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NR-1 - The US Navy's First Nuclear Powered,
Deep Submergence Submarine

Chapter 5 - Electric Boat

The nuclear submarines of today glide through the eastern end of Long Island Sound and ride up the Thames River like slow shadows, with green water cascading over their bows and peeling away from the round hulls.  They are steel creatures of prey that have been away for a while - few know where, doing things - few know what.  Returning to their nest, their compact forms move with menacing grace toward the sub base at Groton, Connecticut, home of the big black boats.

The scenic waterfront town of New London is on the western shore of the deep estuary as they pass by, and on the eastern side are the tightly packed seventeen acres of the legendary Electric Boat shipbuilding facility, where entire flights of nuclear-powered boats have been built.  Three miles from the mouth of the harbor, the subs slide beneath a railway bridge and the twin spans of Interstate 95 that separate the upper reaches of the river from its lower harbor section.  The bridges are a convenience for ground transportation but pose a military hazard, and for many years, the navy kept a few subs docked at the State Pier on the ocean side of the span, which would be a natural target in case of war.  Otherwise, if an enemy missile brought it down, much of the American submarine fleet would be bottled up and helpless.

Jack Leonard had neither the desire nor the time to watch any incoming subs on a chilly day early in 1967 as a winter wind hummed down the harbor.  He had seen a lifetime of ships, and as he walked from his office on the Hill down to the EB yard, his mind was focused solely on the baffling project that Rickover had given him.  Leonard, a burly dark-haired Scotsman with the personality of a bulldog and a no-shit attitude, was considered the best manager in the company for submarine design and construction, but the NR-1 was driving him nuts.

EB had been turning out boats since the early 1900s, when it crafted custom yachts for millionaires, elegant pleasure vessels powered by quiet electric motors that did not offend the ears of wealthy clients.  When World War I began, the company converted its expertise in batteries, electric motors, and diesel engines into building more than eighty submarines.  In World War II, EB produced another seventy-four subs at Groton and oversaw the construction of another twenty-six.  After that, the company helped develop new generations of submarines, and made history in 1955 with the Nautilus, on which Leonard had been the shipyard’s nuclear project manager.

As he crossed Thames Street toward the guard shack, his senses were assaulted by a persistent, cloying chemical smell from the Pfizer pharmaceutical plant that bordered EB to the south.  It smelled like rancid peanut butter.  The time was just after lunch, and his boots crunched over thousands of bottle caps that glittered on the pavement, debris from the midday break when thousands of thirsty shipyard workers had crossed the road to reach the lines that stretched outside of bustling taverns.  Bartenders had rows of shots and beers waiting, so a worker could pay for his drink, belt down the whiskey, grab a bottle of beer, and return to the rear of the line to do it all over again.  Welders swore that the alcohol somehow cleared their lungs and nasal passages of the chemical stench of their trade and the Pfizer odor.

Leonard shaded his eyes and did a quick scan over the clutter of warships.  Both the North and South Yards were hives of activity.  Attack subs, submarines to carry Polaris and Poseidon missiles, high-speed subs, and deep-diving subs were on the ways and at the wharves and the piers, in various stages of construction, conversion, refitting, or overhaul.  The Triton, the world’s longest submarine, was due in soon to be decommissioned.  Big cranes on railroad tracks hoisted steel sections, and the normal cacophony of shipbuilding noise rose to meet him - grinding, drilling, hammering, shouts.  Twenty-five thousand men were at work down there, some three thousand engineers elbow-to-elbow in the brick building he had just left, and hundreds more in the nuclear engineering building.  Sperry engineers were working in makeshift offices aboard an old ferryboat that had been rented and hauled up to an EB pier when the yard ran out of available office space.

Leonard paused a bit when he glanced at the covered South Yard building ways that sat right beside the river.  It was there that the Nautilus had been built in secret, and it was there that the NR-1 would be assembled.  Just as when they had built the historic Nautilus, this new boat also was to be completely shielded from public view - if it ever reached the point where some construction might actually begin.

It seemed to Leonard that with all those people at work, all of the equipment, and the decades of knowledge available to EB, the little submarine should have been as easy to build as had the seven previous research subs the company produced.  But submersibles like the Aluminaut and the Sea Cliff and the Turtle were child’s play in comparison to the NR-1.

As if the logistical, design, testing, and construction puzzles were not enough, Admiral Rickover was pounding on everyone to move faster.  What are you going to do about the thruster motors?  What are you going to do about batteries?  How are you going to feed the people?  He not only demanded that every item on the boat meet, and in many cases surpass, military specifications, but he would not compromise on his edict of using cheap, off-the-shelf equipment whenever possible.  “Keep it simple!” the admiral would shout during his weekly visits to Groton, and, almost in the same breath, bark, “We’re going to be up and down for years and I want to know if this stuff will take it!”  He even had the bathyscaphe Trieste take some of the external equipment down to twenty thousand feet for durability tests!  The admiral wanted a unique military ship at the best commercial price, and Leonard knew there was no way that could work.

Entire new laboratories were being built just to test parts for what was now being derisively called Rickover’s Rubber Duck.  More testing meant more money, and it was devouring huge and unanticipated blocks of time.  “We had to test everything,” Leonard recalled, “and everything we tested had a problem.”  As modern technology collided with the reality of money, the size of the boat kept changing to accommodate the hand-tooled equipment.  Top management at the shipyard worried as costs escalated, but there was nothing they could do except press ahead.

This major crisis involved perhaps the most important part of the entire boat, the pressure hull.  Without it, there could be no ship.  Submarine hulls were usually just long, round, empty steel tubes, affectionately called sewer pipes, a series of carefully molded rings that are joined and capped with round hemispheres at each end.  Over the years, the shape had proven to be the best method to withstand the immense pressures exerted by water at depths.

Never before, however, had any hull required the exacting standards demanded for the NR-1.  In order to survive great depths, the long cylinder had to be an almost perfect circle, the most precise ever turned out by Electric Boat.  Forty flawless plates of top-grade HY-80 steel, with no impurities whatever, were given tender love and care during the manufacturing process at the Lukens Steel plant in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, and arrived at EB aboard special flatbed railcars.  Each weighed four tons.

Huge machines rolled those big plates - eight feet wide, ten feet long and two and three-quarters inches thick - again and again, squeezing them with tons of pressure.  The top roller was smaller than the bottom roller, so with each pass, the steel plate was gently curved a bit more until it formed what would be one-quarter of a circle.  Like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, four of those plates would be put together to become a cylinder.  The cylinders would be welded together to form the hull.

The major problem was that EB had to be so exact in this process.  Normal submarine hulls could be a little out of shape, with an acceptable circular tolerance of several inches.  But Henry Furuno, the head of the EB hull design department, calculated that for the NR-1, the twelve-and-one-half-foot diameter of each cylinder could vary by no more than one-sixteenth of one inch - virtually a perfect circle of heavy steel.  Only then would it be able to withstand the immense pressures of the deep ocean.  The latest plate being bent wasn’t even close, proving that the machine was not rolling the HY-80 tight enough.  It was once again time to improvise.

Leonard sighed as he showed his security badge to the guard who controlled access to the NR-1 area.  He saw the lanky figure of Test Manager Dick Patenaude, an up-through the-ranks machinist turned engineer who understood how things were done in the yard, waiting on the other side of the tall fence and reaching for the spiral notebook he kept stuffed under his belt at the small of his back.  To Leonard, it was almost as if Patenaude were drawing a gun, for that damned notebook never contained anything but bad news.

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Electric Boat's NR-1 Design and Construction Management Team.
Second from left, Carl Olsen - SupShips
Center, Jack Leonard - Electric Boat Program Manager
Fifth from right, Ed Holt - Construction Manager
Fourth from right, CDR Griffith - NR-1 Officer In Charge
Far right, Joe Pierce - Electric Boat CEO
(Courtesy of Electric Boat)

*  *  *

The first day that our crew spent at the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory, tucked away outside of Schenectady, we were introduced to the reactor plant that would power the NR-1.  It made me a little uneasy.  The nuclear principles were the same, but this seemed more like a toy or some science fiction gadget than the sort of huge reactors that I had studied, worked on, and taught.

We were all veterans of the big boats, submarines on which nuclear reactor compartments were equipment-filled caverns devoid of life, while adjoining engineering spaces were manned by dozens of specialists every hour of the day.  The reactor room on a typical nuclear sub was about two stories high, and the pressure vessel that contained the reactor was some twenty feet in diameter and surrounded by lots of lead shielding, multiple pumps and valves, and panels of intricate control instruments.

The dozen of us who had gathered in the small classroom at Knolls listened incredulously as General Electric scientists, engineers, and physicists described what they had invented for the NR-1.  The ship would have a miniature pressurized water nuclear reactor and power plant, and could be run from a single control panel by one man!  The reactor, its surrounding pressure vessel, and its shielding would be about the size of an office desk, hang from a bulkhead, produce only about one-hundredth of the power of a normal ship reactor and turn out a maximum of only 130 horsepower, of which 60 could be used for propulsion.  Just turning on the heat in the forward compartment would cause a jump in the power readings, and the top speed would be only five knots, about as fast as a man could walk.  These days, you can buy an outboard motor that produces a 100 horsepower for about $5,000.

A sculptor once asked his mentor how to carve an elephant out of stone, and was advised to get a big rock and chip away everything that did not look like an elephant.  The GE engineers were following a similar path in designing the minireactor.  They started with a normal plant and chipped away everything that didn’t look necessary, and had left us a bare-bones nuclear reactor unlike anything that had ever been created.

In an age in which nuclear plants had been growing ever larger and more powerful to propel bigger ships, reversing the process to build a reactor to absolute minimum specifications was a challenge for the engineers.  Although the reactor was yet to be built, they were enthusiastic that the technical and theoretical problems were being overcome.  The crew was not quite as sanguine as we listened to the lectures and studied the design, for this was more than a classroom exercise to us.  We viewed their work to date as creating more of a teakettle than the big, reliable plants of the boats on which we all had sailed.  Our different view was colored by the fact that our lives would depend on it.

Naturally, there had been limitations on what GE could do.  In line with Rickover’s cost-saving orders, they had to build the reactor from standard components that were used on navy nuclear power plants of the day.  In addition to the minimum number of control rods, the designers had to use the fewest pumps, valves, instrumentation, and components that would allow safe operation.

One engineer said there had been some early hope of going all the way with this reactor, making it totally automatic and able to answer the propulsion commands from a computer.  Admiral Rickover immediately squashed the idea of a machine talking to a machine about reactor operations.  A human had to be in control, he ordered, for only a human could react to unanticipated emergencies.

The eventual result of the design was just what Rickover wanted - a low-power reactor that could be operated by one person, with the instruments associated with all three of the usual control stations on a big submarine condensed to a single panel for the NR-1.  In the end, the GE engineers would be proven correct.  That little reactor packed enough muscle to successfully push the NR-1 around for almost forty years of incredibly strenuous sea duty.  The small reactor represented an immense technological achievement.

*  *  *

During the intense classroom sessions, our instructors were not telling us how nuclear power worked, just explaining how to operate their invention.  Only a few weeks earlier, we had been instructors ourselves, so they treated us as equals who had a full comprehension of the technical and scientific data laid before us.  The crew grasped the concepts easily, for this was a single pump in a single coolant loop with the added capacity to remove sample water for testing.  After working on the big plants, we could virtually see this one work.  It was like stepping down from maintaining a Ferrari to working on a Model T Ford.

An esprit de corps and an unusual sense of fraternity settled upon our crew during our studies, for our three officers were right beside us, learning the same material at the same time.

We all had been used to the rigid structure of military life, in which one’s place and function are well defined.  It was clear that the manpower requirements for the NR-1 would force us to transcend those historic relationships, for there would not be much room for saluting.

We developed organizational and operating concepts on the fly.  The officers helped the enlisted men and vice versa, and we realized that the cross training everyone had been denied because it was unneeded on big boats was going to be an absolute requirement aboard the NR-1.  Electricians would have to care for mechanical equipment, and machinist’s mates had to be up to speed on reactor controls.  Our knowledge would expand far beyond the confines of the nuclear reactor plant, for each of us would have to know everything about the boat.

View the NR-1 General Arrangement Diagram

View the NR-1 Submerged Manning Arrangement Diagram

View the NR-1 Surfaced Manning Arrangement Diagram

The designers envisioned that the single engineering control panel operator would be an officer who would simultaneously run the power plant reactor and all of the electrical and steam systems while directing the efforts of an enlisted helper.  But that assumption was the result of traditional thinking, which the NR-1 was proving wrong at almost every turn.

Since our crew had only three officers, and the captain would not be standing watch, that would leave only two people to man the EOOW position all day, every day on missions that could last for weeks at a time.  It was obvious that some of the enlisted men would have to be qualified to handle some duties that usually were limited to officers, exactly as Admiral Rickover had intended.

It was one of the first signs that we were expected to be more than a crew.  We would have to become a team unlike anything else in the navy.

As we ended our two weeks at the atomic laboratory, we thoroughly understood the miniature nuclear plant from an intellectual standpoint, but that was all.  There was no prototype available on which we could practice, for the reactor itself was still being built.  When we departed Knolls, our instructors could go back to overseeing the development, testing, and delivery of the reactor to the ship.  Until then, it was still all theory.

*  *  *

We still had not seen anything more than a sketch of the ship, a drawing that didn’t tell us much, and were anxious to reach our next training stop, Electric Boat in Connecticut, and get a look at our new submarine.  The schedule that had been given to us showed that the ship should be about halfway built by this time.  It wasn’t exactly waiting at the pier.  In fact, it didn’t exist.

The schedule for building the NR-1 was as flexible as rubber.  Frustrated managers took their latest problems to the planners and explained that, once again, more work was needed on some aspect, and therefore a new timeline had to be made.  “What do you want to hear this time?” one planner usually responded, knowing that any date he projected was nothing but a number on a calendar as far as the NR-1 was concerned.

Things were in a jumble, and had fallen so far behind schedule that when we showed up for three weeks of training in late 1966, we were about nine months too early.

The EB engineers gave us classroom instruction on the nonpropulsion systems that would be aboard the little submarine.  We learned about waste management, the thrusters, the anchors and lead shot, the manipulator arm, the lights and the tires and many other mechanical designs.  Of course, we were cautioned, that’s the way it is all supposed to work.  Won’t really know until it all comes together.

The closest we came to touching any part of the ship was checking out a crude wooden mock-up that EB put together as part of planning the interior spaces.  Pieces of colored plastic were tacked up to represent various dials and gauges, and the unpainted wood brought a new dimension to the “plank owners” term applied to the commissioning crew of any new ship.  As we squeezed into the plywood replica of the space in which we would work, there was no doubt that the NR-1 was going to be a tight fit.

We also spent two weeks at the Sperry Marine Systems facility in Charlottesville, VA learning about the design and development of the NR-1 Ship Control System.

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NR-1 Ship Control "Flight Simulator" at Sperry Marine Systems in Charlottesville, VA.
Lee Vyborny at the pilot's station and Dean Paine in the co-pilot seat in May 1967.
(Courtesy of Electric Boat)

Then we sat in the dark for hours and watched grainy 16 mm movies of the Mackerel running around the sands off Key West, purposely bumping over rocks and coral.  Submariners never like to see a ship hitting underwater rocks.  Surely, I hoped, the NR-1 would run more smoothly than that.

As we discussed it quietly among ourselves while having a few beers in one of the nearby taverns, some of us began to wonder whether this boat would ever get built.  Everything about it was foreign and different from anything we had ever seen before.  But our skipper, Dwaine Griffith, reminded us that our job would be to run it, not build it.  We would just have to leave that to the experts.

*  *  *

The final stop on our introductory training trail was down at Great Neck, New York, where the engineers at Sperry were producing the ship’s instruments.  The nuclear plant was behind schedule, the shipyard was almost off the chart, but maybe these engineers would be on top of things in designing the instruments.

For the next five weeks, they took us through all of the navigational, ship control, and oceanographic equipment, and it was all new territory for a bunch of nukes like us.  At one point, we approached a large plastic tent that sat in the middle of a spacious area, and a sweat-soaked engineer named Brian Wruble came out to greet us.  He swallowed a handful of salt pills and drank a large container of water as he explained that they were having “some problems” with the navigation computer.  He escorted us into the tent, where unbelievable heat and humidity slammed my face, as if I had just entered a tropical rain forest.  We were sweating within moments.

A row of eight-foot-high cabinets on each side contained the navigation and electronic instrumentation that would be the brain of the NR-1, just as the nuclear reactor would be its heart.  This was “front of the boat” stuff, and the engineers, not wanting to endure another Rickover tirade, were challenging every piece of the equipment.  They even dunked electrical components in a swimming pool in a crude, but effective, test to ensure their containers were watertight.

Roger Sherman, a stocky engineer, was at the semicircular control panel between the rows of cabinets.  Sherman is a jocular and gregarious man whose spirit is almost impossible to dampen, but the constant testing failures had even gotten to him.  He looked up, wiped his forehead, and told us, “Stuff is crapping out right and left around here.”

When the muscular veteran of Polaris and Poseidon boats had signed up for our project because he thought it sounded interesting, Sperry sent him to Great Neck for a tour of a few weeks that eventually turned into eighteen months.  Shortly after he arrived in the big building, he heard a loud, high-pitched scream that increased in piercing volume as he got closer to a room in which engineers were testing the four-hundred-cycle converter that would go aboard the NR-1.

The higher cycle rate allowed the use of smaller components, but that didn’t impress Sherman.  “All it was doing was converting electricity into noise,” he said.  Over the WHHEEEEE of the converter, Sherman had shouted to another engineer, “What are you going to do about that noise?”

“WHAT NOISE?” the engineer yelled back.

“THAT HAS TO GO ON A SMALL BOAT!” Sherman replied.  The shrill whine was splitting his skull.  “YOU EXPECT PEOPLE TO LIVE WITH THAT?”

The engineer shrugged, and the screech of the converter followed Sherman as he hurried away with his hands over his ears.  Sperry would improve and test the unit for some three hundred hours, and although they managed to reduce the volume somewhat, it never lost its loud, grating voice.  It screamed at us throughout every voyage, even as we slept right in front of it.

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Sperry's NR-1 Field Engineers, Roger Sherman at the NR-1 Control Station
& Fred Degrooth in the NR-1's Sperry equipment support Van
(Fred DeGrooth, Sr.)

We also were introduced to Fred DeGrooth, an engaging first-generation Dutch American and former F-86 Saber jet pilot who had briefly worked on the Apollo space program before being laid off along with three thousand other engineers.  When DeGrooth started looking for work, he stopped when he saw the “Sperry Gyroscope” sign while on the Long Island Expressway because his father, a merchant marine captain, swore by the accuracy of Sperry compasses.  DeGrooth pulled into the parking lot, was interviewed and was hired on the spot.  By the time he joined the NR-1 team, he was twenty eight years old and a veteran field engineer aboard submarines.  We often wondered how the tall, angular Dutchman ever could have folded himself into the tight cockpit of a fighter jet.

Wruble, Sherman, and DeGrooth would follow their packages of electronics right aboard our boat and become inseparable members of our tight team.  They rode into the ocean depths with us, fixed whatever went wrong with the delicate instrumentation, shared our discomfort, risked their lives, and became our close friends.  We would never have made it without them.

When the crew finished our classroom work at Great Neck, we still had plenty of time on our hands.  The reactor wasn’t ready, the boat wasn’t ready, and the instruments weren’t ready.  Since the navy abhors a vacuum, it decided to keep us busy by expanding our skills to deal with the stem-to-stern operations of the NR-1, and ready us for those inevitable moments when we ran into trouble and there was no one around to help.

Because there was no room aboard for a corpsman, some of us underwent weeks of intensive emergency medical training.  After watching gory movies that showed various types of wounds, we practiced suturing open injuries by stitching up chicken skin.  Two of our enlisted men went to an advanced electronics course and another was dispatched to welding school.

Three of us - Larry Kammerzell, Don Marks, and I - were assigned to the Navy Dive School.  After several months of having done little more than attending classes, talking with brainy engineers, eating three meals a day, and sitting on my butt for hours, then drinking beer after work with my new buddies, I had put on about twenty pounds.  A mirror showed that I had indeed become rather pudgy.  That had not mattered in the academic training environment, but now I was totally out of shape and heading for one of the most physically rigorous courses in the navy.



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