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    Wednesday, April 17, 2024

    Nautilus 90 North: 65 years ago, submarine’s North Pole journey was a Cold War triumph

    Electric Boat workers cheer Nautilus’ Groton homecoming from the hull of the newly launched submarine Triton (SSRN-586) on Aug. 29, 1958. In 1960, Triton became the first submarine to circle the globe submerged, a mission originally considered for Nautilus. (Day file photo)
    This map showing Nautilus’ ocean-to-ocean crossing by way of the North Pole was signed by every member of the submarine’s crew. Each crewman was given a copy.
    A water salute greets Nautilus in New York City on Aug. 25, 1958. (Submarine Force Museum)
    Cmdr. William R. Anderson, Nautilus’ second commanding officer, co-wrote two books about the submarine’s ocean-to-ocean transit via the North Pole. (Submarine Force Museum)
    Nautilus arrives at Electric Boat in Groton on Aug. 29, 1958. The signs say “Welcome home PANOPOs.” The acronym stood for Pacific to Atlantic via North Pole. In the foreground wearing a white hat is Connecticut Gov. Abraham Ribicoff. (Day file photo)
    Nautilus’ navigator, Lt. Shepherd M. Jenks, issued this report of Nautilus’ position when it reached the North Pole on Aug. 3, 1958. (Submarine Force Museum)
    A postage stamp issued in 1959 commemorated both Robert Peary’s 1909 expedition to the North Pole and Nautilus’ under-ice transit almost half a century later.

    Joe Degnan might have changed submarine history.

    An electrician on the USS Nautilus when it was heading for the North Pole in 1958, Degnan knew something no one else did: Another submarine was trying to get there first.

    If he hadn’t warned the captain, the celebration planned for Friday at the historic ship in Groton might not be happening.

    Members of the Nautilus Alumni Association will gather at 1 p.m. to mark 65 years since the first nuclear submarine became the first vessel at the pole. If things had gone differently, it might have been the second.

    Degnan, 89, will be one of six members of the 1958 crew at the ceremony. He spoke to The Day via Zoom from his home in New Bedford, Mass.

    A shipboard misfortune led to Degnan knowing what he knew. A member of Nautilus’ crew died of a cerebral hemorrhage as the sub was approaching Seattle en route to its polar journey. The captain, Cmdr. William R. Anderson, asked Degnan to accompany the body home.

    Meanwhile, Nautilus (SSN-571) departed without Degnan, and after the crewman’s funeral, he was assigned to USS Skate (SSN-578), the third nuclear submarine, based at State Pier in New London.

    Nautilus was halted by heavy ice and went to Hawaii to await better conditions.

    One Saturday morning, Degnan said, he got a call from Nautilus’ executive officer, telling him to be at Trumbull Airport in Groton the next morning for a flight to Hawaii. Anderson wanted him back for Nautilus’ next attempt.

    Upon his return, Degnan reported to the captain about his funeral detail. He mentioned that, while aboard Skate, he had learned the sub’s skipper, Cmdr. James Calvert, was planning his own trip to the pole, via the shorter Atlantic route.

    “And he realized immediately that Calvert was going to try to beat us,” Degnan said.

    Nautilus set out earlier than planned, and on Aug. 3, 1958 — 65 years ago Thursday — it secured its place in history as the first vessel at the top of the world. Skate got there a week later.

    Years afterward, Degnan said, Anderson told him he had played a part in the trip’s success.

    “He said, ‘You’re the one that made my decision to leave a week early.’”

    * * *

    Anderson wasn’t sure when he got the idea of taking Nautilus to the pole. When he became the sub’s second commanding officer in 1957, he knew he wanted to put his own stamp on the vessel, which had already made history.

    The Arctic was a possible theater of future conflict, and after World War II, several diesel subs made short trips beneath the polar ice. But with their need to surface regularly, the pole itself was out of reach. A nuclear submarine, however, could remain submerged indefinitely.

    “My thoughts, and those of several others around me, turned to the North — the Far North; the absolute Far North,” Anderson wrote in “The Ice Diaries,” the book he co-authored just before his death in 2007.

    In the summer of 1957, Anderson got approval for an exploratory under-ice trip. His orders were to proceed to 83 degrees north latitude (the pole is 90 degrees), but he got the word “approximately” added for wiggle room to keep going. Departing from Groton, Nautilus made it farther north than any ship ever had, though not all the way to the pole. The crew learned plenty about the dangers of the Arctic.

    For one thing, both magnetic and gyrocompasses tended to go haywire, making navigation perilous. For another, the surroundings could be deceptive. Nautilus tried to surface in what appeared to be open water, only to damage both its periscopes when it struck solid ice.

    Anderson didn’t know if he would get another chance. Then, on Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first manmade satellite, which caused widespread fear that the U.S. was lagging its Cold War rival. When the U.S. tried to answer with its own satellite, the rocket blew up on the launch pad.

    But the U.S. was the only nation with nuclear submarines, and Nautilus’ trip caught the eye of the White House, which needed a technological feat to trumpet. Seeing his opening, Anderson proposed an under-ice transit from the Pacific to the Atlantic by way of the North Pole.

    With the enthusiasm of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the top-secret plan was approved. Anderson named the mission for an auspicious parting of the clouds over Groton the day Nautilus was launched.

    He called it "Operation Sunshine.”

    * * *

    The first attempt wasn’t so sunny. In the spring of 1958, Nautilus headed south, through the Panama Canal, and up the West Coast. The crew had to deal with an engine-room fire, a stubborn water leak and their shipmate’s death.

    In the Chukchi Sea, north of the Bering Strait, ice projected downward so far that Nautilus risked being “squeezed” between it and the uncharted sea bottom. The sub was forced to turn back and wait for the ice to retreat.

    “It was pretty dicey, actually, in retrospect,” said John Yuill, 85, of Cumberland, R.I., another crewman who will be at Friday’s ceremony. “Didn’t think anything of it at the time, but that’s the way it is when you’re young. You don’t think anything’s gonna ever happen.”

    When Nautilus returned to the Arctic in late July, things went much more smoothly, and after threading through the ice to Point Barrow, Alaska, the sub reached deeper water and a straight path to the pole.

    The moment arrived with surprising suddenness.

    “When we passed the pole, I thought to myself, ‘Wow, this is pretty significant,’” Yuill said. “But the thought crossed my mind that it was like a child anticipating Christmas. You wait, you wait, there’s all this anticipation, and all of a sudden it was over. But unlike Christmas, this event was never going to happen again.”

    The crew celebrated with cake, one of them dressed as Santa Claus.

    “He admonished the captain for discharging the garbage disposal in his domain,” Yuill said.

    There was also a contest to create an acronym for the polar crossing. The winning entry was PANOPO, for Pacific to Atlantic via North Pole.

    “So then we became PANOPOs, of which there was only 116 souls that could ever claim that particular designation,” Yuill said.

    After that, it was back to routine, though Degnan found himself with an unexpected task.

    “I was cutting hair for 50 cents a head to make a little liberty money,” he said, and Anderson became a first-time customer. “He came back and he says, ‘All right, Degnan, make it a very nice haircut. I’m going to be seeing President Eisenhower.’”

    Years later, Degnan recounted the story to Anderson’s wife, telling her he never collected his 50 cents.

    When Nautilus emerged from under the ice, Anderson transmitted word to the Navy of the mission’s success.

    The now-famous message came right to the point. It said, “Nautilus 90 North.”

    * * *

    No one was prepared for the frenzy those three words unleashed.

    Off Iceland, Anderson climbed into a helicopter and was whisked to the White House for a news conference that stunned the world. Eisenhower awarded the crew the first Presidential Unit Citation given in peacetime. Anderson received the Legion of Merit and was bombarded by questions from reporters.

    Nautilus’ accomplishment made global headlines, and even Soviet scientists expressed admiration. When Anderson rejoined the ship, it was off the coast of England, where a tumultuous welcome awaited.

    After crossing the Atlantic, the crew got a ticker-tape parade in New York. When a few of them went to Yankee Stadium during a baseball game, the crowd interrupted a Mickey Mantle at-bat to give them a standing ovation.

    The joyous outpouring continued in Groton. As Nautilus made its way up the Thames River, crowds lined the banks, waving handkerchiefs and reflecting the sunlight with pocketbook mirrors.

    At Electric Boat, workers swarmed the hull of the submarine Triton, launched just days earlier, to get a good view. A blast of its deep-throated horn drowned out band music and cheers.

    As Nautilus docked, Rear Adm. Frederick B. Warder welcomed the crew home.

    “You deserve every word of praise the world has given you,” he said.

    * * *

    Amid all this adulation, what did Nautilus’ achievement mean?

    Surprisingly, it wasn’t about the North Pole, at least in a military sense. Anderson insisted the trip’s significance was showing that a submarine could travel ocean-to-ocean without the Panama Canal. It also opened to the U.S. military an area that had been the Soviets’ backyard.

    But crossing the pole not only fulfilled the captain’s ambition, it lit the public’s imagination. Reaching the world’s highest latitude had been an object of striving for generations of explorers, and it spurred a spirit of competition that harked back to the expeditions of Frederick Cook and Robert Peary a half-century earlier.

    Nautilus’ journey took place in the context of Cold War rivalry between the U.S. and USSR. But Anderson had to fend off an attempt by another American to beat him to the prize.

    Crew members caught the competitive vibe. One became the first sailor to re-enlist at the pole. Another hid in the forward-most part of the ship, beating everyone to the magic spot by a split second.

    Even Groton and New London — one the sub’s birthplace, the other its homeport — found themselves contesting for the right to welcome the crew. When New London proposed a joint celebration, Groton made clear that it would go it alone. New London held its own event later.

    Don Keith, co-author of “The Ice Diaries,” wrote that Nautilus rescued Americans from a moment of self-doubt.

    “Sputnik was the spectacular flashpoint that focused attention on the potential new order in the world dominated by the Soviets,” he wrote. “America needed something or somebody to show that we were still in the game.”

    Keith believed Nautilus’ boost to the nation’s spirits was unsurpassed until astronauts walked the moon a decade later.

    If the crew were heroes to the public, admiration also thrived within the group. John Yuill was still a teenager when he reported for duty, and some of his shipmates were battle-hardened veterans of World War II.

    “I can’t believe how fortunate I was to find myself among men of that character,” he said. “… I stood in awe of these guys, and I still am, the people that I served with. They were my heroes.”

    j.ruddy@theday.com

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