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Remembering a nuclear submarine trailblazer

Local veterans are remembering retired Vice Adm. Edward A. “Al” Burkhalter Jr., among the first to serve on nuclear-powered submarines in the late 1950s, who died recently, as a well-liked leader who looked out for even the most junior of sailors.

Burkhalter, who was living in Annapolis, Md., at the time of his death, died July 1 of a heart attack at the age of 91, the Washington Post reported.

Submarine veteran James Nowell, 78, of Waterford served with Burkhalter when he was the executive officer of the gold crew of the ballistic missile submarine USS Alexander Hamilton (SSBN-617) in the 1960s. Each ballistic missile submarine has two crews: blue and gold.

Nowell said it was a tough time to train a new crew on a new boat. The Alexander Hamilton was commissioned in June 1963, just two months after the U.S. had lost the submarine the USS Thresher. The Cuban Missile Crisis had happened a year earlier and the Cold War was "going strong," he said.

“He believed in crew morale. Crew morale was a strong feature,” Nowell said. “He was fantastic at it.”

He recalled how Burkhalter would organize talent shows on board the ship with different departments acting out skits. One time, while the submarine was tied up in Rota, Spain, Burkhalter initiated a race with the supply officer atop the submarine, diving at the end to ensure his first-place finish. 

“He instilled strong competition in the crew, especially with the junior officers,” Nowell said. “He really worked hard at getting junior officers involved.”

His impact on crew morale “was an outcome of his personality and his manner,” said retired Rear Adm. William J. Holland, 88, of Westerly, who served with Burkhalter in the mid-to-late 1960s, and stayed in touch with him for decades later.

Holland said his former shipmate “always made people understand how good they were and how well they performed.”

Burkhalter graduated from the Naval Academy in 1951 and soon after entered the silent service.

Tom Connors, 85, a submarine veteran from Gales Ferry, served aboard the submarine USS Seadragon when Burkhalter was the navigator, and had a major role in planning the submarine’s  1960 transit from Greenland through the Northwest Passage into the Arctic Ocean, becoming the Navy’s third submarine to reach the North Pole. 

“Nobody else had successfully made it through there,” Connors said of traversing through the Parry Channel, which proved a shorter transit than going through the Panama Canal, in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. “You couldn’t always go forward. You’d get so far and couldn’t go any further, then you had to back down and change course. Back and forth. We finally made it through.”

In the early 1970s, Burkhalter was involved in the planning of Operation Ivy Bells, during which U.S. military and intelligence units attached listening devices to undersea communication cables belonging to the Soviet Union, the Post reported. He spent many years at the Pentagon as an intelligence officer, including as deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. From 1981 to 1986, he was the chief military liaison to the Central Intelligence Agency.

Those who served with Burkhalter never forgot him and always respected and liked him, said Holland, the retired rear admiral.

Young officers are often told during training not to become friends with their subordinates “but Al Burkhalter was a friend to everybody,” Holland said.

“He could carry that off without any diminution of his authority or his skill, a trait that endeared him to the people who worked for him,” he said. “He was universally liked. There are not a lot of officers who perform at high levels who are universally liked.”

j.bergman@theday.com

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