Aug 3

This Day in History: The Nautilus’ Under Pole Passage

Saturday, August 3, 2019 12:01 AM

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USS Nautilus (SSN-571) during sea trials. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

As the first commanding officer of the nuclear-powered submarine Nautilus (SSN-571), Commander Eugene Wilkinson famously broadcast to the world on 17 January 1955, “Underway on Nuclear Power.” He knew firsthand just how capable the boat and her crew were. But by 1958, he had moved on to command Submarine Division 102.

The man in charge was now Commander William Anderson. The skipper was slated to take the Nautilus up the West Coast, under the North Pole, and back down the East Coast. To prepare for this tall order, Anderson first drove the Nautilus, loaded with crew and scientists alike, under polar ice to profile the irregular structures and conditions the boat would face. Anderson, along with the scientists, also participated in aerial reconnaissance over the polar ice pack to better understand what he was getting himself into. He is quoted in the May 1958 issue of Proceedings as saying: “No book or movie had given us an adequate idea of what the ice looked like. The flight gave us a great deal of confidence as to our ability to operate beneath the pack and to surface in openings.”

The preparation paid off, and the Nautilus safely passed under the North Pole on 3 August 1958.

For all the sweat, effort, and problems faced leading up to the voyage, the expedition itself was relatively straightforward for those on board. It was those the Nautilus left on shore who were worrying—and for various reasons.

USS Nautilus (SSN-571) and her crew show off their expedition flag. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

This year marks the 61st anniversary of the Nautilus passing under the North Pole and broadening the possibilities for nuclear propulsion in the Navy—an event of near-unquantifiable importance. Sunshine, the codename for the operation, was confidential and kept secret from even senior Navy personnel until its successful completion. This meant the problems faced in the time leading up to the polar voyage had to be solved under the guise of normal naval operations. In a 1971 interview, Dr. Waldo K. Lyon, director of the Arctic Submarine Laboratory, recalled a few of the bigger challenges the expedition faced:

“[T]he inertial navigation system—there just wasn’t any such thing at that time for the ship, and so there was a bit of scurrying around. Captain Anderson on the ship, and wherever he could get help, did an outstanding effort at finding an inertial system from the ex-Navajo missile that had been scrapped. And so North American Corporation, who had that inertial system, was brought in to modify it, and get it to work on board ship when, after all, it had only been designed to work on a missile that was only going to last about eight minutes at the most, and here it had to last for 80 days.”

The efforts of North American Corporation and the Navy proved successful, and the Navajo system was reconfigured for long-term use. The inertial navigation system was intended to serve as a backup to the gyroscope navigation system already on board. However, the inertial system quickly became the primary means of navigation.

 And as if modifying the navigation system wasn’t enough, Lyon encountered another problem in the spring of 1958.

“We had a small fire on board . . . approaching the Panama Canal,” he reported. The fire brought the sub to the surface and the crew topside. That’s all fine and well while transiting the open ocean, but what if a casualty happened under the polar ice cap? Lyon and his team needed to devise a system that could deliver clean air to everyone in case of smoke and fire. They quickly conceived, assembled, and installed a clean-air delivery system throughout the Nautilus a few months before she made her Arctic voyage.

Lyon and the other engineers were concerned about the Nautilus leaving and operating under the ice, but the new commander of Submarine Division 102 was thinking more about her return home.

Wilkinson wanted to make the trip himself, but the division commander tagging along was inappropriate. Instead, he planned a celebration for the Nautilus and her crew in New York on their return.

“In setting up that event, I went down to New York to deal with all the public relations types,” Wilkinson relayed in a 1998 interview. But for all of the achievements and groundbreaking that took place, Wilkinson was still scared for his crew.

USS Nautilus (SSN-571) taking in the New York City skyline. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

“I remember with horror them [the PR staff] saying, ‘Well, here’s where we’ll board, here at the foot of Broadway, and the Nautilus crew can march up Broadway, four abreast.’ And, gee, I had a great ship and a great crew, but probably any high school Girl Scout band could outmarch them,” he reminisced, laughing. “So I was quick on the uptake and I said, ‘March, hell. Those guys are heroes. Heroes ride.’” The call was made, and a few days later a convoy of Jeeps showcased the crew to New York City.

More than 60 years removed from the feat, it is easy to forget the significance of the Nautilus and her crew traversing the icy oceans under the North Pole. But on 3 August 1958, she was on top of the world. And the road to that summit was not easy. So, on this day, 3 August, reflect on the men and women who made it possible. Think about what it truly means to go where no person has gone before and the effort, sweat, and tears that went into this endeavor. Talk about it, read about it, and tell colleagues about it.