1954 – The year underwater warfare changed forever

1954 – The year underwater warfare changed forever.

This post was originally posted in July of 2019. Since 2020 is the year of the Fast Attack on theleansubmariner, I thought it appropriate to repost it with some updates. After all, it was the Nautilus of Jules Verne’s imagination that started the whole process.

And it was the Nautilus of the American Submarine Fleet that fulfilled his dream to a large extent.

How did the Nautilus come into being? Many credit the ultimate achievement to the sheer will of Admiral Rickover. What many do not know was the obstacles he had to overcome. This short excerpt comes from Hewlett and Duncan’s Nuclear Navy History:

“For an engineering officer in the middle echelons of the Bureau of Ships, Rickover’s intention was surely ambitious, but he had the advantage of supreme confidence in the soundness of his position. He began his drive for the Nautilus early in 1949 and with it his implicit attempt to transform the bureau into a new kind of technical organization. During the next four and a half years he never ceased to challenge old ideas and prejudices or to propose new approaches and methods. Inevitably opposition grew in the bureau and the Navy as officers and civilian leaders came to realize that Rickover’s bid to develop nuclear propulsion was likely to succeed. In the summer of 1953, with the successful operation of the Mark I as evidence of his success in technical development, Rickover faced the ultimate challenge: the Navy’s decision to effect his retirement by neglecting to promote him to rear admiral. The outcome of that struggle would indelibly stamp the later development of the nuclear Navy.”

History shows that Rickover ultimately won. The ambition and dreams he had were powerful enough to even overcome the bureaucracy that tried to push him out of the way. This is really about how his vision came to life. 

I’ve always found it interesting that I was born in the same year the Nautilus was brought on line. I have a close family member (now deceased) who worked for Westinghouse and was part of the team that worked on her propulsion. Living in Western Pennsylvania, I constantly run into people who had a Dad or Uncle that also contributed to her development at the Bettis Atomic Facility near McKeesport.

The Nautilus first sailed over 65 years ago. The technology she represented would forever change the way we looked at submarine warfare. But in January, even those who knew about her development were still not sure what the future of submarines would look like.

I found this article from the January 1954 ALL HANDS magazine pretty interesting.

There is a link to a video at the end of the story. Its 13 and a half minutes well spent.

In the January 1954 ALL HANDS Magazine, then Chief of Naval Operations penned this article about the future of the Navy

CNO Carney Talks— On the Shape of Ships to Come

Important statements concerning the status of the Navy in the world of today and the future have been made by the new Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Robert B. Carney, USN, who took over his office last August.

What are the upcoming needs of the Navy?

What is the shape of ships which will join the fleet in the future, and what is the role of the Navy in the atomic age? In a series of several speeches, Admiral Carney has touched on these points and on the continuing evolutionary development of our Navy that has made it the greatest in the world.

In the following paragraphs are excerpts, arranged according to general subjects, covering some of the points that CNO has made in his public statements which are considered of particular interest to the general reader and to the Navyman.

Evolution of Our Navy

The Navy of today looks almost nothing like the Navy of 20 years ago. The jobs that we have to do bear very little resemblance to the things which I look back on as extremely simple 20 years ago.

This era is somewhat akin to the period when the Navy developed a submarine diesel engine which opened new vistas for diesel power utilization in dredges, cranes, and trucks. This era is also reminiscent of the days when the sailing ships were confronted with the first steam war ships.

During those periods of transition, as today, we would have been silly if we had arbitrarily restricted our imaginations and so restricted our future capabilities.

We have no preconceived ideas as to what the fleet will look like a couple of decades from now. All we know is that we have a job to do in controlling the seas and we will use every possible “Buck Rogers” device necessary to enable us to discharge that responsibility to the United States.

This Navy of yours is not shackled by old-fashioned ideas; its thinking has been dynamic and its thinking has accomplished dynamic developments. Immediately after VJ Day the Navy went to work on the future. The submarine developments were gaining the edge over the defense against submarines; so the Navy called in the best scientific brains in the country and imagination was unrestrained. An old battle ship was turned over to the Operational Development Force as a guinea pig for all manner of operational tests of new ideas. The Marines went after the helicopter in a big way and have developed new assault tactics unheard of in World War II. The Navy has guided missiles in production. A carrier type plane will be able to carry an atomic weapon. We are working on faster and better amphibious types. We have developed tactics in equipment to minimize damage from atomic attack.

Vulnerability of the U. S.

All about us are the manifestations of epoch-making changes—not the least of which is that for the first time there is the possibility of actual attack on the Continental United States.

You may have noticed as you glance at a globe that the United States is in reality a giant island in the middle of the world cut by oceanic space from both allies and possible enemy forces alike. A closer scrutiny of United States’ map, the kind of scrutiny undoubtedly given it by envying eyes, reveals that within 100 miles of Uncle Sam’s coastal perimeter lie three fourths of his 16 major cities. Some 6000 miles of coastal frontiers lie exposed to attack from the sea, either by ship, aircraft, or submarines.


The submarine is here to stay, too; the only trouble with submarines is that the horizons of submarine uses are widening so fast that one hesitates to freeze a design for mass production as yet. They have proven potentialities as bearers of guided missiles; as the capabilities of the missile increase, so too, will the sub marine become more and more potent. Their use of nuclear power is, in itself, a revolutionary step and possibly only an infant’s first step. In any event, we must accelerate the submarine building program as rap idly as our design thinking jells into durable shape.

The possibilities of submarines are simply unfolding so fast that it is almost impossible to keep track, not only on our side but on the other side. This country [could be attacked] through missiles launched by submarines.

Inside Nautilus USS Nautilus (SSN 571), the Navy’s new nuclear powered sub marine which is expected to be launched early in 1954, is going to have something else unique to sub mariners besides her revolutionary propulsion plant.

Nautilus, which will be the biggest thing to drop beneath the surface since the days of the pre-war V-class subs, will have a mess compartment large enough to double comfortably as a recreational space.

Off-watch crewmembers will also be able to read and write at the mess tables without conflicting with the cook preparing the next meal. Her living compartments with cubicle-like sleeping spaces will compare favorably with such spaces found on large surface vessels. This will be a big change to submariners accustomed to the old after-battery mess compartment found on World War II Fleet-type subs. This compartment was jammed with four mess tables, scullery sink, galley, and other equipment into a tiny space that even a short-order cook would find crowded. Not since the original Nautilus (SS 168), has a submarine had two decks, but the new one will be double-decked and will have an accommodation ladder large enough to allow two men to pass going up and down. The new Nautilus will even have a small machine shop, sick bay, and laboratory in the “stern room” (the after torpedo room on Fleet-type subs).

The wardroom stewards will gain too.

Instead of carrying food half the length of the boat, ducking through watertight doors, they will have the food delivered via a dumb waiter from the galley on the deck below. – Air purification and oxygen replenishment in the submersible will keep the air clean for breathing while air conditioning equipment will cool and heat it for comfort. All these habitability features have been added to increase the endurance of the crew. Human endurance is expected to be the limiting factor to Nautilus cruising range. Painting and lighting will provide a favorable psychological effect on the crew. Living spaces will be done in more lively colors to eliminate the “closed in” feeling of cramped quarters. – Lighting will be fluorescent and special fixtures installed to give improved illumination on applicable gauges and operating instruments— an improvement over previously used overhead lamps that glared into crewmembers’ eyes and reflected off instrument panels and the plastic faces of the gauges.

The designers of Nautilus were fortunate in having increased room in which to include these habitability features. The additional space was available as the result of the increased diameter of the hull needed to house the nuclear plant. Although radically different in side, Nautilus will not be changed appreciably in exterior appearance, except for her size. Pear-shaped and streamlined over-all, she will have a bulbous nose that will allow her greater underwater speed.

The following video was made in 1954.

It is probably one of the best vintage pieces of submarine history I can ever remember finding.

Take ‘er down


The Nautilus sits not too far from the sail of my first boat, the USS George Washington.

When I go there, I always feel like I have come home again.

Mister Mac



5 thoughts on “1954 – The year underwater warfare changed forever

  1. Westinghouse Bettis was where the first reactor was developed for the Nautilus. For this reason the USS Pittsburgh 720 should be in the city. At least the sail should be in Pittsburgh.

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