60 years after Nautilus polar crossing, Arctic still vital region for U.S. submarines

Groton — Even though they'd sailed 1,830 miles underneath the North Pole in a journey that started from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and ended in Portland, England, the 116 men did not think that what they accomplished would captivate the world.

When the boat arrived in England after the 19-day journey, that changed.

"It was incredible. We were like rock stars," said John "J.C." Yuill, 80, of Cumberland, R.I., who served on the USS Nautilus, the world's first nuclear-powered submarine, and was aboard when it made its historic Pacific-to-Atlantic transit under the polar ice cap in 1958.

"It was 100 times more" when the crew returned to the U.S., where a ticker tape parade was thrown in its honor in New York, Yuill said.

He and other members of the 1958 crew, as well as previous and later crews, marked the 60th anniversary of the polar feat on Friday at the Historic Ship Nautilus.

It took 20 years for Yuill to "put it all in perspective," he said. He was 20 at the time, and was part of the navigation team on the submarine. Though no ship had ever passed underneath the North Pole, much of what the crew did during the transit was fairly routine.

The Nautilus' technology, though state of the art at the time, was nothing compared to what's featured aboard submarines today. And the passages that exist today due to melting Arctic sea ice didn't exist 60 years ago.

"I sometimes think, what were we, nuts?" Yuill said.

Retired Navy Adm. Steven White, a lieutenant on the Nautilus in 1958, said years later when he was commander of the Atlantic submarine force, he spent two to three days every week going to sea on one of the 92 submarines under his command.

"Some of those crews were top notch. But for you Nautilus guys here, none of them compare to you," White said, getting teary eyed. "You truly were the best."

The Nautilus reached the North Pole at 11:15 p.m. on Aug. 3, 1958. The crew received the Presidential Unit Citation, the first ever issued in peacetime, "for outstanding achievement in completing the first voyage in history across the top of the world, by cruising under the Arctic ice cap from the Bering Strait to the Greenland Sea."

Sixty years later, much of the top-secret mission known as Operation Sunshine remains classified. The operation was in response to the Soviet Union's launching of Sputnik, the first manmade satellite, into space in 1957, which "ushered in a new urgency for innovation and discovery for the United States," said Lt. Cmdr. Bradley Boyd, officer in charge of the Historic Ship Nautilus.

It was hardly the first attempt to cross the North Pole, nor was it the Nautilus' first go at it. The crew of the Nautilus was in the Arctic a year earlier to see how the submarine would operate under the ice.

"By going to the North Pole, Nautilus didn't just open up a new environment. Nautilus created a whole new warfare domain," said retired Navy Capt. David McCall, an executive at submarine builder Electric Boat.

Today, the Arctic is still a vital region for U.S. submarines, which routinely operate there.

The Navy takes part in a biennial Arctic ice exercise, known as ICEX, during which submarines test weapons, navigating under and surfacing through the ice, and other tactical capabilities.

The Groton-based attack submarine USS Hartford participated in the past two exercises, which are about "developing tactical prowess," said Capt. Paul Whitescarver, commanding officer of the Naval Submarine Base. Whitescarver was the officer in tactical command during 2014 ICEX. Beyond the exercise, every boat that leaves Groton on deployment is prepared to go under the ice, he said.

And the Navy, in the future, likely will seek to spend more money to increase its presence in the area.

The Navy's Arctic Roadmap indicates that "by 2020, middle of 2025, we're going to start spending more money on how we participate in the Arctic," Whitescarver said.

j.bergman@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version clarifies that the voyage underneath the North Pole was 1,830 miles.

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