This year is the year of the Polaris Program. It has been 60 years since the program burst onto the submarine scene and its impact is still felt today. The marriage of so much technology to convincingly prove to the Soviet Union and the world that a reliable part of the Strategic Deterrent was possible helped to contain Soviet expansionism at a time where it could have darkened even more of the world.
1959 was a heady time when it came to new weapons systems development. The Air Force had been trying to create an atomic powered bombing platform since 1945 and by 1959 had not been successful. Articles from the same time frame indicated that the Soviets had indeed launched a successful nuke plane leaving America in the dust for a second straight time since Sputnik. Even though history later showed that they had not been successful, we did not know that and we needed a win.
Polaris was that win.
Admiral Rickover kept a direct hand on the entire nuclear submarine program shepherding it through the many tricky mine fields along the way. Not only did he have to fight the many bureaucrats in the various government agencies, he had to word with a complex set of political leadership that was ever changing for the time he started until the day he retired. Even the builders and contractors needed a strong guiding hand to keep them from doing too many detours from the goal.
His role was crucial.
The ANP atomic powered jet program cost many billions of dollars and took over fifteen years yet produces nothing that flew by the time Kennedy cancelled it. I will be doing another article on that boondoggle later this month but wanted to kick off the year of the Boomer as soon as possible.
There are forty one chapters in this story. The story begins with a forward in a book Rickover wrote about the program. The book has an interesting title and an even more interesting story behind it. As each boat in the Polaris Program was built, Rickover would ride it on sea trials. He did that all the way into the 1980’s until he was forced to retire.
When he was on the boat, he would write a short letter to the members of Congress about the name used for that boat. Here are some of his words in the preface:
The Book Title is:
EMINENT AMERICANS Namesakes of the Polaris Submarine Fleet
United States Congressional serial set. DOC 12989-7 1972
Hyman G. Rickover
“IN 1957, the United States embarked upon a program of the highest priority to build a ﬂeet of nuclear powered submarines to carry the Polaris missile. Ultimately, 41 of these ships were built, each capable of launching 16 missiles. The Polaris submarines were the largest ever built, displacing over 9,000 tons——as much as or more than many cruisers. Their purpose was to provide a powerful force that would serve as a deterrent to a nuclear attack upon the United States. Hidden in the vast reaches of the Atlantic and Paciﬁc, these submarines would be invulnerable to attack. The enemy must know—so it was reasoned—that were he to launch a nuclear attack on the United States he must inevitably be destroyed.
Because these ships would be so important to our defense, it was decided to name them after well-known ﬁgures in American history who had won and defended our freedom. The men for whom these submarines were named are the subject of this book.
Ever since the ﬁrst nuclear submarine -—the USS Nautilus—went to sea in January 1955, I have been responsible for directing the initial sea trials of each of our nuclear ships so as to make sure that their nuclear propulsion plants functioned properly and that the ofﬁcers and men had been well trained.
Because many members of Congress had given strong support in getting the Nautilus built, I decided that it would be no more than proper for me to send each of them a letter reporting what the ship had done. I remember writing some 80 letters in long- hand during that ﬁrst voyage. Soon I expanded the list of recipients to include all members of Congress and appropriate ofﬁcials in the executive branch.
When it came time to test our ﬁrst Polaris submarine, the USS George Washington in 1960, I thought it would be appropriate to include in my letter a brief biography of the man for whom the ship was named, and I continued this practice for each of the 40 Polaris submarines which followed. These letters were well received, and most of them were printed in the Congressional Record. Frequently I was urged to publish them in book form. This I agreed to do and Congress, in 1968, passed a resolution authorizing the printing of this book.”
That book of course became a record that is kept in the records of Congress. Because of the copy write, I will only do some quotes from parts of the book as we travel through the year.
The book itself is available on Amazon surprisingly enough but only in paperback. I strongly suggest you find a way to own an entire copy if you truly want to know more about the mind of a man who cared so deeply about his country that he took the time to create an entire program and give his entire life to perfecting it.
The end of the forward contains one of the most eloquent statements about the future of America I have ever read. I am including it here as an introduction to the series that will follow over the next twelve months about the men who made up the convention of Polaris and Poseidon Submarines:
“Today, it is more important than ever that high ofﬁcials and the institutions in their charge set the moral tone for our people. Contributing to this need is the lessening in religious convictions—many seeing the world as fulﬁlling today what in the past was promised for Heaven—and decline of the Protestant Ethic of work. If the present trend is to be arrested and corrected we must have more leaders who set the moral tone and example for our people as did men such as Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Clay, Webster, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Unless this takes place, we will increasingly become a fragmented Nation, each interest group attempting to use the national patrimony for its own good rather than for the Nation as a whole.
The lives of the Americans described in these essays may offer insights into how we may once again feel a sense of unity of interest.”
H. G. Rickover, October, 1972 Washington, D.C.