In the beginning, there was darkness. Then Captain Rickover showed up

Having served on board five nuclear submarines and having grown up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, there has never been a moment of my life that nuclear power wasn’t a fact of life.

Since returning to the area after my second career, there are many occasions where I run into people who either worked for one of the many companies related to nuclear propulsion or had a family member that was employed as an engineer or employee. Even my Uncle Jack Patrick was intimately involved with the program from the very beginning as a machinist for Westinghouse at a place called Bettis. Bettis, of course was an old air field near McKeesport that was taken over by the agency that ultimately created the atomic fleet.

So for me, it’s hard to imagine nuclear power and not think about the Navy and my hometown.

But it wasn’t always that way.

The story actually begins in 1939. Scientists had been experimenting with the idea of using atoms for powerful purposes if only there was a way to control them. Some that had escaped from Germany warned privately that the Nazi’s were working on ways to actually achieve such weapons and a letter was sent from Albert Einstein to President Roosevelt. Roosevelt was slow to answer at first but when action began on the secret Manhattan Project, it was strictly an Army affair. The Navy had a few observers but their input and influence was limited.

In the 1974 Book called Nuclear Navy, the origins of the use of nuclear power are well documented. But the secrecy and legendary proprietary turf war between the Army and Navy were on full display. General Groves made sure that all of the money and energy was dedicated towards the goal of developing devastating weapons. Even though propulsion for submarines had been envisioned, little to no effort was made to move forward on that front.

In August of 1945, the use of two atomic bombs seemed to change the world and its attitude towards future wars. As the Japanese surrendered, thousands of ships were suddenly canceled and the very need for a Navy was brought into question. Old forces that had called for unification of the services under one head (Army) reared their heads once again and the Navy Secretary was under pressure to prove the need for a force of ships now that Japan and Germany was defeated. The USSR was rising but it was not yet seen as the threat it would become.

Admiral Nimitz, the previous head of the Navy in the Pacific, was selected to become the new Chief of Naval Operations. He was a career submariner but also a visionary man. It was under his leadership that the Navy regained the initiative that would lead to a Navy that included this new form of energy. Fair warning: some of the names in the following section will not be more familiar to the average reader than Rickover’s name will be. But I would encourage you to do some research if you are interested. These people were true American heroes.

From “Nuclear Navy” 1946-1962, Richard G. Hewlett and Francis Duncan

The United States Atomic Energy Commission Historical Advisory Committee

“The Bureau Takes Command

By the end of March 1946 it was clear that any action the Navy might take on nuclear power would have to come from the Bureau of Ships. Through Mills and Solberg the bureau had good liaison with the Manhattan District and, through Parsons, with the Chief of Naval Operations. What the bureau lacked, however, was a strong advocate of nuclear power, such as Admiral Bowen. Mills, Solberg, and Parsons were convinced that, for better or worse, the Navy would have to rely on the Manhattan District. They were prepared to adopt Groves’s suggestion that the Navy assign a small number of engineering officers full-time at Oak Ridge to learn the fundamentals of nuclear technology.

Within the bureau, one of the officers interested in nuclear propulsion was Captain Albert G. Mumma, chief of the machinery design division. A graduate of Annapolis in 1926, Mumma had early distinguished himself in engineering and had been the first Navy officer in several decades to be sent to Europe for postgraduate studies. After two years at L’Ecole D’Application du Genie Maritime in Paris, Mumma had returned to the United States in 1936 with a new respect for French naval engineering and a strong conviction that sound technical training would be a key to American naval strength in any future war.

During World War II Mumma had specialized in machinery design and had been a member of the Alsos mission which had moved into Germany with the forward units of the allied invasion armies in 1945 to intercept any German atomic energy activities. Poised and intelligent, with a breadth of intellectual interests unusual in engineering officers in the Navy, Mumma had become by 1946 one of the most promising officers in the Bureau of Ships and a close advisor to Admiral Mills.”

“To head the project Mumma thought it was important to have a senior officer with broad engineering experience in ship design and development. For this position he proposed Captain Harry Burris, who had done an outstanding job in expediting the production of steam propulsion plants for destroyer escorts during World War H. With the approval of other senior officers in the bureau, Mumma sent his list to Mills. Mills had no trouble approving Mumma’s suggestions, except for one.

Without discounting Burris’s capabilities, Mills thought he had a better candidate to head the Oak Ridge group in Captain Hyman G. Rickover.

Just forty-six years old, Rickover had a good technical background. An Annapolis graduate in 1922, he had earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering at Columbia University in 1929 and was qualified to command submarines. Following several assignments to sea duty as chief engineer of the battleship New Mexico and as commanding officer of the U.S.S. Finch, a mine sweeper on the Asiatic station, Rickover had applied to become an “Engineering Duty Only” officer. Men with this designation were still line officers, but specialized in such areas as electrical engineering and propulsion. To become an EDO was a mark of achievement. Those who were chosen, however, were barred from exercising command afloat. As an EDO Rickover had served as assistant planning officer at the Cavite Navy Yard in the Philippines. In the fall of 1939 he had been assigned to the rapidly growing electrical section in the Bureau of Ships in Washington.

What really distinguished Rickover from his colleagues was his performance as head of the electrical section. Driven by a passion to produce the electrical equipment needed by the fleet, Rickover had insisted on retaining in his section the full engineering design capabilities that had characterized most technical units in the bureau before World War II. Under the pressure of building the thousands of ships needed during the war, most bureau sections had delegated the design function to its officers in the field and had limited the headquarters task to administering contracts, inspections, and procurement schedules. Rickover, however, had followed a distinctive and much more difficult approach. He had assembled in his section a group of the best officers and civilian engineers he could find. He personally sifted through battle reports and inspected every battle-damaged ship he could reach to see for himself how electrical equipment performed under combat conditions. Working with his staff, he decided what changes in equipment were required. Then through close supervision of contractors he saw to it that the equipment was produced on time and, more important, to the required specifications.

Rickover’s severely practical approach, his tireless energy, and his refusal to compromise on technical excellence paid off handsomely during the war. His own inspections of the fleet revealed electrical equipment of poor reliability and obsolete design: circuit breakers that would pop open when the ship’s guns were fired, cable that would leak and carry water through bulkheads to control switchboards, new electrical motors built according to specifications dating back to the 1920s, and junction boxes that would emit poisonous gases in submarines when fires occurred. In addition to correcting scores of such deficiencies, the electrical section under Rickover developed fundamental engineering data on such subjects as shock-resistance and took the lead in designing new and improved equipment such as motors, generators, lighting systems, power distribution systems, circuit-breakers, relays, cable, and infrared detection gear.

Although the electrical section initiated, directed, and evaluated all these activities, private industry did the actual technical work. Rickover personally selected the contractors and worked directly with the responsible official in each company. He and his staff worked directly with the contractors in designing the equipment, and once the plans and specifications were established, he insisted that the manufacturers follow them to the letter. In the process Rickover established close working relationships with the major electrical equipment contractors such as General Electric and Westinghouse and earned the reputation of being a tough-minded, exacting, but reliable customer. On Commander Rickover’s word alone contractors were willing to start work on a new project even before they had been offered a letter contract.

By 1945, when he left the bureau to set up a ship repair base at Okinawa, Rickover had built the most creative, productive, and technically competent section in the Bureau of Ships. This accomplishment alone was enough to convince Mills that Rickover was the officer to head the Oak Ridge group, but Mills knew that many officers in the bureau would oppose the assignment. Rickover had anything but an ingratiating personality. He remorselessly pointed out flaws in Navy equipment even when they were outside his own responsibility.

He could speak with devastating frankness, never put personal feelings above his mission, and did not try to conceal his contempt for such military traditions as captain’s inspections or full-dress parades.

These predilections had sometimes antagonized Rickover’s fellow officers, but within the Bureau of Ships there was a more fundamental source of opposition. In insisting upon personal and firm technical direction over whatever activity he had under his command, Rickover took what often seemed to others a narrow, proprietary, and almost obsessive view of his responsibilities. During the war officers like Mumma and Burris had witnessed the development of an administrative system which gave the bureau general supervisory control over a vast empire of shipyards and contractors. The very size and technical complexity of the bureau’s mission appeared in their minds to preclude the kind of personal attention which Rickover gave to technical details. Instead these officers advocated what Rickover was to call “the systems approach,” which would provide the bureau with leaders who were not primarily technical specialists but rather officers with broad administrative experience in managing a variety of bureau activities. From the point of view of an officer like Mumma, giving the development of nuclear propulsion to Rickover would be a mistake. Mills’s action would place the development of the bureau’s most advanced and potentially revolutionary technical effort in the hands of an officer who did not accept the bureau system and who would fight for nuclear power with a single-mindedness that would ignore the bureau’s other responsibilities. Mills understood these arguments, but he also saw the need for prompt investigation of nuclear technology. Even if he accepted all these arguments against the Rickover appointment, Mills still saw it as the best way of getting a firm fix on the engineering possibilities of nuclear propulsion. In assigning Rickover to Oak Ridge, Mills’s only concession to his fellow officers was that Rickover was not to be in charge of the group. The officers would report to the Army colonel who served as the Manhattan District engineer, and the civilians would be assigned to the scientist directing the Daniels reactor project at Oak Ridge.

The Oak Ridge Assignment

Rickover arrived in Oak Ridge before the end of June 1946 with mixed feelings about his assignment. After twenty-seven years in the Navy he seemed near the end of a career which, despite his demonstrated competence, he believed would never bring him flag rank in the ordinary course of events. But Rickover possessed a driving ambition and a sense of history. He was convinced that nuclear power would revolutionize the Navy, and in this new technology he saw the seeds of opportunity. On the debit side, he was painfully aware of his ignorance in the nuclear sciences, and he did not need many days at Oak Ridge to discover that there was little in existence there which would be of any help to him. The situation was unpromising enough to suggest the false impression that Mills had sent him to Oak Ridge to get him out of Washington.”

History shows us that Rickover was the right man for the job.

He would use his position to hand select the company (Westinghouse) and the location (Bettis) to advance his version of what the nuclear Navy should look like. There would be many struggles in the years to come. But the story would change the course of submarine history.

The true challenge is what will come next. It is nearly impossible to peek behind the curtain of the capabilities of the minds of the men and women who carry on the work at places like Bettis. But I look forward to seeing what’s next someday. I hope its enough.

Mister Mac


11 thoughts on “In the beginning, there was darkness. Then Captain Rickover showed up

  1. Growing up in Mt Lebanon, with my family involved in the machine tool business since the ’30s I was always aware. I joined the Navy in 1968 on surface craft because I was too nearsighted for subs. Re-enlisted in ’77 and qualified on SSNs and rode the last diesel boat in the Navy, Dolphin AGSS555. Thanks for your story CWO Mac!

  2. I was a nuc electrician and a plankowner on the George Bancroft SSBN643 gold crew. Before the full crew arrived they sent about 24 of us (we were called the green crew at that time because they hadn’t separated us into blue and gold) to Bettis Atomic laboratory for two to three weeks to watch how they constructed the fuel cells and assembled the reactor cores. They also taught us stainless steel welding. I had a great time in Mecheesesport. There was one bar that all the crews went to. When my buddy and I first showed up. The lady bartender asked if we were navy. We said yes and then she yelled “blow the operator…not the generator !! That was our welcome.

  3. Mister Mac. Have you seen the book: “Against the Tide: Rickover’s Leadership Principles and the Rise of the Nuclear Navy” by RADM Dave Oliver?

    If you haven’t read it – get it SOON and read it before you continue. You will find a GREAT story about how Rickover ‘took control’ of the Navy program – getting Congress to push for Rickover to be selected to head the group. The entire book is worth the time to read it.

  4. Mister Mac – – have you seen the book: “Against the Tide: Rickover’s Leadership Principles and the Rise of the Nuclear Navy” by RADM Dave Oliver?

    That book is a great read – and early on – it has a story involving CAPT Rickover – grabbing a LCDR (with a graduate degree in Nuclear Engineering) – visiting with Enrico Fermi – and then going to visit a senior Congressman with a LOT of ‘pull’ – and how he ‘engineered’ being appointed to head up the emerging Navy Nuclear Power Program (rather than the planned use of a civilian appointee).

    Read that book …before you continue this series, if you can. It will be worth your time.

    1. The focus of my series is really the boats with a healthy nod to Admiral Rickover’s contribution to the 41 for Freedom. I will definitely take your suggestion under advisement but since there are only five boats left in this series, I will continue on course for now. Thanks for the suggestion

  5. Mr Mac,

    I always enjoy your inputs and insight. I served on my first boat USS Halibut SSN 587 from 1973 to 1976 so I know from which you came. Also was on USS Abraham Lincoln SSBN 602 Gold and USS Skipjack. Spent two years in Holy Loch with SSMS/ PMT on both Hunley and Los Alamos. Last boatwas as Plankowner/ A Division Leading CPO/ COB USS Newport News SSN 750. So I have as a lot of us been where you have been. Makes us closer as shipmates. Keep writing this good stuff.

    Joe Adair MMCM(SS) USN Ret

    1. Joe
      It is amazing how many times our careers either touched or reflected each others. I was supposed to go to the Loch from Halibut thanks to Captain Larson but chose to leave active duty and go back to reserve status for a while. But everyone deserves second chances I think and I got some amazing breaks after coming back on active duty. Docking officer on the Los Alamos was a fantastic challenge and of course M Division on Hunley tested me in every way. But all in all, I had a great ride. I will write as long as the good Lord lets me but the stories belong to the many men (and now women) who make up our Navy family

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s