Oct 13

An Admiral’s Letters to His Son

Tuesday, October 13, 2015 2:15 PM

By

Emery-F2-SO15

 

By Vice Admiral George W. Emery, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Admiral Hyman George Rickover, “the father of the nuclear Navy,” demanded stringent safety requirements and a powerful focus on quality standards. When once asked why, he responded: “I have a son. I love my son. I want everything that I do to be so safe that I would be happy to have my son operating it. That’s my fundamental rule.”1

Rickover lived up to those words, making a point to be personally on board during each nuclear-powered ship’s initial sea trials, and by his presence set his demanding stamp of approval on both the material readiness of the ship’s nuclear-propulsion plant and the state of training of her crew.

In his book Rickover and the Nuclear Navy, historian Francis Duncan wrote, “Rickover was responsible for the initial sea trials for the propulsion plant. His practice, broken only twice because of serious illness, was to direct the trials in person.”2 His presence at each trial was his message to the Navy, the executive branch, Congress, and the American public that he held himself personally accountable and acted accordingly.

Rickover also understood that ships must be funded by a budget-conscious Congress and approved by a president who often required convincing. He was a master at obtaining such funding and approvals for more than 30 years. One of his chief weapons in support of the nuclear propulsion program was the “sea trial letter.” While on board a ship during her initial sea trials, he signed virtually identical letters to be mailed to influential members of Congress, the president, and others whose support he sought.

Recipients of these letters evolved over time as national elections and subsequent presidential appointments changed the faces of senators, representatives, military leaders, and executive officials. Only one recipient—the admiral’s son, Robert—was a constant. From 126 sea trials, 111 in submarines and 15 on board surface ships, Rickover sent a letter home to Robert.

Robert is the only child of Admiral Rickover, born on 11 October 1940 to the admiral and Ruth Masters Rickover. Between Robert’s 16th and 19th birthdays, Rickover wrote six letters to his son from sea trials of some of the earliest nuclear submarines: the USS Seawolf (SSN-575), Skate (SSN-578), Skipjack (SSN-585), Halibut (SSGN-587), Triton (SSRN-586), and Seadragon (SSN-584). He wrote the first letter on 22 January while returning from the 1957 sea trials of the world’s second nuclear-powered submarine, the Seawolf:

Dear Robert,

We have just returned from the first sea trials of the Sea-Wolf. The ship got underweigh [sic] from the Electric Boat Company dock, Groton, Conn. at 0700 Monday, 21 January.

At first we operated in Long Island Sound, and then steamed out into the Atlantic beyond the 100-fathom curve to have water deep enough for submerged full-power operation at submergence greater than 300 feet.

The most spectacular test was the reversal of the engines from full power ahead to full power astern. I believe we did this in record time for a large vessel. Trials included operation at full power, surface and submerged.

The trials all went smoothly, and Captain Laning and his crew are, of course elated that their ship has finally gone to sea. We returned to our mooring at Groton at 1700, having steamed 312 miles, 212 of which were submerged.

I believe it to be no overstatement to say that the Sea Wolf is the most complex machine man has ever devised.

Your father, H. G. Rickover

The admiral signed his last sea trial letter to Robert from the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson (CVN-70) in January 1982, his final trial before his forced retirement.

In his book Eminent Americans: Namesakes of the Polaris Submarine Fleet, Rickover states he wrote about 80 letters during the Nautilus sea trials; the mailing list would soon increase to more than 600.3 Submarine trial letters to Robert continued with few exceptions through Rickover’s last submarine sea trial on board the Los Angeles–class fast-attack submarine Boston (SSN-703) in November 1981. (Rickover was at sea on board the Boston directing her trials when his wife overheard a radio broadcast that her husband had been fired—he had not been told.4

1. Lisle Abbott Rose, Power at Sea: A Violent Peace (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press; 2007), 55.

2. Francis Duncan, Rickover and the Nuclear Navy (Naval Institute Press, 1990), 63.

3. Hyman George Rickover, Eminent Americans: Namesakes of the Polaris Submarine Fleet (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1972), vii.

4. Francis Duncan, Rickover: The Struggle for Excellence (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2001), 287.

This post is excepted from Vice Admiral Emery’s article in the October issue of Naval History. To read the complete article, go to: http://www.usni.org/magazines/navalhistory/2015-10/admirals-letters-his-son