Eyewitness to history: Who was Elton C. Fay?

Eyewitness to history: Who was Elton C. Fay?

Elton C. Fay, was an Associated Press reporter who covered the Pentagon from the days of World War II to the Vietnam War. His death was recorded in a common obituary and stated that he died at his Silver Spring, Md., home after a long illness. He was 81. (September 1, 1982)

I originally got interested about him when I found the article below about the hectic days before the Nautilus was completed. But the more I researched, the more I realized what an interesting life he had. There is not much available about his private life other than some social events recorded in the newspaper archives. But it was his work with the military that made him such an interesting person.

Fay was one of only a few reporters who was briefed before Gen. Jimmy Doolittle’s bombing raids on Japan in April 1942. Throughout the rest of the war, you could find articles in the archives about many of the key events of the war. It was obvious that someone in authority trusted him enough to allow him to have access to some of the most significant events of the period between 1932 and his retirement in 1966.

Fay joined the news service in Albany, N.Y., and moved to Washington in 1932, covering the old Navy Department. He shifted to the Pentagon when that building complex was completed in 1942.

Following World War II, Fay covered some of the United States’ atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atolls in the Pacific. He was also the method that many of the post war weapons systems and programs were communicated to the public. That included an unprecedented amount of access to chronicle the building of the first nuclear submarine Nautilus.

As I was reading the article today, a thought occurred to me. Hyman G. Rockover was born in the year 2000 instead of 1900? Even though that would only make him nineteen years of age, how would he have progressed in the current Navy?

Even more interesting of a question is how this story would be different if the technology of today was available during the time period when the story was written. As you read the article, give that some consideration.


The Key West Citizen. (Key West, Fla.) April 06, 1953, Image 10

Building of Atomic Sub Is Observed By Newsman

(Editor’s Note: Elton C. Fay, Associated Press military affairs reporter, recently completed several stories on the building of the atomic-powered submarine, as he saw the work in progress in laboratories and plants across the country. When he returned from this tour, one of the first by a newsman, he set down the following observations on the people engaged in the epochal project.)


What is making the first atomic-powered craft in history? Is it just nuclear fission and engineering skill and shipbuilding art that will produce the nuclear submarines Nautilus and Sea Wolf?

Or is it also the almost fanatical urge and drive of a few thousand men fired by the spirit of creating something entirely new in the world?

You started out, by knowing just one Navy captain, intent beyond all other interests or getting an atomic submarine built, Hyman G. Rickover. But you discovered, as you moved around from one place to another, that the project was full of “Rickovers” hundreds and thousands of them.

He either had hammered his own zeal into them or it was contagious. Rickover spread the contagion. He kept popping up at near and far places, at unexpected times of the day and night, insisting on conferences, fast-talking industrial executives and workmen into greater speed, demanding materials, snapping angry arguments when there were delays.

Now all hands are obsessed with getting that first submarine in the water and out to sea under her own, new power—come hell or high water.

Recall the people you met or watched at the Idaho test station, at the Pittsburgh and Schenectady laboratories, at the Groton shipyards?

There was the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) official at one plant, the mark of weariness from months of overwhelming work upon him, still telephoning, hurrying, eating a sandwich at his desk while he signed papers.

The young submarine service lieutenant was landlocked in Idaho.

“Yes, sir,” he said, “it looks like this will have everything a submariner wants in a submarine. The crew I am training for the new submarine is picking up responsibility fast. No strain. No I don’t get submarine pay when I’m out here, but it’s worth every penny I lose that way.”

The women on the clerical staff of the project headquarters here in Washington learning the Greek alphabet because they should be familiar with symbols used in nuclear equations … visiting the place where a reactor was being built and a shipyard, so they would have an idea of what it was they were working at.

The rows of draftsmen hunched over drawing boards at a shipyard, pinpointing details. The boss says they insist on working overtime, but it begins to tell on efficiency.

Even the automobile driver for an AEC installation seems to have a remarkable understanding of the project.

The Navy Wave yeoman who cried from weariness every night for the first two weeks when she went home from her high-pressure work in the captain’s office – and now says she would try to get out of the Navy if they transferred her to another assignment.

The big company executive heading home to bolt dinner and then return to confer until midnight with Washington officials.

It is possible, even probably, that the Rickover technique has lost him friends and support in some circles, including naval. The Navy is an old and somewhat ponderous organization. It has prescribed patterns for doing everything, carefully set down in regulations. They do not include shortcuts to bypass superiors nor urgent persuasions and pressures upon industrialist – whatever the zeal of the project director or merit of the program.

So when Rickover’s name came up for a promotion to rear admiral as an engineering duty officer, the selection boards had no pronounced enthusiasm for slapping the star – studded shoulder hoards on the captain They passed him over twice. That, according to custom, meant he was headed out of the service, to retirement.

Many of the people with whom he associated thought Rickover should be a rear admiral —and so apparently, did some members of Congress. The Navy, now under new management, changed its mind, decided to add a billet in the new list of admirals. Not entirely by coincidence, the specifications for the man to fill that billet seem to describe Rickover.”

Technology in 1953

What was missing in 1953 was the availability of the types of technology we take so much for granted now. The sites where all the work were being conducted were separated by geography. Transportation was still done by train and airplanes between them. Communications were being conducted by telephone and documents were actual paper documents that needed to be created, transcribed, checked for accuracy and then delivered by either courier or a very old fashioned mail system

Slide rules and drafting tables were the tools of the designers and engineers. A simple math error could result in delays and errors that were at the high end of the risk factor.

Were there computers? Maybe. Specifically the IBM 701 – General Purpose Computer

The year 1953 saw the development of IBM’s 701 EDPM, which, according to IBM, was the first commercially successful general-purpose computer. The 701’s invention was due in part to the Korean War effort. Inventor, Thomas Johnson Watson Junior wanted to contribute what he called a “defense calculator” to aid in the United Nations’ policing of Korea.

One obstacle he had to overcome was in convincing his father, Thomas Johnson Watson Senior (IBM’s CEO) that the new computer would not harm IBM’s profitable punch card processing business. The 701s were incompatible with IBM’s punched card processing equipment, a big moneymaker for IBM.

Only nineteen 701s were manufactured (the machine could be rented for $15,000 per month). The first 701 went to IBM’s world headquarters in New York. Three went to atomic research laboratories. Eight went to aircraft companies. Three went to other research facilities. Two went to government agencies, including the first use of a computer by the United States Department of Defense. Two went to the navy and the last machine went to the United States Weather Bureau in early 1955.

Features of the 701

The 1953 built 701 had electrostatic storage tube memory, used magnetic tape to store information, and had binary, fixed-point, single address hardware. The speed of the 701 computers was limited by the speed of its memory; the processing units in the machines were about 10 times faster than the core memory. The 701 also led to the development of the programming language FORTRAN.

In other words, even if the machines were available, they were incredibly limited in their usefulness in 1953. The article talks about the many people doing administrative tasks. Today, most of those tasks would be handled by many less people using smart phones, PC’s and the internet.

Despite the reality of primitive technology and the obvious bureaucratic barriers in place, Rickover and his team were successful. The birth of the new Nautilus was just the beginning and changed the entire world of submarining. As someone who sailed on the first ballistic missile submarine and later the newest version (Ohio), I was in awe of the advances in technology. I can’t even begin to imagine what the new boats are like.

As I said at the beginning, I do wonder what it would be like today to have a man like Rickover turned loose on all of the improvements in technology including artificial intelligence.

Maybe a ride to Mars would not seem so out of the realm of possibilities.

Mister Mac

9 thoughts on “Eyewitness to history: Who was Elton C. Fay?

  1. Enjoyed this and all your articles…I hope this one leads you to look into the water-cooled reactor of the 571 vs. the sodium-cooled reactor of the 575 (my alma-mater in ’66 to ’68)…

  2. I always enjoy reading your articles, Bob, and very much appreciate your research in them…

    1. Thanks Mike. It has been a great adventure to discover some of the parts of our shared history that were “submerged ” in history. I appreciate the feedback


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