From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
As the 60th anniversary of USS Nautilus’ commissioning into the Navy was celebrated today at Groton, Conn., only a handful of people who were there from the beginning were in attendance.
One of them was Henry Nardone Sr., a project officer on Nautilus, who said working on the nuclear-powered submarine was the highlight of his 12 1/2-year naval career. Now 92-years-old “and counting,” Nardone was a “fresh-caught” lieutenant junior grade when the keel was laid in August 1955. He was there on top of the boat in January 1954 when First Lady Mamie Eisenhower cracked a bottle of champagne on her keel sending the boat down the ways and into the Thames River at Electric Boat’s berth in Groton. And on Sept. 30, 1954, Nardone was there for her commissioning into the Navy on Sept. 29, 1954.
Even after he left the Navy, Nardone continued his relationship with Nautilus. He was in charge of her first major overhaul in 1973 at Electric Boat where he was manager of the overhaul program.
“It was the most significant assignment I had in the Navy, and one I enjoyed the most,” Nardone said from his home in Westerly, just a few miles from Groton. “I couldn’t ask for a better assignment for myself or my career. Not only was it the highlight of my career, but the highlight of the submarine service in the country. It was one of the most significant events in submarine design construction ever and changed the whole world of submarines.”
Nardone recalled a potentially serious problem the team faced while working on Nautilus. During some testing, they experienced a pipe leak, and an examination found a pipe had a welded seam, when theoretically by design, it should have been a seamless pipe.
“We had to remove all of the piping in the engine room and replace it with seamless piping,” Nardone said. “There was no way to determine if it was seamless or not without destroying the pipe. So every piece of piping was removed and all new seamless piping was put in. We had the engine room disassembled and it was weeks’ worth of work. But it had to be done since we couldn’t be 100 percent sure without destroying the pipe.”
After his work on Nautilus was completed at Groton, Nardone requested a position with a nuclear power group in the shipyard at Mare Island. He had been recommended by his boss for the job, but as time got closer to making the transfer, he got word he was deemed “unacceptable” for the job by Adm. Hyman G. Rickover, who headed the nuclear-power program. Instead, Nardone was offered orders to a tender off the coast of Japan. Nardone decided to resign his commission rather than move to Japan. His boss recommended and arranged an interview at Westinghouse Electric, the company that built the nuclear power plant for the Nautilus.
“I’m sitting in the office of the interviewer when a telephone call comes in,” Nardone said. “The interviewer looks at me and the only part of the phone conversation I heard was ‘Yes sir, yes he is. Yes sir, I understand that.’ He hung up and said that was Adm. Rickover.”
Nardone was stunned. Only two people had known he was interviewing at Westinghouse: his boss and the interviewer. The interviewer said the admiral had told him not to offer a position to Nardone until the admiral had spoken with Nardone himself.
So Nardone went back to Groton and within a week received a phone call from the admiral’s “right-hand man” staffer Bob Panoff, setting a meeting for the next day. In keeping with the usual Rickover procedures, they walked across to the Electric Boat office where Rickover had a space reserved. The door was unlocked and they went inside, where the door was locked again. Nardone was told the admiral wanted Nardone to work for him in his Washington, D.C. office.
“Last week I was unacceptable for the Mare Island job in the shipyard and now he wants me to work in his office at Washington?” Nardone asked incredulously.
“The admiral has his reasons, and you know the admiral,” Panoff said. “Let us know in a week.”
Nardone would go ahead and resign his commission, deciding he wanted to remain near his long-time home in Westerly, R.I. and not move to Washington.
“I figured I was finished in the shipbuilding business, because the admiral had long arms and could reach deep into the shipbuilding community,” Nardone said. “But as I was preparing to go through the exit process, I got an unsolicited offer of a job at Electric Boat and I immediately accepted.”
Nardone did not believe Rickover had anything to do with the job offer. But years later, he found out Rickover was indeed well aware of the offer and kept track of Nardone’s assignments at Electric Boat throughout his life. He was even notified of every promotion “and probably reviewed every fitness report,” Nardone laughed. “He brought the nuclear navy into the force more efficiently, more quickly and safer than anyone could have done at that time.”