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A short ride into history on Nautilus, the first nuclear submarine

By Jennifer McDermott

Publication: The Day

Published January 19. 2014 4:00AM   Updated January 19. 2014 11:45PM
Members of crew grateful to be part of launch 60 years ago

When Electric Boat launched the world's first nuclear-powered submarine into the Thames River 60 years ago, Henry Nardone stepped on a cleat on the deck so he would be the only one with a bent knee standing on the hull.

"I figured that picture would be shown around the world, and I wanted to be able to identify myself to my grandchildren," the 91-year-old resident of Westerly said.

It worked. Nardone, who was a young naval officer at the time, can be seen standing on the bow of the USS Nautilus in one of the famous pictures from that day.

"I show everybody that picture and say, 'That's me,'" he said.

Tuesday is the 60th anniversary of the day when more than 15,000 people gathered at the Groton shipyard to watch first lady Mamie Eisenhower break a bottle of champagne across the hull to christen the Nautilus, and to see the submarine that was destined to revolutionize naval warfare touch the water for the first time.

In recent interviews, Nardone, who worked at the supervisor of shipbuilding office at EB, and members of the Nautilus' first crew vividly recalled the excitement and promise of that day.

The men who served on Nautilus, who are now in their 80s and 90s, consider themselves lucky, both to have been selected over every other submariner who wanted that assignment, and to have arrived in Groton in time for the christening.

Retired Vice Adm. John Nicholson, 89, said the launching was the "most exciting thing we'd ever done" since they had all joined the first crew.
Then a lieutenant, Nicholson went on to serve as the executive officer on Nautilus.

"I'm very proud to have had the part that I had in the Nautilus and I'm proud of what Nautilus accomplished and I always will be," said Nicholson, of La Jolla, Calif.

Nineteen crew members rode the vessel into the Thames that day, including Clare "Bill" Billing, 85, then a yeoman, who now lives in Gales Ferry, and Leslie Dorris Kelly, 90, a lieutenant then who now lives in Nashville, Tenn.

Only about a quarter of the 19 are alive today. The commanding officer, retired Vice Adm. Eugene P. Wilkinson, died last year at the age of 94.

Before the ceremony, the crew was in the Idaho desert, learning how to operate a prototype nuclear reactor identical to the one on Nautilus.

Some of the men who drove from Arco, Idaho, to Groton didn't get there in time for the ceremony, said Tom Brames, a radioman on Nautilus. His car was damaged in an accident on his way to Idaho, so when it was time to come back, he and his wife, Marilyn, flew.

The weather that day was foggy, overcast and cold, recalled Brames, 82, of Vacaville, Calif., but the sun came out when the first lady smashed the bottle of champagne.

"It was almost like it was ordained," he said. "It was wonderful."

A junior officer on Nautilus, David Boyd, now 85, said he remembers the crowds, the excitement, and the knowledge that he was part of something historic.

"I certainly had that feeling, and the feeling of camaraderie standing among my shipmates on the deck," the Santa Barbara, Calif., resident said. "… I certainly felt honored to be part of a chosen few."

The wives of the crew, who ran the households while their men worked long hours to get ready for the launching, intimately shared in the excitement, said Boyd, who served 30 years in the Navy. And, he added, they had a better view of Mamie Eisenhower breaking the bottle than did the men on the deck of the ship.

Gravity takes over

EB carpenters had built a wooden cradle for Nautilus and had slathered it with thousands of pounds of grease so the submarine would slide into the river on cue.

Once the supports and restraints were removed, Brames said, it felt as if someone had pulled the rug out from under his feet. He had expected that Nautilus would move slowly at first.

Brames briefly lost his balance. He heard the crowd cheer and saw the flashbulbs of many cameras.

"It is as clear in my mind today as it was then," he recalled. "It's one of those things that, if you're a very fortunate person, that happens to you one time."

The 3,400-ton submarine reached a speed of about 17 mph and splashed into the Thames, Nardone said. Tug boats came alongside to guide it back to the pier.

"It was pretty thrilling. The ship is a free body sliding down the building ways, and there is very little control that you can exercise over it," he said. "… It was a matter of gravity."

If the Nautilus had gone too far across the river toward New London, weights could have been dropped to slow the ship, Nardone added.

The last submarine christened in this dramatic fashion was the USS Columbia (SSN 771) in 1994. Today, submarines remain in a dry dock that is flooded so they float.

The Nautilus (SSN 571) was commissioned eight months after the launch, on Sept. 30, 1954. On Jan. 17, 1955, Wilkinson sent the historic message, "Underway on nuclear power." The submarine went on to shatter records for speed and distance while submerged, and became the first ship to cross the North Pole on Aug. 3, 1958.

"It made every other ship in the Navy obsolete from the time it went to sea," said Brames, who retired from the Navy in 1965.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney,
D-2nd District, said Nautilus "ushered in 60 years of American dominance in the undersea domain."

EB's new president, Jeffrey S. Geiger, said in a statement released Friday, "The U.S. Navy revolutionized warfare with its development of the most powerful submarine force in the world. We're proud of the role Electric Boat played in that process by building the Navy's first commissioned submarine, and then christening the world's first nuclear-powered ship, Nautilus, 60 years ago. Nuclear power provides submarines with unmatched endurance and speed, which in combination with a submarine's inherent stealth makes them formidable warships."

Nautilus was decommissioned in 1980 after more than 25 years in service and more than half a million miles traveled. The Submarine Force Library and Museum, with the Nautilus as its centerpiece, opened in Groton in 1986.

Nardone, who worked at EB for nearly four decades, said, "It has been an amazing 60 years for nuclear-powered submarines and the nuclear-powered Navy."

And like the other men who rode the Nautilus into the Thames, he said, "I'm pretty proud to have been a part of it."

j.mcdermott@theday.com

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