained from STR Mk I and from the dockside tests which have already been run on the Nautilus to prove without any doubt that nuclear power is here to stay and that it has a very definite place in the ships of the United States Navy. Successful operation of the Nautilus will pave the way for a rebuilding program which will unquestionably revolutionize our Navy. With the Seawolf launched and authorization for two more nuclear submarines already in the 1955 building program, there can be little doubt of the truth of this statement.
Submarines appear destined to lead this revolution, probably due primarily to the fact that Nautilus, the first nuclear powered ship, is a submarine. However, regardless of who leads the way changes in every facet of naval warfare must inevitably follow.
High speed submarines of virtually unlimited range will dictate an immediate change in tactics on the part of opposing ASW forces. Successful opposition to this type of submarine will undoubtedly necessitate ships, aircraft, and weapons of radically different characteristics. The whole pattern of naval warfare must eventually change to meet these new conditions, much as it did with the advent of steam.
Changes in naval tactics must also occur as ships (and perhaps aircraft) become able to operate for long periods without the everpresent need for fuel. Merely being relieved of the necessity of transporting huge quantities of fuel oil and gasoline will be a major change.
The world is truly on the threshold of a new era. The changes eventually wrought by nuclear energy are bound to rival the harnessing of steam or the advent of the internal combustion engine. Today, the men of the Nautilus stand at that threshold, ready and eager to pioneer in this new field.
The possible or probable changes that will be brought about in our Navy by the advent of nuclear power is an extensive subject in itself and greatly beyond the scope of this article. Throughout this revolution, however, there will be a great need for trained personnel. Providing these trained personnel will be a major problem for the Navy and will necessitate the education or re-education of large numbers of people.
Of course, this new source of power will never remain peculiar to the U. S. Navy. It has happened that the first demonstrably successful power reactor was designed and built for use on board a naval ship. However, this reactor, or similar ones, will be entirely practical for the generation of electrical power for commercial use, for the propulsion of other types of conveyances, and undoubtedly for many other purposes not even envisaged today.
GRADUATED in 1944 from the U. S. Naval Academy, Lieutenant Commander Axene attended the Submarine School and participated in two World War II patrols in the Pacific. He was the Executive Officer of the U.S.S. Nautilus and is now Commanding Officer of U.S.S. Croaker (SSK-246).
In the accompanying article Lieutenant Commander Axene describes the careful training of officers and crew that contributed to the recent successful trials of the world’s first nuclearpowered submarine.