USS Patrick Henry SSBN 599 – Give Me Liberty or Give Me death!

USS Patrick Henry

“I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death.”

As a sailor who sailed on a number of submarines and ships, I can assure you there is no sweeter word that “Liberty”. I have to be honest with you and say that I probably uttered that famous phrase more than one time under my breath after working seemingly endless hours to repair and maintain any one of those seagoing units. As a Chief Petty Officer and Chief Warrant Officer, I am sure that more than one of my crewmembers said the same thing just out of earshot. Liberty is the sweet reward for all sailors at the end of a hard day or week. But our temporary liberty pales in comparison to the liberty Patrick Henry was seeking.

I can think of no more inspiring words that could have been said in 1775 in Colonial America. Frankly, in the history of our great country, those words have been a touchstone for Patriots throughout. It is fashionable in this day and age to proclaim words to these affect form the anonymity of a keyboard in an electronic battlefield of ideas. It is quite another for a gentleman from Virginia to stand in the Revolutionary Convention in Richmond Virginia knowing that one of the most powerful armies on the face of the earth was knocking on your doorstep, waiting to crush the insolence once and for all.

Liberty or Tyranny

Like the second submarine in the 41 for Freedom that bore his name, Patrick Henry knew that his words and actions were part of the framework of a world that teetered on the edge of freedom and tyranny. The freedom was a path forward for the colonies after years of oppression from a king who saw them only as servants and a source of wealth and power. Tyranny comes in many forms. Sometimes it is the overbearing will of a monarch who wished to suppress his subjects in order to maintain that power. But in 1959, freedom was being challenged all over the globe by the seemingly unrestrained growth of communism.

From the dying days of World War II, country after country fell like dominoes all over the world as an aggressive Soviet Union and later Communist China pushed their agenda onto the backs of nations that had little strength to resist them. Records that have been declassified since the end of the first Cold War clearly show the expansionism that the Soviets were anxious to complete. There is no secret to the fact that one by one, countries fell to their expansionisms and free people found themselves facing gulags and denial of basic human rights.

The United States saw that the threat of a dominant Soviet power in Europe was bolstered by their aggressive development of missiles and bombers. Even though that growth was probably exaggerated, the existence of an enemy that had sworn world domination was troubling at best. During the latter half of World War II, Eisenhower had remarked that his concern with the Soviets post war was their behavior during the war. Their leaders had demonstrated their utter lack of compassion for individuals during massive attacks as long as the greater good was gained. This behavior of willing to risk everything to gain everything was foreign to Ike as he observed the wholesale death and slaughter of Soviet troops in battle after battle. The Nazi’s were overpowered in the east but the world will never know the human cost that was expended to do so.

Who was Patrick Henry?

Patrick Henry, born in Hanover Co., Va., in 1736, was licensed to practice law in 1760 and became an immediate success. On 20 May 1765, he became a member of the House of Burgesses, defending the western and northern counties against the tidewater region. He was the leader of a new party between 1765 and 1770, thereafter consolidating the opposition to Great Britain. Chosen delegate to the first Continental Congress, he supported radical, nationalistic measures. On 20 March 1775, at an assembly meeting in Richmond, he uttered his famous saying “Give me liberty, or give me death.” In May 1776, he was elected Governor of Virginia and twice reelected. He was Governor again 1784-86. He died at Red Hill Plantation, Charlotte Co., Va., 1799.

Patrick Henry was a man for his times too. He knew the incredible gamble that the Patriots were taking. You risk everything or you gain nothing seemed to have been a watchword for he and his compatriots. Their efforts were not evenly welcomed at home. Many were fearful of the consequences of such treason.

Admiral Rickover described that time period in his book Eminent Americans:


NAMED FOR Patrick Henry (1736—99), the foremost orator of the American Revolution. His stirring words swept like wildfire from Georgia to Massachusetts, arousing the patriotic fervor of the colonists, hastening their ultimate decision to separate from the mother country. He deserves to be remembered and more highly honored than he has been. In those days of slow communication, vivid phrases, easily remembered and retold, were needed to electrify public opinion. Some will doubtless live on long after it has been forgotten when and why he said them. Three made a special impact.

There was the dramatic conclusion to his fiery speech introducing a series of resolutions declaring the Stamp Act illegal (Virginia, House of Burgesses, May 1765), on the grounds that “the right and power to lay taxes and impositions upon the inhabitants of this colony” were vested exclusively in the legislative assembly. In a solemn tone he warned that “Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third”-here he was interrupted by cries of “treason”— “and George the Third may profit by their example! If this be treason, make the most of it.” The swerving of the thought from the expected parallelism is a thing of beauty. There was also Henry’s eloquent plea for unity in the First Continental Congress (May 1774): “Throughout the continent, government is dissolved. Landmarks are dissolved! Where are now your boundaries? The distinction between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, New Englanders are no more. I am not a Virginian but an American.” This was treason and the Colonies made the most of it. He was not very learned, but he had a powerful and persuasive mind and a forensic skill to express it. People not only listened when he spoke, they obeyed him, too. And, there was his urgent plea for immediate arming of the Virginia militia (addressed to the Revolutionary convention assembled in Richmond, March 1775): “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death.”

About the boat:

USS Patrick Henry (SSBN-599), a George-Washington class nuclear-powered fleet ballistic submarine, was commissioned on April 11, 1960, at General Dynamics Electric Boat, Groton, Connecticut. The 599 boat was the Navy’s second nuclear-powered fleet ballistic missile submarine and the second ship in the GEORGE WASHINGTON – class.

Patrick Henry alongside USS Proteus in Holy Loch Scotland

Operating out of Holy Loch, Scotland, she deployed her blue and gold crews for the next four years.

USS Patrick Henry in the floating drydock – Not sure which dock nor what location…

Returning to Groton in 1964, Patrick Henry underwent extensive overhaul, repair, and modifications, allowing her to handle the Polaris “A-3″ missile.   Relocating to the Pacific in the early 1970s, she operated out of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, patrolling both the Atlantic and Pacific while performing tests on her nuclear capability.   In October 1981, she was reclassified as a nuclear-attack submarine and redesignated SSN-599. Her missile launch capability was disabled to comply with the SALT I treaty. The PATRICK HENRY mainly conducted training exercises in her new role.

General Characteristics: Awarded: December 31, 1957

Keel laid: May 27, 1958

Launched: September 22, 1959

Commissioned: April 11, 1960

Decommissioned: May 25, 1984

Builder: Electric Boat Co., Groton, Conn.

Propulsion system: one S5W nuclear reactor

Propellers: one

Length: 381.6 feet (116.3 meters)

Beam: 33.1 feet (10.1 meters)

Draft: 28.9 feet (8.8 meters)

Displacement: approx. 6,700 tons submerged

Speed: Surfaced: 15 knots, Submerged: 20 knots

Armament: 16 vertical tubes for Polaris missiles, six 21” torpedo tubes

Crew: 12 Officers and 128 Enlisted (two crews)

Decommissioned on May 25, 1984, and stricken from the Navy list on December 16, 1985, the PATRICK HENRY spent the next years at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Bremerton, Wash., awaiting to be disposed of through the Navy’s Nuclear Powered Ship and Submarine Recycling Program. Recycling of the PATRICK HENRY was finished on August 31, 1997.

Admiral Rickover records the most appropriate epitaph that captured the essence of the man:

“Jefferson said of him that “he was as well suited to the times as any man ever was, and it is not now easy to say what we should have done without Patrick Henry. He was far above all in maintaining the spirit of Revolution.””

The same can be said of the submarine Patrick Henry. It was as well suited to its times as its namesake. America was at the most critical point in the history of the first Cold War and boats of the 598 class were revolutionary in their design and development. The crews that maintained and sailed these proud vessels are true American Patriots. When the times came for them to offer all, they resoundingly demonstrated their willingness to give their lives for their own and the liberty of millions. Hand Salute.

Mister Mac


This link will take you to a really special treat:


AT CONTROLS; Off Groton CT., Admiral Hyman Rickover, right, chief of the Navy’s atomic ship program, and Dr. Edward Teller, noted physicist, were photographed at the controls of the nuclear submarine Patrick Henry (SSBN-599) Saturday, 15 August 1960.




5 thoughts on “USS Patrick Henry SSBN 599 – Give Me Liberty or Give Me death!

  1. Great article about one of our founding fathers but the picture of the 599 in dock is not the Los Alamos. The scenery in the background looks good for Scotland but,,, No appearant gantry deck, wrong cranes, no where near wide enough for an Essex class carrier and a few other oddities. I spent 8+ years in the Loch. 3 of which I was assigned to the Los Alamos and was in charge of an over haul in PNSY. Looks like an AFDM.

    1. Thanks for the feedback. The picture in dock comes from the official Navy source page with the name Patrick Henry in drydock. The background looks an awful lot like the Scotland I remember when I was the Docking Officer on the AFDB 7. I could be wrong. But one thing I learned as the last historian on the dock with access to many of the old pictures is that the dock changed a number of times through the years. I have a very good friend who was on the MCB 4 Team that assembled the dock and both of us have had a few really good discussions about the transformation she made from the early days. One of our shared stories is located here :

      To my old eyes (again as a Docking Officer) the size and scope seem appropriate. But you could be right. Just not sure where the picture would have been taken. I will definitely keep looking.

  2. The reason I feel so adamant about this probably being the USS Sustain AFDM-7 is the cranes. We still had the original 30tn Whirley Gantry Cranes in 1981. A lot of time in and stories (funny & bad) about those cranes. The housing on the hills in the background didn’t exist, even today. The question I need to answer is where was the Sustain & Henry together if at all. Regardless, I do enjoy reading your stories and all the pics that go along with them. Maybe we can get a cup of coffee somewhere down the line and swap sea stories.

  3. I spent several years in Guam on the tender and making patrols, and the background could be of Guam. Looking at the people in the picture of the drydock, they are all wearing short sleeves. I have also been to Holy Loch for several years of patrols and given a choice between the two, I would pick Guam.

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