Remarks by VADM Eugene P. "Dennis" Wilkinson, USN (ret.)

First Commanding Officer of USS NAUTILUS (SSN 571)
50th Anniversary of NAUTILUS' First Underway on Nuclear Power
Submarine Force Museum
Monday, January 17, 2005

Submarine Force Museum, January 17, 2005

I am really pleased to be able to be here.

In World War II, then Captain Rickover was an EDO with a submarine background who had duty in the Bureau of Ships in Washington, D.C.

At the end of World War II, he had the idea of the concept of utilizing this new atomic energy source to produce a nuclear propulsion system to drive a submarine.

He assembled a group of bright young EDO's and civilian technical experts who began work under Harold Etherington at ORNL to develop this concept.

In 1948, he thought that it would be a good idea to include an officer with submarine operating experience. The submarine detail desk in the Navy Bureau of Personnel sent me. I left my duty as executive officer of USS CUSK, the first Navy ship to shoot missiles, and went to ORNL (Oak Ridge National Laboratory) to become a part of the project.

First at ORNL and then at ANL (Argonne National Laboratory), where the group was moved, I worked on the nuclear physics aspects. I did the nuclear physics calculations that set the size, configuration, and uranium loading of the nuclear reactor that was installed in NAUTILUS and in the prototype plant at the national reactor testing station near Arco, Idaho.

Rickover realized that a national laboratory could not build a ship's propulsion system, that he needed to get contracts with industry. In 1949, from his two-hatted position in the Navy Bureau of Ships and in the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), he got contracts let with Westinghouse to develop a water cooled plant which eventually was installed in NAUTILUS, and with General Electric to develop a liquid metal cooled plant which was installed in SEAWOLF.

He got me assigned as the Navy representative in the PAO of the AEC at Bettis Field in Pittsburgh. I was the operations officer. I wrote my own job code description, "in charge of the technical program." I personally interviewed all the technical people Westinghouse hired at Bettis.

After some time, I advised Captain Rickover that he needed a schedule for the development. "You're young and immature," he said, "you can't schedule R&D." "Why not?" I replied, "We'll schedule all the development items. If we fall behind, we'll double the effort. If we still fall behind, we'll take alternate approaches." "All right," he said, "make me a schedule."

With the AEC, Buships, Westinghouse, and Electric Boat to help, we developed a schedule which I presented to him in the fall of 1949. It was a comprehensive schedule that would have covered more than all the walls of the Museum. It had things like getting a prototype plant authorized, getting the AEC to put a reactor in the budget and Congress to approve it, getting the Navy to put a submarine in the shipbuilding program and getting Congress to approve it, and all the numerous technical development items involved. That schedule called for this as-yet-un-named ship to go to sea on 1 January 1955. Because of the steam pipe incident, we went later - on the 17th. But that's fairly close for government work.

Early in 1950, I went back to sea duty as CO (Commanding Officer) of VOLADOR. Later, I was PCO (Prospective Commanding Officer) and CO of WAHOO. In late 1953, I was fortunate to be selected to become the CO of NAUTILUS.

On May 20,1982, NAUTILUS was declared a National Historic Landmark. Like OLD IRONSIDES and the ARIZONA Memorials, NAUTILUS has a crew and an Officer in Charge. Since April 11, 1986, NAUTILUS and the Submarine Museum have been opened to the public and now have about a quarter million visitors a year.

Launching of NAUTILUS - JAN 21, 1954.Maime Eisenhower christens NAUTILUS while Mrs. Janice Wilkinson looks on - JAN 21, 1954.

The Officers in Charge, first LCDR Sides and then LCDR Slawson, have planned and implemented many events in a historic 50th year. For example, on January 21, 2004, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the launching with Mamie Eisenhower as the sponsor, and with my wife, Janice, holding the flowers. On 30 September 2004, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of NAUTILUS' commissioning. And today, we celebrate that 50 years ago, all that development work resulted in a successful performance by this ship making it to sea propelled by nuclear power.

NAUTILUS was placed in service July 31, 1954 before the reactor was installed so that the qualified Navy operators could be responsible to ensure reactor safety. Commissioning on September 30, 1954 was so we could be in control and responsible for the at sea operations of this ship powered by its nuclear reactor. As we got closer to that historic date of our first underway, we welcomed the 1955 New Year by blowing the whistle with nuclear energy produced steam.

Our detailed schedule called for us to get NAUTILUS underway at 1100 on January 17, 1955.

To prepare to do that safely, we insisted on having the ship to ourselves for four days. We called it a fast cruise - tied fast to the dock, to check out ourselves, and the ship, and the systems fast.

During that fast cruise period, I received a call from the Deputy CNO to see if we would make our scheduled date. I assured him that all was well and that we were doing our fast cruise. "Oh, yes," he said. I told my officers, "You just heard Navy policy being set." And all ships after that had a fast cruise period to check out themselves and the ship.

I was a Commander. During that fast cruise period, two Navy Captains from CHINFO arrived and wanted to come aboard to talk to me. "No," I said. "I'll come up to the barge and talk to you there."

NAUTILUS' simple historic message: 'Underway on Nuclear Power'

They said, "You're about to get underway."

"This is a historic event."

"You should send a historic message."

"Listen," I replied, "we're doing our part getting ourselves, the ship and its systems checked out and ready. You gentlemen are public relations experts. Write a historic message and we'll send it."

That took care of them for a day and a half. Then they gave me a message that was one-and-a-quarter typewritten pages long with some elegant sounding words. But my Quartermaster Rayl was going to send it by flashing light to the tender FULTON at state pier. I wrote a briefer message, "Underway on Nuclear Power," which my Communications Officer, Ned Dietrich, released and Rayl sent. Later, Rickover coerced it out of Ned and put it in his historic file.

That time came and we were backing out from the pier at Electric Boat, the 7MC squawked, "Bridge, maneuvering, we have a noise in the starboard shaft." Rickover disappeared down the hatch and was soon busy handing tools to Reese.

While they were checking, we were twisting more slowly on the EPMs on the tail shafts but powered by nuclear generated electricity from our turbo generator sets. Reese's investigation showed the noise was sheet metal hitting. It was cleared and all was well. During the next four days, we conducted very successful first sea trials.

Our NAUTILUS engineering personnel had operated the land-based prototype in Idaho with an identical plant to the one in NAUTILUS. We knew the nuclear plant would work. But my people didn't do such things as invest in Westinghouse or Electric Boat stock. They were content that things were going well, as they were confident they would.

It's been said that it took the Navy 50 years to shift from sail to steam. NAUTILUS' very successful operations caused an immediate shift to nuclear for all attack submarines, for soon-to- follow nuclear plants for the most important surface ships, and for an as-fast-as-they-could-be-built survivable strategic deterrent force of ballistic missile submarines.

NAUTILUS makes the first underway on nuclear power - Jan. 17, 1954

That immediate shift was caused by the very extensive evaluation exercises that were held and documented - by the many members of Congress, senior Navy officials, scientists, and key government officials who rode the ship and saw how well she performed. The famous World War II Admiral, Arleigh Burke, who was the CNO, rode her twice and was instrumental in the decision for early construction of key nuclear powered surface ships.

Successful Navy nuclear propulsion led to the use of nuclear energy in plants ashore to produce electricity which is so important to many countries in the world today.

I am pleased to be here today and to remember some of those great times. I want to thank LCDR Slawson, the Officer in Charge, and her crew for continuing to take care of NAUTILUS - The First and Finest. Thanks, Chris!

When NAUTILUS was examined by the Board of Inspection and Survey prior to her decommissioning, the Chief of the Board of Inspection and Survey's comment was, "It's a pleasure to inspect a ship where it is obvious her people really cared."

Many of the ship's company who first got her underway on nuclear power are here today. I want to thank them and those who followed who made her the finest.

Read VADM Wilkinson's biography

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