USS Alexander Hamilton (SSBN 617) – Castles in the Air

This is the next story in the series about the 41 for Freedom boats.

The name Alexander Hamilton has been widely resurrected in the past few years with the wild success of the Broadway show “Hamilton”. But for me, the name will always be synonymous with the second Lafayette Class submarine that bore his name. When the decision was made to include him as a member of the 41 for Freedom, I am sure it was not just because of his patriotism and love for this country, but for the many action he took in his time that ensured America could grow and prosper.

Admiral Rickover included him in his book about the Eminent Americans in the order he did because of his place in the historic timeline he was following. I would only add that his remarkable presence on the American stage far outshines and Broadway creation that followed hundreds of years later. Hamilton was a serious man with a deep love of America. Since he had not come from any particular colony in the beginning, he was able to see the country as a whole. It was a vision that he may have juxtaposed with something he saw in himself: He believed in building “Castles in the air”.

Beginning at the end

In February 1994, the recycling of the submarine Alexander Hamilton was completed in Bremerton Washington. Having participated directly in three unit decommissioning events during my career, I can tell you that there are few things quite as sad in the life of a Navy person.

Each of the boats and units I was assigned to were instrumental in winning the war many call the Cold War. A submarine, a floating drydock and a submarine tender all fell silent as the changing needs of the country dictated their end.

Day after day during the process, you watch equipment being removed, compartments being stripped of anything usable and machines being placed in a mothball like state. In your heart of hearts, you know that all of your efforts to preserve the proud warriors is in vain. No one is ever going to reopen the sealed tomb they are being converted into. While it is true that the great battleships were brought back to life, very few other occasions can be pointed to in recent history of a decommissioned vessel being resurrected.

The Alexander Hamilton was not one of the boats I served on or decommissioned. But so many men who sailed on her carry her memories deep within their hearts and the dark places they go at night. This ship was a grand evolutionary vessel that demonstrated its ability to secure the safety of the free world while also demonstrating an extraordinary ability to adapt and overcome the challenges of newer technology.

Remarkable transformations

Hamilton was built as a Polaris submarine with 16 tubes designed to launch the Polaris A2 missile. Within five years of commissioning, she converted from the A2 missile to A3’s. POLARIS A3 represented a significantly greater technological advancement over A2, than that of A2 over A1. In terms of hardware design, POLARIS A3 was approximately an 85 percent new missile. The increase in range provided by A3 left no land target inaccessible and at the same time gave the submarines an enormous increase in sea room.

In 1973, she reinvented herself again by conversion to the Poseidon Missile.

POSEIDON, which had its roots in POLARIS technology, was a two-stage, solid propellant missile capable of being launched from a submerged FBM submarine. It was only 2 feet longer than the 32-foot POLARIS A3 missile, but had a much larger diameter, 74 versus 54 inches, and was 30,000 pounds heavier. Despite this increase in size, the growth potential of the FBM submarines allowed POSEIDON missiles to fit into the same 16 missile launch tubes that carried POLARIS.

POSEIDON was also a 2500 nautical (2880 statute) mile range missile; however, it was outfitted with multiple warheads, each of which could be targeted separately. This capability, known as MIRV, enabled POSEIDON to cover an increasing number of targets.

And now: The submarine USS Alexander Hamilton

USS ALEXANDER HAMILTON was the second LAFAYETTE – class nuclear powered fleet ballistic missile submarine and the third ship in the Navy to bear the name.

General Characteristics: Awarded: July 22, 1960

Keel laid: June 26, 1961

Launched: August 18, 1962

Commissioned: June 27, 1963

Decommissioned: February 23, 1993

Builder: Electric Boat Division, General Dynamics Corp., Groton, CT.

Propulsion system: one S5W nuclear reactor

Propellers: one

Length: 425 feet (129.6 meters)

Beam: 33 feet (10 meters)

Draft: 31.5 feet (9.6 meters)

Displacement: Surfaced: approx. 7,250 tons; Submerged: approx. 8,250 tons

Speed: Surfaced: 16 – 20 knots; Submerged: 22 – 25 knots

Armament: 16 vertical tubes for Polaris or Poseidon missiles, four 21″ torpedo tubes for Mk-48 torpedoes, Mk-14/16 torpedoes, Mk-37 torpedoes and Mk-45 nuclear torpedoes

Crew: 13 Officers and 130 Enlisted (two crews)

USS Alexander Hamilton (SSBN-617) was a United States Lafayette-class ballistic missile submarine. It was the third ship of the United States Navy to be named for Alexander Hamilton, the first US Secretary of the Treasury, who was instrumental in the formation of both the United States Coast Guard and the United States Navy.

From Admiral Rickover’s Book, Eminent Americans: USS ALEXANDER HAMILTON (SSBN 617)

NAMED FOR Alexander Hamilton (1757—1804), brilliant statesman, lawyer, and political writer. No one, in his time, could equal him in the instancy of his grasp of complicated issues, whether relating to government and political economy, or law and organization; nor in the skill with which he put forth well-organized, systematic programs of action to remedy the problems besetting the newly emerging United States.

For him, to see a defect was to put every ounce of energy into correcting it; to glimpse an opportunity was to seize it with both hands. His plans were bold and often at odds with prevailing opinion. He was as bitterly hated by his political opponents as he was extravagantly admired by his friends. Political feuds were taken more seriously then and often led to vituperation and violence. His eldest son, a youth of 20, died in a duel defending his father’s honor. Hamilton himself was mortally wounded on the very same spot 3 years later (at 47), called out by Aaron Burr whose political ambitions he had thwarted. Yet for all its brevity and tragic ending, Hamilton’s life was a remarkable success story. No other Founding Father had so inauspicious a start or rose so quickly to influence, position, and wealth.

Born on the tiny island of Nevis in the British West Indies, he was the son of James Hamilton, a Scottish merchant, and Rachel Fawcett, daughter of a French Huguenot physician and planter. These two could not marry because Rachel’s husband, despite long separation, would not grant her a divorce. The union of Alexander Hamilton’s parents, though socially accepted, was therefore never legitimized. Nor did it otherwise prosper.

His father was one of those younger sons of good family who seek their fortunes in the outposts of Empire but succeed in nothing they undertake. When he went bankrupt, the destitute family broke up; wife and son moved in with her relations on St. Croix; the father for a time was lost from sight.

Well-educated herself, Rachel obtained for her son as good an education as could be procured on the island. She first taught him herself, then had him tutored by a Presbyterian minister. But all this came to an end when she died, leaving Hamilton at 11 a virtual orphan. The following year he started to earn his living as clerk in the general store of Nicholas Cruger in Christiansted. In a letter to a friend written at that time, he confided his ambition to raise himself from “the grov’ling . . . condition of a Clerk or the like, to which my Fortune &c. condemns me.”

Though well aware that no prospects for advancement were in sight, he vowed, “I mean to prepare the way for futurity . . .I’m no Philosopher you see and may be justly said to Build Castles in the Air . . . yet we have seen such Schemes successful when the Projector is Constant.” Something of the indomitable spirit of the penniless, lonely boy comes through to us across the barrier of archaic style and 18th century spelling.

From these humble beginnings, Alexander Hamilton did indeed build his Castle in the air. The country today is very reflective of the vision he had in his many years of service to it.

Admiral Rickover ended this chapter in the book with the quote:

Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg, a political statesman deeply interested in our history, said of Hamilton: “He was ever the subject of white-heat controversy—in death even as in life. But for myself, summing it all up, I say that five words might be his epitaph, ‘The Republic Is His Monument.’ ”

About the boat:

The third Alexander Hamilton (SSBN-617) was laid down on 26 June 1961 at Groton, Conn., by the Electric Boat Division, General Dynamics Corp.; launched on 18 August 1962; sponsored by Mrs. Valentine Hollingsworth, Jr., the great-great-great granddaughter of Alexander Hamilton; and commissioned on 27 June 1963, Comdr. Norman B. Bessac (Blue Crew) and Comdr. Benjamin F. Sherman, Jr., (Gold Crew) in command.

Between 28 June and 18 October, Alexander Hamilton carried out two shakedown cruises, one for her Blue crew and a second for her Gold. Following those operations, she conducted post-shakedown availability. After trials early in 1964, she departed the east coast on 16 March to deploy to Rota, Spain, her base of operations. She conducted deterrent patrols out of that port for the remainder of the year as a unit of Submarine Squadron (SubRon) 16. In January 1965, the fleet ballistic missile submarine transferred to SubRon 14 and based at Holy Loch, Scotland. Her cycle of patrols from there lasted until 2 June 1967 at which time she returned to the United States at Charleston, S. C. Later that month, she moved north to New London, Conn., and thence into the Electric Boat yard on the 18th to begin her first overhaul and nuclear refueling.

Alexander Hamilton completed the overhaul on 28 June 1968 and conducted post-overhaul trials, inspections, and shakedown training until early October. In November, she was deployed to Rota and conducted a deterrent patrol en route to her new base where she arrived on 30 December. For the next four years, the submarine operated from that Spanish port-again as a unit of SubRon 16. At the conclusion of her 31st deterrent patrol, she returned to Charleston in November 1972 and, in January 1973, began her second refueling overhaul, combined with a conversion to carry Poseidon missiles, at the yard of the Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co. The work on those two modifications lasted for over two years. The submarine carried out shakedown in April of 1975 and devoted the remainder of the year to training and various post overhaul trials. She conducted deterrent patrols 32 and 33 in the early part of 1976. Alexander Hamilton concluded the latter patrol at Holy Loch, Scotland, in May 1976 and conducted her next three patrols from that base. While on patrol 36, the fleet ballistic missile submarine visited Port Canaveral, Fla., and New London, Conn., before concluding that patrol at Charleston, S.C., in March 1977. During March and April, she completed refit and conducted refresher training. In July, she departed Charleston for another deterrent patrol which ended with her arrival at Holy Loch in September.

From that Scottish base, the fleet ballistic missile submarine conducted deterrent patrols 39 and 40. She departed Holy Loch in May 1978 for patrol 41 and concluded it at Charleston in July. The warship remained there until August when she got underway for New London. She arrived at New London early in September and, after exchanging crews, embarked upon deterrent patrol 42 later that month. She ended that patrol at Holy Loch in October. Over the next year, she made four patrols from the base in Scotland. On 31 October 1979, Alexander Hamilton departed Holy Loch on her 46th deterrent patrol, ending it at Charleston on 7 December. Early in January 1980, the ballistic missile submarine departed Charleston on deterrent patrol 47. She concluded that patrol at Holy Loch on 17 March 1980 and, for the remainder of the year, operated from that base.

Alexander Hamilton’s, deterrent patrols out of Holy Loch continued until 1986. At that time, she was to have been decommissioned in order to remove her from the fleet as a gesture of goodwill in accordance with the terms of the unratified SALT II strategic arms limitation treaty.

Upon her arrival in Groton early in 1986, the ballistic missile submarine began preparations for deactivation. The grounding of Nathanael Greene (SSBN-636), however, forced the Navy to change its plans. What had been a deactivation overhaul quickly became a four-week maintenance availability to get Alexander Hamilton ready for active service. In April, the warship sailed to Charleston, S.C., for further work conducted in the floating drydock Alamogordo (ARDM-4). While at Charleston, she also served at sea occasionally as a training platform. In mid June, the warship returned to Groton. During the summer of 1986, Alexander Hamilton participated in training cruises for Naval Academy and NROTC midshipmen.

In August, she learned that her refueling overhaul would be conducted by the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. The nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine departed Groton on 1 October to begin the long voyage to Bremerton, Wash. Steaming by way of the Panama Canal, she arrived at her destination late in November. Alexander Hamilton formally began her refueling overhaul on 30 November and, as of the beginning of 1987, was still at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard.

In December 1988, the ship returned to Squadron FOURTEEN and completed strategic deterrent patrols seventy through seventy-three.

ALEXANDER HAMILTON pulled into Charleston, South Carolina in June 1991 to offload missiles in preparation for a return to the Pacific for decommissioning. August 23, 1991 marked the official transfer to Submarine Group NINE, Naval Submarine Base Bangor.

April 28, 1992 marked the 1000th dive for the ALEXANDER HAMILTON; THE MOST DIVES EVER RECORDED FOR AN SSBN. The final total of 1,002 dives was achieved on May 1, 1992. (theleansubmariner Note: this claim comes from the Hamilton Web site. I have not done much research yet on its veracity but it really looks great on paper)

USS ALEXANDER HAMILTON (SSBN 617) (was) deactivated on August 18, 1992, EXACTLY thirty years after launching.

Decommissioned and stricken from the Navy list on February 23, 1993, the ALEXANDER HAMILTON was disposed of through the Nuclear Powered Ship and Submarine Recycling Program one year later at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Bremerton, WA. Recycling was finished on February 28, 1994.

I am looking forward to hearing from Hamilton sailors. They played a very important role in the progression of the Polaris program and the Poseidon program. Free people everywhere should be grateful for their sacrifices.

Mister Mac


30 thoughts on “USS Alexander Hamilton (SSBN 617) – Castles in the Air

  1. I served on the Hamilton Gold Crew – 1976 to 1979.

    RE: PSNS Refueling Overhaul 1986 to 1989/ The CO was CDR Craig Welling, who had been the Engineer, Gold Crew when I served.
    The refueling overhaul was essentially ‘wrapped up’ by June of 1989. Near the end of June 1989, at Bangor Submarine Base, there was a Crew Splitting ceremony and a chance for visitors to tour the submarine. My wife & I were invited – and we had a chance to tour….and not some of the instrumentation that was installed in MCUL for the upcoming DASO tests to be conducted. Of note – my wife was very pregnant with our 3rd child – and she had a lot of jokes about the capabilities of the corpsman to deliver. She deferred – commenting that the baby was due NEXT month. (Hint – next month was 1 week away….and she delivered the baby 3 days after the tour.)

    When the Hamilton returned to the Pacific Northwest for inactivation – she actually operated for 1 year as a ‘target of opportunity’ for Trident submarines…but the Hamilton was able to operate quite effectively against the Tridents – and they had patches made up to reflect this – “TRIDENT BUSTERS”. There was a decommissioning ceremony held at Bangor – before the sub was towed around the Kitsap Peninsula to be delivered to PSNS for defueling and cut-up. She was put into dry dock 4 with 3 other submarines to be de-fueled and cut up….Four in Four.

  2. I served aboard her from September 1975 to December 1978 on the blue crew. I had been direct input to submarine duty as a Storekeeper, it was a pleasure and an honor to serve aboard such a fine submarine. On a side note it was because of her great material condition through great maintenance that allowed her to quickly go from deactivation to full active duty. Where as the Nathaniel Greene was only so so in this area, I know I left her only months before she stuck that under sea mountain.

    1. Ahoy, Ken. You were a key part of the 617 readiness. They couldn’t conduct maintenance without repair parts. You made sure they had what they needed when they needed it. You were always a squared away shipmate. It was my pleasure to serve with you. Hope all is well with you.

  3. I served aboard the Gold crew from 1981 to 1982 as a IC2. She was also my qual boat. I have great memories serving aboard her. I also have fond memories of refitting in Holy Loch.

  4. I came onboard in July 1968 when she was just out of refuel. Did sea trials, turned the boat over to the Blue crew, flew down to FL to fire a missile and watch the Blue crew fire their missile and the Blue crew did the first patrol on the way to Rota where we picked up the boat right after Christmas and did the next patrol out of Rota. I left the boat right before our next patrol since my time was up. It was a great boat and like a luxury cruise ship after two years on WWII Fleet boats. I love the Fleet boats too.

  5. RM1(SS). Served on the Hamilton 82-85. 7 Patrols, 2 ERPs. Sad that there is nothing said about the Hamilton during that time. Guess we did a pretty good job! Great Story!

    1. Hi Bill,

      I looked through a number of sources for information from that time. Its pretty scarce. As always, I am glad to add stories that are unclass from crew members for any period of the boat’s life.

  6. Posted on Facebook. FYI. During the Gold crew shakedown cruise we did the 616 class standardization runs where we put the boat thru some non-standard environments to test her ability to recover. I had the rudder/fairwater planes (my battle stations assignment). Somehow I missed a command to pull full rise on the fairwater planes during one of the maneuvers and we plunged below test depth! Thank God Charlie Tiffin (COB) corrected my mistake and we recovered! Scared the shit out of the yardbirds we had on board who were conducting the process. This fuck up has bothered me ever since. BTW, the compression string we put up on the surface was bowed like a bitch and the overhead rivets were popping out like .22 shells. Will never forget that day!

    1. Hello fellow submarine brothers. My name is Robert Coe I served on our beloved SSBN 617 from 1989- 1992. I look forward to talking or meeting all of our crew members.

  7. MT2, served onboard from Dec 82 – June 86, Blue Crew. Then transferred to the tender in Charleston. Item of note during after my time onboard: the floor in ‘84. During the transit to Puget Sound for the yard period, she stopped in Charleston for a few days. As she was being pulled away from the tender to continue to Panama, I was watching from the deck outside the Handling Shop. The act tug was pulling her out into the Cooper River, which was putting quite a strain on line #5. The tattletail started singing, and we were all waving at the line #5 line handlers to get back. Sure enough, the line didn’t part, but one of the Line #5 cleats broke, clanging back and forth on the hull. Good thing they didn’t need to be too silent heading to the yards!

    1. Great story Dale, thanks. One of the best gifts I get is hearing from people who served on my sister ships. My wife keeps asking me why I am doing this. I just smile and remind her that it keeps me from chasing other women. Then she laughs and reminds me that I wouldn’t know what to do with them if I caught them. Seems harsh but I love her none the less!

      Thanks for the comment

  8. I reported in fall of 68 to 617 B at EB. The last of our overhaul the EB employees went on strike so we had sorta a do it yourself finish for the yard period.
    We had some lockers ordered for the missile compartment, the supervisors couldn’t find them so I went to the picket line , found some sheet metal workers and told where they were and we got them installed.
    She was a great ship.

    1. Hello James Pratt. I remember you with fondness. You were one of the best sailors and chiefs I ever served with. Blessing from father Don Helmandollar

  9. I also served on the Hamilton with COB Tiffin from 65 -69 and it was without a doubt the best time of my life. We still hold 617 reunions every two years. This October it is in San Diego and all are welcome, it is one heck of a time with all the sea stories and lies.

  10. Dick Dwyer – I had the pleasure of serving with Pete Cogswell and Ken Cook on the Blue Crew ’76-79. I wound up working as a civilian at NAVSEA years later and was part of the SSBN inactivation/dismantlement program…including our ship. I was out at Puget Sound NSY when she was there and went aboard…then went forward. I hugged the sail, and ‘thanked’ her for taking care of us. The yard birds thought I was crazy, but she was a great ship and she kept us safe.

  11. Had the pleasure of serving on the Hamilton Blue crew 1983-1985. Also known as the bounce crew in 1984. We earned that name the hard way.

  12. I reported aboard in 72, my 1st patrol was out of Rota and came back to Charleston on our way to the yards in New Port News what a long and tedious overhaul. As a reactor operator I remember port and starboard 12 hour shifts when ever the core was in the hull (old and new) sitting at a panel with no instruments to see. I also had the pleasure to see Adm. Rickover when he visited the boat during refuel. I also had the privilege to take that core critical for the first time. That was a truely a stressful time for a 22 year old.

  13. I was in the commissioning crew in 1963. I made the first three patrols in the blue crew. I was transferred off to comsublant for separation.

  14. I was an RM onboard Hamilton from September 78 until November 82. I was shanghaied from the Kamahameha for “one patrol, TAD” to replace a SPECOMM tech who did’nt want to play war no more.
    You mentioned earlier that the Hamilton set an unverified record for surfaces and dives. There was another highlight similar to this.
    Patrol 50 was a bitch…if something could break it did, and usually at the wrong time. I still have my “I Survived Patrol 50” tee shirt. While transiting back to Holy Loch the diving officer computed that if we surfaced and dove 12 more times we would reach our hull number, 617.The CO thought this was a wonderful idea, and a great finish to an otherwise crappy patrol. So upon reaching our normal surfacing point, we drove around in circles surfacing and diving repeatedly until we reached 617 dives and surfaces. I’m sure the Soviet AGI that used to hang out in that area must have thought we were bonkers!

  15. Served on A Ham from 67-72. Best Served on AHam from 67-72. Best skipper was Bill Williams. Best LPO was Roger Gibson. I mess cooked and stood planes watches (never broached) before I made IC3. Funniest time; we pulled a trim party on a junior officer and some midshipmen. Loved Scotland and New London. Best boat and crew!

  16. Served on AHam from 67-72. Best skipper was Bill Williams. Best LPO was Roger Gibson. I mess cooked and stood planes watches (never broached) before I made IC3. Funniest time; we pulled a trim party on a junior officer and some midshipmen. Loved Scotland and New London. Best boat and crew!

  17. Reported aboard. As we came out of dry dock in 75, got the nickname “the Frog”, painted all green in dry dock, plus repeated hopping the pond from the east coast to the Loch. Best story? Talking to the cook (Jim Earts), who had 2 big pots of terriaki steaks marinating. Heard “battle stations torpedo” Earts looked as I smiled & said “don’t you dare”, but I was gone- foot on the stick, hard starboard, strapping in -crash under us, steaks hitting the floor as we dove. . Looked up & pulled her into required depth. A minute later, into control came Earts, standing behind me on the planes. Conn Officer “Mr. Earts, is this where you are supposed to be?” “No” and he left. Later he smiled & told me”I just rinsed em off & served them anyway”!
    Also, we held a speed record for traversing the Firth of Clyde submerged at flank speed. Out of SOP fun!!

  18. Came aboard October 1967 as ETN3 from Sub School. Short distance to EB Shipyard. Lots of fond memories and hard work. Lived on the barge next door. Enjoyed eating lobster there. Qualified and made DASO, moved to Charleston and made patrols out of Rota. Left there as ETN2(SS) in late 1970 bound for ET “B” school at Great Lakes. Always my favorite and fondest command. I remember COB Tiffin, Sydney Harrison, Jack Cuddy, Shorty Wastlund, Thanks for the memories.

  19. I reported aboard for the 2nd patrol out of Rota Spain as a Seaman FTB in 64′ and left a FTB2(SS) in 66′. Captain Bessac was our Skipper on the Blue Crew for my first patrol. I’ve enjoyed our semi-annual reunions.

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