USS James K. Polk SSBN 645 – From sea to shining sea

USS James K. Polk SSBN 645 – From sea to shining sea

AT first glance, the selection of James K. Polk seems like one of the most unusual choices in the 41 for Freedom naming convention. A one term President that resided over some of the greatest controversies of the age, Polk was President during a time of great internal unrest and much international intrigue. The borders of the country had still not been set in the west or the south and both situations threatened war and disruption. Slavery was still on every man’s mind as expansion was balanced with the introduction or prohibition of slavery into the new territories.

The constitution was Polk’s only defense against the internal struggles as factions continued to threaten the very existence of the country each time they saw the infringement of the federal government. But Polk held firm through it all and in his one brief term kept the country together and oversaw the expansion of the new country to literally grow from sea to shining sea.

James Knox Polk, born in Mecklenburg County, N.C., 2 November 1795, served in the U.S. House of Representatives (1825–39), was Speaker of the House (1835–39), and Governor of Tennessee (1839–41) before becoming the eleventh President of the United States 4 March 1845. During his administration the Oregon boundary dispute was settled with Great Britain, tariff was lowered, and the United States acquired the southwestern part of the country from Mexico. Shortly after the end of his one term as president, Polk died in retirement 15 June 1849 at his home in Nashville, Tenn.

From Admiral Rickover’s book Eminent Americans:

“That Polk was able to execute his entire domestic and foreign program is the more remarkable in that he was neither a charismatic leader identified with some great popular movement, nor a politician adept at manipulating people and events.

How he was able to resolve the great issues pressing upon him can best be understood by reading the diary he kept while in office.

The President emerges from its pages an able and astute administrator who approached every problem with a logical mind and a keen sense of political realities, who gained his objectives by stating them with precision and justifying them with well-reasoned argument. One cannot but feel that he understood the issues he dealt with better than most of his experts, whether they involved war strategy, military supply, diplomatic negotiations or how to get congressional approval for his measures. The nominally dominant Democrats were so rent by faction that every executive request was attacked by at least one element in his party, with the enthusiastic support of the Whigs.

Written for personal use, as a reminder of the official happenings crowding his overfull days, the diary gives an intimate glimpse into the Executive Office during a transitional period in our history. It was a time when, as a result of war, technological change, and the physical growth of the country, certain aspects of the democratic process and certain political habits had become outmoded, although the American people were not yet prepared to relinquish them. Take the fine old tradition that every citizen had access to the President. It had become an intolerable burden, for the business of the Nation was now so large it demanded all a President’s time and energy. Polk found that “no President who performs his duty faithfully and conscientiously can have any leisure.” He rarely took even a brief vacation and often had to toil far into the night to complete official tasks for which he found no time during the day, so besieged was he with people wanting to shake his hand or pay their respects, and with office seekers and patronage-soliciting politicians who, as he wryly put it, seemed to feel that providing jobs was “the chief end of Government.”

Or take the persistence of divisive geographic and ideological interests which, in Polk’s time, tended to take precedence over the national interest. So much so that politicians in all sections of the country indulged in the mischief of threatening to break up the Union whenever national action went against their parochial interests. The well-publicized quarrels in the Senate, which were caused by intrusion of these divisive factors into every foreign policy issue, were a serious handicap to Polk when he was engaged in difficult negotiations with Britain over Oregon, or sought by diplomatic means to end the war with Mexico. The American people and their leaders had not yet accepted the maxim we now take for granted that “politics end at the water’s edge.”

One cannot read Polk’s diary without warming to this thoughtful man of uncompromising integrity whose political philosophy, as he once said, “was not of yesterday,” but “formed upon mature consideration,” and adhered to whether expedient at the moment or not. Having achieved the objectives of his administration, he refused renomination in order to retire to private life. He died 3 months after leaving the White House.”

The burst of sun in the western sky and the eagle in flight symbolize the Spread Eagle Platform, on which James K. Polk campaigned for the presidency to which he was elected in 1844. President Polk sought and achieved territorial expansion to the country’s natural western borders. This vast area, as we know it now, encompasses nine western states of the Union.

The four stars represent the major land areas acquired during President Polk’s term of office – the California Territory, New Mexico Territory, Texas Statehood, and the Oregon Territory.

The field of blue stands for the unity of purpose among the several states and territories for which Polk strived so hard. Finally, the gold edge surrounding the field of blue reflects the foundation of a formal course of education and preparation for Naval Officers at the United States Naval Academy, founded in 1845.

The James K. Polk (SSBN-645) Insignia was designed by Ruth McMullen, wife of Commander Frank McMullen, the 1st Blue crew CO.

Benjamin Franklin Class Ballistic Missile Submarine: Laid down, 23 November 1963, at the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics Corp., Groton, CT.; Launched, 22 May 1965; Commissioned, USS James K. Polk (SSBN-645), 16 April 1966;

Specifications: Displacement, Surfaced: 7,325 t., Submerged: 8,251 t.; Length 425′; Beam 33′; Draft 29′; Speed, Surfaced 16 kts, Submerged 21 kts; Depth limit 1,300′; Complement 140 (each crew, blue and gold); Armament, 16 missile tubes; four 21″ torpedo tubes, forward, MK 14/16 Anti-ship Torpedo MK 37 Anti-Submarine Torpedo, MK 45 ASTOR Nuclear Torpedo MK 48 Anti-Submarine Torpedo ; Combat Sensors, BPS-11A or BPS-15 surface-search radar, BQR-7 sonar, BQR-15 towed-array sonar, BQR-19 sonar, BQR-21 sonar, BQS-4 sonar Propulsion, S5W nuclear reactor two geared steam turbines, 15,000 SHP, one propeller.

The Polk’s later life was spent as a SSN. Reconfigured for special warfare operations, and redesignated Attack Submarine (SSN-645). In August 1992, James K. Polk began a nineteen-month shipyard conversion that removed her ballistic missiles and deactivated her missile tubes, converted her into an attack submarine, and installed Dry Deck Shelters on her deck which would allow her to support special warfare operations. Upon completion of this conversion in March 1994, her hull classification symbol was changed from SSBN-645 to SSN-645 to reflect her conversion from a fleet ballistic missile submarine to an attack submarine.

After conversion, James K. Polk completed three extended deployments to the Mediterranean Sea, participating in numerous Special Forces and North Atlantic Treaty Organization exercises.

Decommissioned and simultaneously struck from the Naval Register, 8 July 1999; Final Disposition, disposed of through the NPSSRP (Nuclear Powered Ship and Submarine Recycling Program) at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Bremerton, WA., 26 April 2000.


Special Note: The Polk carried the MK 45 ASTOR Torpedo.

This weapon was a very interesting anti-submarine weapon that I remember well from my days on the George Washington.


The Mark 45 anti-submarine torpedo, a.k.a. ASTOR, was a submarine-launched wire-guided nuclear torpedo designed by the United States Navy for use against high-speed, deep-diving, enemy submarines. This was one of several weapons recommended for implementation by Project Nobska, a 1956 summer study on submarine warfare. The 19-inch (480 mm)-diameter torpedo was fitted with a W34 nuclear warhead. The need to maintain direct control over the warhead meant that a wire connection had to be maintained between the torpedo and submarine until detonation. Wire guidance systems were piggybacked onto this cable, and the torpedo had no homing capability. The design was completed in 1960, and 600 torpedoes were built between 1963 and 1976, when ASTOR was replaced by the Mark 48 torpedo.

This electrically propelled, 19-inch (480 mm)-diameter torpedo was 227 inches (5,800 mm) long and weighed 2,400 pounds (1,100 kg). The W34 nuclear warhead used in ASTOR had an explosive yield of 11 kilotons. The requirement for positive control of nuclear warheads meant that ASTOR could only be detonated by a deliberate signal from the firing submarine, which necessitated a wire link. Because of this, the torpedo was only fitted with wire guidance systems (transmitted over the same link), and had no homing capability. The torpedo had a range of 5 to 8 miles (8.0 to 12.9 km). By replacing the nuclear warhead and removing the wire guidance systems, the torpedo could be reconfigured for unguided launch against surface targets.

It was always a point of discussion among the crew about the real purpose for having such a weapon on board.

Mister Mac

3 thoughts on “USS James K. Polk SSBN 645 – From sea to shining sea

  1. I like this! I have only one ( piddling ) reply: Yes, the Polk was built with an S5W power plant, but, during the conversion from Polaris A3 to Poseidon C3, the pot ( reactor vessel ) was refitted with an S3G – Core 3. { point of trivia, but rewarding to a nuc }

  2. The Polk Gold was my first boat. If I remember correctly, it was 1973 -1978, R.F. Winter was the CO and Master Chief John Kunkle was my LPO. I was a Nuc Nub straight out of A1W Prototype. I was onboard when we came back to USA from Rota, Spain to test fire a missle. Great memories. Hadnt thought about the “Jimmy K” for years. I still have my plaque on my wall in my shop. Thanks for the trip back in time. ‘She’ was a good boat and i still have a lot of memories of “RotaRooting” on Liberty during refits along side the tender.

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