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Groton — A Niantic native, Lt. Cmdr. Benjamin Amdur, became the officer in charge of the first nuclear-powered submarine in a ceremony Tuesday.
Amdur said he saw the Historic Ship Nautilus (SSN 571) all the time growing up, and more recently when he went to work on the North Dakota, which is under construction at Electric Boat and soon will be the Navy's newest nuclear-powered submarine. He said he is "in awe" of the Nautilus and all it has done.
"It's a bit of a dream job for me because I've been looking at this as a possibility for a while now," Amdur said after the ceremony. "I've always had an interest in history, and now I can merge that with my career."
Amdur will oversee the Nautilus, a national historic landmark, and serve as the director of the Submarine Force Museum. Lt. Cmdr. Robert Sawyer served in that role since April 2011.
With the Nautilus as a backdrop for the ceremony inside the museum, Capt. Henry J. Hendrix II, director of the Naval History and Heritage Command, praised Sawyer for his efforts to preserve the submarine for generations to come.
"We know that the vessel that rests behind us represents perhaps the most important naval technological strategic inflection point in maritime history," Hendrix said of the Nautilus, which was commissioned in 1954 and went on to become the first ship to cross the North Pole.
The ship was retired in 1980 and, after undergoing a historic ship conversion, was towed back to Groton. On April 11, 1986, the Nautilus and the Submarine Force Museum opened to the public.
Honoring the past and preserving its lessons, Hendrix said, is "a sacred charge," and for the past two years, Sawyer has kept this charge. Sawyer and his crew were submarine force public ambassadors who hosted 150 ceremonies and 300,000 visitors, and Sawyer worked to ensure that a maintenance period was scheduled for the Nautilus even as the budgets were cut, he added.
Nautilus is scheduled to go into dry dock for three to four months in fiscal 2019, but that date could change.
"All of history was watching Cmdr. Sawyer and you were not found wanting," Hendrix said. "You upheld your charge."
To Amdur, he said, "I charge you to watch after her for all of us, for you are about to become the officer in charge of the most revolutionary boat ever to sail the world's oceans."
Sawyer was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, gold star in lieu of fifth award. He is joining the staff at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.
The opportunity to influence the public's perception of the Navy and tell the submarine force's story, Sawyer said, made this job different than any of his other assignments in the Navy. He thanked the museum staff, the Nautilus crew, and many other supporters for their work.
"I am honored to have had the opportunity to preserve and improve the legacy of the submarine force for future generations," he said. "… I look forward to seeing how this museum grows in the future when I come back with my own kids as they continue to grow, to educate and inspire them and ensure they appreciate the freedom provided by our military."
Amdur, who graduated from East Lyme High School in 1996, reflected on the importance of the Nautilus and the museum. For submarine veterans, this site is a reminder of their proud years in the silent service, he said. For today's submariners, it's a lesson in the history and heritage they will add to, he added, and for the public, it's a glimpse at what life on a submarine is like.
"I am honored to be in a position to preserve and present this legacy," he said.