LOOKING BACK: NINETEEN HUNDRED AND FIFTY- EIGHT is gone. (How the submarine force pivoted in 1958 to win the Cold War)

Cold War 1 – How the American Navy Pivoted its Submarine Force to Win the Day

I love this time of year. Perspectives on the achievements of the past year reign supreme in the press and on almost all manner of media. With the advances of social media, the avalanche of looking back articles will probably be overwhelming. After all, 2018 was a pivotal year in so many ways.

New technology, advances in science in medicine and of course the resurgence of the United States Navy as all of these things converge with an increasingly dangerous world.

So it was interesting to find this nugget from 1959 discussing the pivotal changes that happened sixty years ago in 1958.

The Navy that I grew up in and served in during the seventies through the early nineties had its major beginnings in the 1950s. But few years would have as much impact as the year 1958.

Nuclear Power comes of age

In 1958, nuclear power was rapidly showing its enormous capabilities. This would be the year that submarine technology would literally change the face of undersea warfare. The early nuclear boats were still designed using shipbuilding technology that reflected the successful diesel Fleet Boats that had helped to win World War 2.

But the speed of the boats and diving capabilities were still limited. The use of an “Albacore Hull” was the answer and it was introduced as a wholly developed new submarine in 1958.

The weapons were in transition as well. Torpedoes will remain a standard weapon into the foreseeable future but the vision of the submarine as a force projection platform moved quickly through the early years of Regulus to Polaris. This set the stage for later weapons such as Poseidon and Trident. Even the new weapon called SUB ROC had its debut in 1958.

The most important part of all of these developments was the Navy’s commitment to seeking a technological future which continues to this day. Generation after generation before this time, the Old Navy struggled with adapting to the technologies which replaced standard doctrine and beliefs. In 1958, the Navy proved that it could throw off the shackles of traditional thinking and set the stage for the fleet that would win the first Cold War. Here is their story:


George Baker, JOC, USN., ALL HANDS MAGAZINE, January 1959

It was an out- of-the-ordinary period in history – and perhaps the busiest peacetime year in the U. S. Navy’s 183 years of existence.

To the average Navyman, the term “new Navy” has become more than slogan—it has arrived and he’s in it. Missiles are here. Guns are going. Battleships are laid up in the Mothball Fleet. It’s a Navy where leading roles are played by supersonic planes and atomic ships – we’re well on the way to becoming an atomic Navy.

According to the Chief of Naval Operations, the Navy leads the world in nuclear power. It is also a world pioneer in having a family of guided missiles fully operational and deployed.

As we begin the New Year, the U. S. Navy is carrying forward new projects in nuclear energy, ship and aircraft design, guided missiles and other weapon systems, and in human relations.

The Human Element

Many of these new technological challenges are creating new and continuing old personnel problems. No matter how advanced the new ship or weapon systems may be, they are useless unless they are placed in competent hands. Regardless of their complexity, they must still be wielded by a man – and that is a Navyman with the background, training and experience to run the new Navy of ’59.

To meet changing requirements, the Navy has set up a vast training program involving hundreds of thousands of men. It begins at the recruit training centers and goes on to more advanced studies. One example: The highly technical nuclear training schools.

This expanded educational program makes the Navy, in a broad sense, one of the world’s largest universities, and undoubtedly the one with the widest curriculum.

Here are some interesting items:

  • About two out of every three Navymen on active duty received specialized training during the past year at one or more of the 347 schools maintained by the Navy.
  • In 1958 approximately 412,000 officers and enlisted men underwent instruction at the Navy’s training facilities. Others received technical courses and advanced postgraduate training at civilian universities and industries.
  • In 1958 the Navy stepped up its Advanced Education and Scientific College Programs for enlisted men, and offered more enlisted men the opportunity to seek a commission or to take advantage of one of the many officer candidate programs.
  • In addition to its educational and training programs, the Navy launched studies, continued with existing programs or inaugurated new ones that are designed to improve the careers of all Navymen. These range from improved Sea/ Shore duty rotation policies to improved habitability conditions and greater emphasis on the art of understanding (and influencing) human behavior.
  • As an example of the latter, the Secretary of the Navy, Thomas S. Gates, during the past year, (17 May to be exact), issued General Order 21, which reemphasized the taken-for-granted but often neglected responsibility of every Navy- man—Leadership. In the midst of its tremendous advances in guided missiles, supersonic aircraft and nuclear ships, the Navy has not over- looked the moral, physical and spiritual needs of the individual. In this respect the Navy has stepped A BIG up its character guidance program, established new policies and means of informing its personnel on deployments, operating schedules, rights and benefits, and provided more recreational and sports facilities.
  • A big morale booster was the enactment by Congress last year of the new pay bill which provided greater recompense to servicemen for their services.
  • In addition to increasing basic pay, the new bill—officially called Public Law 85-422, which amended the Career Compensation Act of 1949—created the new E-8 and E-9 enlisted pay grades; and established the new proficiency pay program.

During 1958 the Navy continued with its modernization program de signed to improve living quarters and make ships more comfortable and livable for the men who man them. Air conditioning, better lighting, new color schemes, roomier living spaces and lockers, foam rubber mattresses, individual reading lights and expanded recreational facilities are but a few examples of the many advances aboard ship that were made under this continuing program.

Improvement of existing barracks ashore and the construction of new ones, as well as modern housing units for the married Navyman and his family, were also undertaken throughout the past year.

At the beginning of 1958, there were more than 633,000 naval personnel on active duty. If you broke this figure down, you would find more than 556,000 enlisted personnel, about 72,000 officers and some 5500 officer candidates. During the year, in the face of crises in the Med and the Far East, Navy’s strength rose to a peak of some 643,000. By mid-1959 it is expected to be down to 630,000, to meet reduced manpower quotas authorized for each of the armed services.

NEW NUCLEARITES – USS Skipjack, SS(N) 585, combines speed of Albacore hull with A-power. Right: USS Triton, SSR(N) 586, is powered by two reactors.

First Under the North Pole

During 1958, USS Nautilus, SS(N) 571,–the “Model T” and proudest of our nuclear submarines – marked the fourth anniversary of the commissioning by continuing her underwater exploits.

On 3 Aug 1958, under the command of CDR William R. Anderson, USN, Nautilus became the first ship in history to reach the North Pole. With that dramatic polar breakthrough, Nautilus and her crew of 13 officers and 97 enlisted men continued her long series of firsts which began back in January 1955 when she first got “underway under nuclear power.”

Since beginning her initial trials, Nautilus has traveled about 150, 000 miles on nuclear power and has completed numberless pioneer accomplishments. She went over 62,500 miles on her first charge of nuclear fuel and is still cruising on her second.

Although Nautilus was the first ship to make the polar underseas transit, USS Skate, SS (N) 578, wasted no time in making a visit to the North Pole. In so doing, moreover, Skate became the first submarine to conduct extensive operations in the polar area. With CDR James Calvert, USN, as CO, Skate (with a crew of 10 officers, 87 enlisted men and nine civilian technicians aboard) reached the North Pole on 11 August, just eight days after Nautilus broke the ice.

Record for Staying Down

Meanwhile, USS Seawolf, SS (N) 575, was not to be outdone by the Navy’s first and third atomic subs. While they were undertaking their polar ventures, Seawolf, the second and largest of our commissioned atomic submarines, set out to make some history on her own. On 7 Aug 1958, two days out of New London, Conn., the flagship of the Atlantic Fleet Submarine Force submerged in what appeared to be another routine dive. In a sense, the dive was routine, but Seawolf’s 106-man crew had to wait for two months before their skipper, CAPT Richard B. Laning, USN, gave the command “Surface!”

In so doing, Seawolf established an underwater-cruising record of 60 days. In announcing this accomplishment at the White House, the President called it a record “that someone else is going to have a hard time to beat.”

Her record almost doubled the old submergence record of 31 days, 5% hours held by Skate. Seawolf’s two-month stay underwater was considered to be of utmost value not only for submarine operation studies but also for space flights. It demonstrated that men can live for weeks and months using only purified and replenished air they have with them at the outset.

The 106 men in Seawolf used the same air that was in the hull when they submerged on 7 August. It was cleansed continuously by chemical filters and replenished occasionally by shots of pure oxygen carried in flasks. But at no time during the 60-day submergence did Seawolf come up to the surface for fresh air.

Five nuclear-powered Regulus launching subs have been authorzed or are under construction.

  • Nine Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarines capable of firing the Polaris missile were authorized during 1958. Construction has begun on five of them. The first Polaris- launching sub is expected to be operational in 1960.

Nuclear-Powered Ships

Our active nuclear Fleet today numbers five ships. USS Swordfish, SS (N) 579, and USS Sargo, SS (N) 583, joined the Navy’s operating forces in 1958, while USS Seadragon, SS (N) 584, USS Skipjack, SS (N) 585, and USS Triton, SS (N) 586, were launched.

While speaking of Skipjack, which will be commissioned any day now, Admiral Burke said: “We are proud of the fact that we have shown the world a new frontier in submarine warfare with a wholly new submarine combination in Skipjack. She is the forerunner of a whole new family of submarines – combining nuclear power with the highly maneuverable Albacore hull.”

Triton is something to boast about too. She’s the world’s largest submarine—she’s actually a submersible, three-deck, 6000-ton cruiser. Triton is the first submarine to be powered by two reactors as well as the first nuclear-powered radar picket sub. Her twin reactors will give her a top speed equal to that of a carrier task force, and she’ll have a cruising range of about 112,000 miles without refueling.

In addition to the eight nuclear subs that are in the water, 25 more have been authorized or are under construction. Regulus I was the first operaional attack missile to join the Fleet.

It is a ship-to-surface missile which resembles a small jet fighter. Its range is in the 500-mile class and it travels at “high” speed. It is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, is powered by a turbojet and is guided by an electronic brain.

The Navy has announced that work on the Regulus II, a missile with a 1000-mile plus range, has been cancelled. While successful, the missile was cancelled to provide “the best balance in over-all weapons systems within the resources available.”

Polaris is the Navy’s pride and joy. It will be an Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile with a range of about 1500 miles. It is designed especially for submarine use and, as a consequence, uses a solid-propellant fuel. A converted cargo ship, Uss Compass Island (AG 153), is busily developing an accurate navigational system needed for accurate shipboard use of Polaris. As mentioned earlier, five nuclear subs capable of launching Polaris are under construction.

  • Subroc will be along in due time. Right now, it’s in the early developmental stage. A ship-to-surface missile, it can be fired from above or below the surface. According to theory, the Subroc system detects an enemy sub, computes its course and speed, then fires the missile. It does not, however, automatically paint a trophy on the conning tower.


In a report such as this, it is impossible to tell the entire story of the Navy in 1958 and today. Much of the story is left untold—not because of its lack of interest or importance but owing to the lack of space, and security restrictions. In summing up the Navy in 1958 and today, the Chief of Naval Operations, ADM A. A. Burke, has said:

  • “We are proud of the progress we have made in strengthening the full range to handle the functions the Navy must perform in all kinds of wars—large and small—including cold war—and friendly missions of mercy.

  • “We have led the world in nuclear power—in communications—in putting a whole family of guided missiles into our operating forces and in developing aircraft.

  • “We in the Navy know . . . we will have to keep steaming at full power in order to retain control of the sea for the free world. We know we face the stiffest competition we have ever faced in the life of our nation.”

The first Cold War was a continuous series of challenges to the nation and the adversaries it faced. There was a constant sense of awareness that destruction of mankind was just a few minutes away if we were not prepared to present a counterbalance to each other. The long history of deterrence was heavily influenced by the events that happened sixty years ago.

It will be interesting to see how the nation finds its way in the future. Un-manned vessels will probably replace manned ones at some point in time. An eerie part of the article from 1958 was the recognition that the computers they were experimenting with needed to be “taught” to think better. Today, computers have been programmed to teach us how to think better. In the future, with AI, those same computers will probably be making autonomous decisions with little human interference. I wonder if they will do a better job.

Mister Mac

5 thoughts on “LOOKING BACK: NINETEEN HUNDRED AND FIFTY- EIGHT is gone. (How the submarine force pivoted in 1958 to win the Cold War)

  1. Mr. Mac,

    I was on SEAWOLF for the 60 day submerged patrol. Yes, we made no connection to the atmosphere, but we didn’t get a shot of O2 from the banks whenever we needed it – we carried about 10 days worth of O2 in the banks, the rest came from O2 candles which we had stowed anyplace we could find room, including the wardroom transom. How we purified the output is another story that involved me (the supply officer, junior man in the wardroom, just out of SubSchool) cornering the NLON market on marbles. On the last day, we had run out of candles, but Capt Laning was determined to make 60 days, so we let the pressure in the boat increase to keep the O2 partial pressure within bounds. When we ventilated at the end of the 60 days, we manned each critical station with two people so that if the sudden pressure decrease caused a health problem, we could get the evolution started – had no problems.

    Re the SKIPJACK class. I was engineer on SCAMP. It was a hotshot – it could really angle/dangle. When I got on board, it had a seven-bladed prop, but with the original five-bladed prop, it could be put on the step on the surface – flank speed, rise on the stern planes – as long as you had enough water under the keel – the lower rudder drew about 40 feet when on the step. SCAMP had another “first” in its history. On a sea trial before my time, on a back emergency bell, the shaft snapped and the prop pulled the shaft out of the stern bearing – praise be, the shaft broke aft of the stern tube.

    Yes, ’58 was a year of growth and change in the SubForce. One aspect that affected me and my compatriots was that the ever increasing number of boats coming on line reduced the chances of any shore duty, increased the chances that one might get more than one command tour. I had a 16-month shore duty tour at the FBMTC CHASN between my XO and CO tour (EDISON-GOLD).

    Thanks for the memories.

    Have a Joyous New Year.


    1. John, I am in your debt my friend. My later years on boats was definitely made better by the work you all did. Thank you so much for the feedback. I was an A Ganger for most of my career and had to carry more than my share of candles (even on a few of the newer boats when the O2 Generator technology failed us). Your stories are amazing and I thank you for sharing those as well.
      Happy New Year my friend

    2. Interesting tidbit and certainly nothing I could have planned. I have a “counter” that tells me how many comments the blog has received. Your comment was number 1958. I am not kidding. I know that the world is filled with random coincidences but this was one of the most amazing coincidences I could imagine.


  2. Mr. Mac,
    I graduated high school in 1959 and joined the Navy in October 1959. After boot camp in San Diego, school in a Port Hueneme, Calif., I was assigned to Mobile Construction Battalion Four (SEABEES for those not aware of MCB’s) and it’s Detachment Kilo. In 1961 our Detachment Kilo was deployed to HOLY LOCH SCOTLAND. There we erected the AFDB-7 Los Alamos as a base to service the nuclear subs so they would not have to make the long trip back to the USA.

    As you know but maybe lots of those who read this article do not know, … YOU returned to the AFDB-7 and served as the Docking Officer of it and in the “90’s …. HELPED TAKE THE DRY-DOCK APART to be shipped back to the USA, … THIRTY YEAR AFTER I HELPED GET’ER STARTED……

    For those who want to know more, see my article about the AFDB-7, checkout my article on your site, “AFDB-7 LOS ALAMOS, In The Beginning” posted on April 4, 2014.

    Norman Rachels

  3. Joined Seadragon in 1959 & did the Northwest Passage and North Pole trip in 1960, then the rendezvous with Skate in 1962.
    But the miracle of the times was Polaris – Red Raborn was given carte blanche to get it done. In 48 months, a dream was out on patrol. There has NEVER been an effort like that since.

    BW, Coyote

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