How a Commanding Officer of USS Nautilus Came to Love That Submarine

Submarine Force Museum, Nov 17 2004

Last Commanding Officer of
USS NAUTILUS (SSN 571)
NAUTILUS Golden Anniversary Lecture Series
Submarine Force Museum
Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Good afternoon. It’s a great pleasure for me to be back in Groton, Connecticut, and a special pleasure to be involved in an event connected with USS Nautilus.

I really loved that old ship. Having Command of USS Nautilus was the best assignment I had in the U.S. Navy. Having command of any nuclear submarine is a wonderful thing. But Nautilus was truly special because it had a lot of name recognition. This name recognition led to a lot of special treatment throughout its life. Visitors knew about the ship, and we hosted a large number of VIPs because of the ship’s history. Even my mother had heard of Nautilus from news reports in the 1950s.

Nautilus was also special because it had a crew that had been specially selected for the ship. There was an understanding in Washington that Nautilus was a maintenance challenge, requiring a higher percent of technically capable officers and crew. Another factor making the ship special was that most of the crew was "stabilized" for the last several years of the ship’s life. Because the officers and most of the crew were not transferred until the submarine was decommissioned, we had a stronger bond with each other than ship crews that had regular rotations.

Let me tell you a little about how I happened to be assigned to Nautilus. Then I want to share some stories and describe some of the unusual characteristics of the submarine.

When I completed my Executive Officer’s tour, I received orders to command the new construction ship, New York City—the newest attack submarine. I was in heaven. I would be Commanding Officer of the best submarine in the fleet.

However, when I arrived at Naval Reactors Headquarters for my three month Prospective Commanding Officers’ Course, my door name tag did not have New York City on it—unlike the tags with names and ship assignments of the others in my class. Instead, under my name was "S3G-Core 3." I was told that I was being reassigned from the New York City to another submarine, and that I should study the "S3G-Core 3" manuals until the submarine was identified.

For a week, I studied the "S3G-Core 3" manuals and, in what would turn out to be ironic, joined the other members of my class in good natured kidding of the officer who was assigned to be Commanding Officer of USS Nautilus—the oldest of the old.

At the end of that first week at Naval Reactors, I was informed that I was assigned to USS Nautilus. The explanation was that the officer who was originally assigned to Nautilus was needed for a different submarine. This news required some attitude adjustment on my part.

NAUTILUS conducting high-speed maneuvers

Over the following three months at Naval Reactors and then three months at the SUBLANT Prospective Commanding Officers’ Course, I found myself getting more and more excited about going to Nautilus. I was ready, in my own mind, to be a submarine Commanding Officer. And from what I could determine about Nautilus, the old submarine was still a sea-going ship, capable of shooting torpedoes, with a good crew, and an unusual but adequate engineering system. By the time I actually arrived on board Nautilus to conduct the required one month turnover of command, I was really "pumped" about this ship.

Nautilus operated like a "real" submarine, all the way until decommissioning. There was nothing that other submarines did that we couldn’t do (or at least try to do).

NAUTILUS with MACS array installed

In the beginning of my three and a half years in command of Nautilus, we were involved with the Mobile Acoustic Communications System, or MACS, which was a research project to obtain fundamental data on long range propagation of sound. This project required a huge antenna on the after deck of the submarine. The antenna would transmit an acoustic signal to a receiving submarine or surface ship well over a hundred miles away, with multiple simultaneous signal frequencies, various antenna angles, different ocean bottom types, and a variety of weather conditions.

My most vivid memory of our time with MACS was the ability of the human body to adapt to the ear-splitting acoustic signals that were transmitted every few seconds. This went on for days and weeks at a time. Somehow, we learned to live with this noise—to sleep, watch movies, and even play poker on Saturday nights.

NAUTILUS participates in a training exercise

After MACS, we began getting the ship and ourselves ready for a full six-month Mediterranean deployment. From my perspective and from reports, our Mediterranean deployment was a great success. We conducted important submarine operations, we were a key player in a number of fleet exercises, and we had a lengthy and successful maintenance and liberty visit alongside the submarine tender at LaMaddalena, Sardinia. On one occasion during a fleet exercise, I had reason to conclude that there is nothing more beautiful than an "enemy" aircraft carrier coming over the horizon at dawn, directly towards us, with our green flares (simulating torpedoes) filling the sky.

NAUTILUS moored at Halifax with saltwater frozen on the deck - that's cold!

After the Mediterranean deployment, Nautilus conducted a variety of operations, including a proof firing of a warshot MK 48 torpedo, a trip to the Naval Academy at Annapolis for Homecoming Weekend, and participation in a big fleet exercise near Halifax, Nova Scotia.

In April 1979, Nautilus departed Groton and headed for Mare Island Naval Shipyard for inactivation. We stopped at Guantanamo Bay Cuba, Cartagena Columbia, Rodman Panama, San Diego, and Oakland. At Mare Island Naval Shipyard, Nautilus was defueled, a number of engineering components associated with the propulsion plant were removed, and the crew carefully cleaned and painted the interior of the ship.

NAUTILUS Decomissioning

Nautilus was decommissioned on March 3, 1980, and the crew marched off the ship, each heading to his next assignment.

I have been discussing the operations of Nautilus, late in her life, because I find it astounding that this submarine, with its first-of-a-kind propulsion plant, could operate so well for almost 25 years. This is like the Wright Brothers aircraft being used for passenger service for 25 years, or the first Model T Ford being used as a taxi in a big city for 25 years. Although there have been many improvements in the propulsion plants of subsequent submarines, Nautilus was good enough from the beginning to be a significant fleet asset throughout her life. My tour on Nautilus really made me appreciate the genius of Admiral Rickover and his team in building a propulsion plant that could run hard for 25 years.

Let me talk now about some of the unusual characteristics (or quirks) of Nautilus.

I believe that if you talked to members of any of the crews of this submarine, you would definitely hear the word, "hard." The crew could tell you that many of the standard submarine things they had to do were just plain "hard" on Nautilus.

The simplest example of "hard" was cleaning the ship. The front end of Nautilus was difficult to keep clean but, in comparison to the propulsion spaces, the front end was a piece of cake. Many places in the engineering areas were essentially impossible to reach. Dirt or grease could be seen in the beam of a flashlight, but a hand and arm would not fit into the tight spaces. This cleanliness problem was aggravated by diesel and other oily drains going directly into the bilges and being spread by several inches of water in the bilges.

Other examples of "hard" include:
- Nautilus had motor generator sets that were hard to maintain. These motor-generator sets required cutting out portions of foundations (with subsequent replacement) to provide access for changing bearings.
- Reactor Compartment access was hard, requiring chain falls to lift the access plugs. To enter the reactor compartment lower level, double protective clothing was required. This slowed down entry procedures, speed of work in the reactor compartment, and exit processing.
- The diesels required broaching the ship in order to start. In spite of advice from many experts, we never discovered why our diesels would not start at periscope depth, like other submarines.
- In the forward part of the ship, the radar would frequently go out of commission because of problems with the magnetic clutch in the mast. Lack of radar while returning to Groton in thick fog made for difficult choices—whether to continue inbound, using the ship’s primitive electronic navigation plus visual observation of the sea buoys, or to return to sea, on the surface until water depth increased, while hoping to avoid the numerous fishing boats in the area.

It was "hard" to back out of the New London Submarine Base piers without a tug. Nautilus’ twin shafts were not parallel, but instead angled inward. This angle eliminated most of the moment arm between the shafts, resulting in little ability to twist the ship using her main engines.

Another difficulty was that in any sort of breeze, the ship would back into the wind. This backing confounded more than one Officer of the Deck during a man overboard drill, especially when the officer attempted to use the "wye backing" procedure.

It was "hard" to hear with the ship’s sonar when Nautilus was making more than about four knots. Any sort of speed caused such rattling of the ship’s superstructure that the resulting noise drowned out any sonar contacts. In spite of a lot of effort in looking for loose pieces of superstructure, the rattling persisted.

One final example of "hard" ways to do things involved our propulsion plant pre-underway sequence. Before getting underway after a maintenance period, with the reactor plant cooled down, we would use the reactor to heat up the primary plant to normal operating temperature. The reactor heat would cause the volume of water in the plant to expand, and we would discharge the extra water to an off-hull tank via a discharge pipe called a "gooseneck." Here was the sequence. The gooseneck was welded to the hull, the off-hull valve lineup was established, the reactor was taken critical, the primary plant was heated up to normal operating temperature, the reactor was shut down, the off-hull valve lineup was changed, the gooseneck was removed, and the reactor should have been ready for lighting off the engine room. Now comes the "hard" part. When lining up the valves for completing this sequence, one of the key valves would usually stick and the reactor would cool down. This required us to do the whole sequence all over again. We went through this sequence two, three, or four times over the weekend before things would work right so we could get underway on a Monday. This sequence was great training for my crew, but it sure screwed up a lot of weekends for my Engineer Officer and his gang.

Nautilus had a perverse nature that made some of us wonder whether the submarine was a bit human at times. The first day I was in command, we were at sea and I wanted to see some drills. The first drill was to be a "jam dive" drill, simulating the stern planes going to full dive. We were ready to commence this drill when the stern planes went to full dive. The planes men took all of the correct actions and the recovery went well. I told the Executive Officer that the drill was excellent, but he should get my permission before commencing drills in the future. The Executive Officer told me that the jam dive was not a drill, but the real thing—happening just when we were ready to conduct the same drill.

Nautilus perversely bit us again, when we were having our first and only Family Cruise. (You’ll see why this was our only Family Cruise.) On a beautiful day, with a large number of wives on board, we sailed for Long Island Sound to dive several times and then return to port. On the way back, the Main Steam Stop Valves shut spontaneously, leaving the ship with only emergency propulsion and lighting. The Submarine Base scrambled to get two tug boats underway and headed for us. We began recovery steps for the Main Steam Stop Valves, but Nautilus wasn’t through tormenting us, and we ultimately had to shut down one half of the engine room and one propulsion shaft. Nautilus limped into the Submarine Base with the help of the two tugs, and we disembarked the wives. I later determined that many of the wives felt they had received a glimpse of Nautilus that was consistent with some of the Nautilus stories their husbands had told to them.

Let me share with you a couple of stories concerning my communications with the Naval Sea Systems Command. During my first entry into the Nautilus Reactor Compartment, I noted salt stalactites hanging down from some valves in the overhead of the compartment. I questioned the petty officer with me about the stalactites, and he told me that they were from the saltwater side of coolant discharge valves. It was hard to stop external leaks from these valves, so the stalactites had been tolerated. We removed the stalactites, properly fixed the valves, and I submitted a report to Admiral Rickover. The report of the salt stalactites apparently created quite a stir at Naval Reactors, with the Admiral asking many questions of his staff. I received a phone call from the Admiral’s staff requesting that I call them in advance of reporting such an unusual problem, so that they could have an explanation prepared when the report arrived at the Admiral’s office.

During one of my first periods at sea, the Engineer Officer told me that Nautilus had no way of getting rid of engineering waste water except for dumping the water down the ship’s Trash Disposal Unit, which was near the crew’s mess. Disposing of engineering waste water down the Trash Disposal Unit struck me as strange, but I saw no alternative. However, to document this unusual procedure, I submitted a report to the Naval Sea System Command. This report, like the one about the stalactites, also created a stir. This time, the phone call from Washington said that if we had to dispose of engineering waste water down the Trash Disposal Unit, do not report this to the Naval Sea System Command. I was told that the staff did not want to go through the pain of explaining this unusual procedure to their superiors ever again.

There was a fairly narrow passageway in the engineering spaces, between several reactor control panels. On a couple of occasions, someone had bumped into a switch on these panels, causing problems with the ship’s engineering systems. We took a picture of the fattest sailor standing in the narrow passageway, illustrating the closeness of a person to the important switches in that area. I requested permission to install safety covers over these switches to prevent inadvertent shifting when bumped, and I enclosed the picture. Instead of receiving permission for the safety covers, Admiral Rickover called and asked me why I had such a fat guy on board. I was directed to get the Reactor Operator in shape or to get rid of him. I never did get permission for the safety covers.

During the final years of Nautilus, Admiral Rickover wanted to keep the Nautilus in its original configuration, to show the world that the ship was designed right and could operate effectively all the way to its end of life. Meanwhile, I requested several modifications to Nautilus to improve this or that system or procedure, and Admiral Rickover called me and said words to the effect, "This system has worked properly for almost 25 years. Why do you need to change it?" Eventually, with some help from the Admiral’s staff, I figured out what Admiral Rickover was doing and quit asking for modification, unless the problem was serious.

NAUTILUS passes under Oakland Bay Bridge en route to Mare Island

My last story began in Groton, when Nautilus was ready to depart for the final time and head for Mare Island Naval Shipyard. Some press were invited on board Nautilus by the local Group Commander (an Admiral), but I elected not to talk to the press because of the training I had received at the Naval Reactors Prospective Commanding Officers’ Course. The famous Naval Reactors line was, "If you don’t talk to the press, that is bad; but if you do talk to the press, that is worse." The press eventually found one of my Chief Petty Officers on the pier and got him to talk a bit about the ship and the forthcoming inactivation. When the article was published, the Chief’s comments were very restrained and accurate, and I considered the situation to be closed. However, Admiral Rickover called me and asked why I let the Chief talk to the press. Before I could answer, the Admiral said "If anyone needs to talk to the press about Nautilus, it should be you."

NAUTILUS transiting the Panama Canal

After we went through the Panama Canal, we stopped in San Diego before going to the shipyard. In San Diego, the local Group Commander arranged for some press to come on board. I talked briefly to the press, and the resulting newspaper article was restrained and accurate, just like my Chief’s had been. To my surprise, Admiral Rickover called me and said, "Why are you talking to the press. If anyone needs to talk to the press about Nautilus, it will be me." I now fully understood what I had been taught at the Naval Reactors Prospective Commanding Officers’ Course.

As is probably apparent, I had a wonderful time as Commanding Officer of Nautilus. Things were never boring on that submarine.

I find it incredible that the Nautilus propulsion plant, designed and built over 50 years ago, is still the model for today’s submarine propulsion plants. We’ve come a long way in every aspect of nuclear propulsion, but the plants are fundamentally the same. I am convinced that a graduate of the S1W prototype (if it were still operating) could be assigned to USS Virginia, our newest submarine, and successfully make the transition.

I will also never get over my amazement that the first-of-a-kind- propulsion plant would operate so well, allowing Nautilus to be a full member of the fleet for 25 years. Admiral Rickover and his people did something magical. As a result, the U.S. Submarine Force played a major role in winning the Cold War.

Thank you.

Read RADM Riddell's biography

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