NR-1 - The US Navy's First Nuclear Powered,
Deep Submergence Submarine
The Cold War was a time not only of tense relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, but also of rapid innovation and change. The twenty-five years from 1945 to 1970 was a period of technical optimism and astonishing achievement as the United States and the Soviet Union vied for strategic survival. Aviation moved from piston engines to jet propulsion for both civilian and military aircraft. Missiles evolved from Germany’s simple V-1 and V-2 rockets to giant intercontinental ballistic missiles with multiple independently targeted warheads. A space race culminated in Americans landing on the moon. Nuclear energy was harnessed to generate commercial electricity and power the ships of the world’s major navies. True science caught up with, and surpassed, science fiction.
The competition demanded by the Cold War was felt in outer space, in the air, on the ground, and also beneath the seas. During that intensely creative period, a number of unique submarines were conceived and produced by the U.S. Navy as it sought to stay abreast of the Red Fleet. The Nautilus became the first submarine to sail under nuclear power. The Seawolf followed with a liquid sodium cooled reactor. The huge Triton carried two reactor plants, while the elusive hunter-killer Tullibee packed an advanced sonar system. The Halibut had a large hangar bay on her foredeck to test experimental cruise missiles. The Glenard P. Lipscomb, with her direct current electric drive, was known as the fast ship, while the Narwhal, with a natural convection cooling system, was known as the quiet ship. Such submarines took undersea warfare beyond merely shooting torpedoes, and into the shadowy world of gathering intelligence, and by doing so they earned a place among the most distinctive achievements of that tense and special time.
There is one conspicuous absence from that list - a submarine that was intentionally kept so far off the books that it remained hidden for decades not only from the public, but also from most admirals. It was the smallest nuclear-powered submarine in the U.S. Navy, a one-of-a-kind boat with wheels and a bewildering array of extraordinary equipment, and it dove three times deeper than any other true submarine in the world.
It had neither a captain nor a navy name, no guns nor torpedoes. Its topside was painted bright orange whenever civilians might see it, but for many missions it wore black and was rendered almost invisible on the surface. When it dove, it vanished. For thirty-nine years, an elite handful of men took this submarine down thousands of feet to the bottom of the sea, and literally drove along the ocean floor and flew through unknown canyons for up to a month at a time. This small crew of quiet, unrelenting achievers was a spawning ground for future senior naval officers and for men who would continue to excel when they returned to civilian life. Some of their missions were of utmost military importance, while others were journeys of extraordinary scientific discovery. The possibility of disaster was their constant companion, for the chances of the crew surviving a major accident at sea were nonexistent.
Just getting the ship built was a technical accomplishment comparable to assembling the first spaceship. Keeping it afloat in the turbulent world of politics, Pentagon infighting, and budget battles was just as difficult. Almost every time it went out, the sea challenged its right to exist. Incredibly, this submarine became the navy’s oldest active duty ship, and remains as much of a mystery today as ever, to friend and foe alike.
This is the story of the NR-1, the men who conceived and built a machine unlike any other the world had ever seen, and then sailed it into dark waters.
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The NR-1 and I began our naval careers about the same time.
I grew up in the small town of Merced in the middle of California’s central valley in the 1950s, an average kid who did well in school without much effort. During high school, I worked at the county airport pumping gas, mowed the grass strips between the runways, and stared out over the flat, dry landscape, looking for some change - any change. Aviation was interesting, but did not capture my imagination. I received a state scholarship to the University of California at Santa Barbara, but had no specific academic objectives. After a year and a half of modest effort and lackluster performance, my grades were abysmal and I felt that trying to improve them was hopeless. So I dropped out.
In the early 1960s, every young man in America had a compulsory military obligation, so when I left UCSB, I had to not only make a living, but also deal with Uncle Sam. With no real job prospects and an idealistic yen to work within a small, dedicated group on some special project, I enlisted in the navy in February 1963 and signed up for the nuclear power program. After basic training in San Diego, I remained there to take six months of courses to become an interior communications electrician, which would be my first step up the nuclear ladder.
Meanwhile, at the very top of that ladder was the father of the nuclear navy, a crusty admiral named Hyman Rickover, who was about to make his first tentative moves to create the NR-1. Eventually, Rickover would handpick twelve men to become its first crew and I would be among them.
Early in my navy career, I was only vaguely aware that about half the U.S. submarines and the men who served on them were lost during World War II. Losses among the German and Japanese sub forces were much greater. That I would live and work aboard a submarine did not bother me at all. World War II seemed like ancient history, Korea was never mentioned, and the new American submarines had excellent safety records, especially the large nuclear-powered ones. But while I was still training in California, the USS Thresher sank off the New England coast on April 10, 1963, and killed all 129 men aboard. That gave a stark reality to the dangers of the underwater world into which I was headed, but we joked that at least death aboard a submarine was swift and clean. There were few, if any, maimed submariners. You either came back alive and well, or you did not come back at all.
After San Diego, I was assigned to the Submarine School in Groton, Connecticut, beside the placid Thames River, where I learned to operate various systems and handle all kinds of emergencies. Those two months of classroom training were combined with practical experience in what was literally a sink-or-swim environment that seemed to emphasize eternal claustrophobia.
We practiced swimming to the surface from various ear-popping depths in a water-filled escape tower. We were locked in a special chamber, where we struggled, as water rose around us, to stop torrential geysers that were pumped in to simulate undersea emergencies. When we boarded a real submarine to get that memorable first taste of being totally enclosed in what some trainees called a steel coffin, the claustrophobia proved too much for a few of my classmates who could not bring themselves even to go down the hatch. Those who could not cope were allowed to transfer to duty aboard surface ships. Submarines were not for everyone.
There was an abrupt halt to our classes on November 22, 1963, when President Kennedy was assassinated. That black day dealt a debilitating blow to all of us and emphasized that the world itself, not just the undersea realm, had become a difficult and dangerous place.
But a young man is resilient and grows up fast in the submarine service, and for me, the practical navy training had succeeded where UCSB had failed. I had found a new home and, imbued with a spirit of determination, graduated as top man in my Sub School class. Allowed to choose my next station and the type of submarine on which I would serve for six months of intense hands-on training, I went to Pearl Harbor and the USS Sargo. Like generations of submariners before me, it was time to prove myself at sea and “qualify” under the watchful eyes of salty chiefs, for only after that rite of passage would I be allowed to pin on the coveted silver dolphins.
While I was busy doing that, Admiral Rickover would be bulling forward in Washington with his plan to build a new and secret submarine that could reach places no other ship could go and do things no other ship could do. The NR-1 and I, both navy novices, were on a collision course with the Cold War.
ADM Hyman G. Rickover & Petty Officer Lee Vyborny
(Courtesy of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyman_G._Rickover & Electric Boat)