USS Will Rogers SSBN 659 – Protecting the big honest majority

Why name a submarine “Will Rogers”?

I have been reading a lot of background material on Will Rogers in an attempt to understand why his name was included in the list of Eminent Americans (as Admiral Rickover famously named the men from the 41 for Freedom boats).

Many of the men who were chosen for what I consider to be a high honor were statesmen and warriors. From the beginning, famous Presidents and Generals were tapped to grace the hulls of these amazing machines. Then the last one in the series was named for a man who was never a statesman nor ever served in the military. To be honest, while he was famous for his day, I’m not sure he would rise to the level of importance in this day and age which would demand that a submarine or ship be named in his honor.

Yet, as I read more and more about his life, it became apparent that he was a perfect choice for the last boat. In fact, in so many ways, I believe that Will Rogers would have been a perfect submariner if his life had been lived a little differently.

If you spent more than a few weeks on a submarine, you get to know the unique nature of the crew members of submarines. In my long life, I have known many types of people. Beyond my Navy experience, I have worked for many companies and businesses as well as non-profit organizations. They all have a flavor when it comes to personalities but none are as uniquely distinct as the submarine force.

While adjectives like professional, bold, daring and brave come to mind pretty quickly, for those of us who belonged to the fraternity, other adjectives were just as appropriate.

Not to be blunt, but I have never been associated with a group of men who were more sarcastic, gruff, borderline hard core, funny in a strange kind of way and, well, blunt to the point of being painful. I suppose it has to do with the life we lived as well as the way we were raised up by the men who came before us. Submariners routinely make fun of things that are sacred in any other world and laugh in your face while doing it.

One of my closest friends from my third boat mistakenly revealed that he had a teddy bear that was special and had been given to him as a gift. I do not to this day understand why he revealed that fact but it was not long afterwards that the bear was kidnapped and ransom notes started to appear. This went on for months while we were deployed and caused great consternation as well as comic relief for the men who were involved.

One of the local newspapers was doing a story about submarine life at the completion of that run and the reporter somehow got ahold of the story of the bear’s plight. It ended up being a key part to the human interest part of the story. To say that the Captain was not amused was the understatement of the century.

When you look at the life of Will Rogers, he was a perfect submariner. No subject was taboo and no public figure was off limits. His popularity was such that national figures were completely within his target range. He held Congress in contempt in ways that had both the public rolling in the aisles and the congress critters seething. Will Rogers didn’t take any shit. That made him someone who I would have been honored to call my brother.

As I write this, I wonder if the men who sailed on that boat had a sense of who he really was.

I love getting the comments when I write and post this series because so many people come forward with private notes to me as well as comments on the story itself. If you served on the Rogers, please feel free to add your story.

This was the last boat built but Admiral Rickover keep the order of his book Eminent Americans true to the timing of the influence of the person who the boat was named for. I have tried to honor his work during the past 10 months by doing the same order.

I will say this. Having been a crew member of the USS Ohio, I never particularly developed the same sense of attachment to that boat as I did to the George Washington (my qual boat). But I know many great submariners who started and finished their careers well after the last of the 41 were no longer making patrols who felt differently. I am just eternally grateful to have done both if for no other reason so I could say that I had the experience. If I had it to do over again, I would have tried to sail on more of them.

But on to our story for today.

The USS Will Rogers (SSBN-659) was a Benjamin Franklin-class ballistic missile submarine — the last of the “41 for Freedom” Polaris submarines. She was the only ship of the United States Navy to be named for humorist Will Rogers (1879–1935).

William Penn Adair “Will” Rogers (4 November 1879 – 15 August 1935) was a Cherokee-American cowboy, comedian, humorist, social commentator, vaudeville performer and actor. Known as Oklahoma’s favorite son. Rogers was born to a prominent Indian Territory family and learned to ride horses and use a lariat so well that he was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for throwing three ropes at once—one around the neck of a horse, another around the horse’s rider, and a third around all four legs of the horse. He ultimately traveled around the world three times, made 71 movies (50 silent films and 21 “talkies”), wrote more than 4,000 nationally-syndicated newspaper columns, and became a world-famous figure. By the mid-1930s, Rogers was adored by the American people, and was the top-paid movie star in Hollywood at the time. On an around-the-world trip with aviator Wiley Post, Rogers died when their small airplane crashed near Barrow, Alaska Territory in 1935.


Picture Caption: A UGM-73 Poseidon C-3 submarine-launched ballistic missile is launched from the nuclear-powered ballistic missile Will Rogers (SSBN-659) on 20 May 1986. This is the 81st launch of a Poseidon missile and the 61st from a submarine.

Namesake: Will Rogers (1879–1935), an American humorist

Awarded: 29 July 1963

Builder: General Dynamics Electric Boat, Groton, Connecticut

Laid down: 20 March 1965

Launched: 21 July 1966

Sponsored by: Muriel Buck Humphrey

Commissioned: 1 April 1967

Decommissioned: 12 April 1993

Struck: 12 April 1993

Fate: Scrapping via Ship and Submarine Recycling Program begun 2 November 1993, completed 12 August 1994

Status: Recycled

Class and type: Benjamin Franklin-class nuclear-powered fleet ballistic missile submarine

Displacement: 7,320 tons surfaced

8,220 tons submerged

Length: 425 ft (130 m)

Beam: 33 ft (10 m)

Draft: 31 ft 4 in (9.55 m)

Installed power: 15,000 shp (11,185 kW)

Propulsion: One S5W pressurized-water nuclear reactor, later replaced by one S3G reactor; two geared steam turbines; one shaft

Speed: 16 knots (30 km/h; 18 mph) surfaced

Over 20 knots (37 km/h; 23 mph) submerged

Test depth: greater than 400 ft (120 m) (classified)

Complement: Two crews (Blue Crew and Gold crew) of 140 each

Armament: 16 × ballistic missile tubes, each with one Polaris, later Poseidon

4 × 21 in (530 mm) torpedo tubes

Following shakedown, Will Rogers culminated her initial training and work-up by conducting a successful Polaris ballistic missile launch on the Atlantic Missile Range off Cape Kennedy, Florida, on 31 July 1967. In October 1967, she began her first strategic deterrent patrol.

Will Rogers was based at Groton until 1974 when she shifted to a forward deployment at Naval Station Rota, Spain. Around this time, she was converted to carry Poseidon ballistic missiles, and her nuclear reactor was modified to use an S3G core 3. She conducted additional deterrent deployments from Rota into 1978, bringing the total number of patrols she had conducted to 35.

From the latter half of 1978 until November 1991 Will Rogers was forward deployed at Site One in Holy Loch, Scotland. On 9 November 1991, Will Rogers departed Site One, the last submarine to leave Holy Loch before Submarine Squadron 14, which had been based there, was deactivated.

About the man from the eyes of Admiral Rickover in his book Eminent Americans:

NAMED FOR Will Rogers (1879—1935), the Oklahoma cowboy who became one of America’s most popular folk humorists. He was born and raised near Oolagah, Indian Territory, in what is now Rogers County, so named for his father, a prosperous rancher prominent in the councils of the Cherokee Nation and member of the convention that drafted the first constitution of the State of Oklahoma. Both parents were part Cherokee, and Will was named for William Penn Adair, an Indian Chief who was his father’s friend.

The only son of a well-to-do family, he was offered every educational advantage but never got beyond the fourth grade. As told in Will’s autobiography, his father “tried terribly hard to make something” of him, sending him to “about every school in that part of the country.” Will, who hated school and loved the outdoor life on the ranch, seldom lasted more than 4 months at any one of them before deciding that the teachers weren’t “running the school right, and rather than have the school stop,” he would leave. Though he joked about the tricks he used to avoid schooling, Will did not recommend them to others. “I have regretted all my life,” he would say, “that I did not at least take a chance on the fifth grade.” When he left home at 19, to make his own way, he had little formal education but was an expert cowpuncher and lariat thrower. Neither he nor anyone else could have foreseen that these skills would open the door to a highly successful career.

He began modestly enough as a cowhand on ranches in Texas and Oklahoma. Wanting to see the world, he worked his way on cattle boats, roped mules in Argentina, and broke horses for the British army in South Africa. It was there, in Johannesburg, that he got his start in show business. He joined Texas Jack’s Wild West Show as a rope artist and trick rider. Calling himself “The Cherokee Kid,” he toured South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand for 3 years. On his return to the United States in 1905, he appeared regularly in Wild West circuses and on the vaudeville circuit.

Quite by accident, Will discovered he had a gift for making witty impromptu remarks which kept his audience in paroxysms of laughter and greatly enhanced the popularity of his rope tricks. When he joined the Ziegfeld Follies in 1915, he was an instantaneous success though, to hear him tell it, he “was the least known member of the entire aggregation,” doing his “little specialty with a rope and telling jokes on national affairs, just a very ordinary little vaudeville act by chance sandwiched in among this great array.”

From the stage Will moved to screen and radio, becoming one of the highest paid performers of his time. His rope tricks had given him a start but what made him a success was his talent as a humorist.

He was a humorist, not merely a comedian. He wrote his own lines and it was their content no less than his inimitable delivery that appealed to the public. This is why he could progress from Showmanship to authorship. In 1922 he became a newspaper columnist for the McNaught Syndicate, his column eventually being printed in 350 papers and reaching an audience of 35 million. He was the only syndicated columnist of his time whose daily comment was printed on the front page of metropolitan papers. In addition to his column, he wrote many magazine articles and was in great demand as a radio broadcaster, platform lecturer, and after-dinner speaker. His popularity was not restricted to the United States. He traveled extensively and met many of the world’s greats, but fame never changed his innate modesty, his natural and unassuming hearing. “I am just an old country boy in a big town trying to get along,” he once said. “I have been eating pretty regular and the reason I have been is because I have stayed an old country boy.”

He wrote for what he called “the big Honest Majority” and felt himself a part of this majority—the people who believed in doing right, intending to their business, and in letting other fellows alone. He shared with them a certain skepticism toward the men elected to public Office, a suspicion that these were not always doing what the voters wanted nor telling them the whole truth about the country’s position in the world. Will appointed himself reporter to the American people on the doings of the Government. His comments were sometimes sharp but usually fair and never wounding. Perhaps because he never met a man he didn’t like, Will was more lenient toward individuals in public office than towards groups such as the Congress or the bureaucracy. He shared with “the big Honest Majority” a tendency to deprecate the Congress, seemingly not realizing that it is the great bulwark of the people’s rights and closer to the electorate than any other branch of Government.

Will got the material for his comments from the newspapers, from personal observation, and from contact with people. He traveled the length and breadth of this country, taking its pulse, watching its foibles and follies, joshing it gently, and sometimes telling it disagreeable homely truths. Since he dealt mostly with contemporary events, much of what he said has a slightly archaic flavor now but some of his remarks remain relevant.

Here are a few samples, just as he wrote them, with spelling and grammar unchanged: “We are going at top speed, because we are using all our natural resources as fast as we can. If we want to build something out of wood, all we got to do is go out down a tree and build it. We didn’t have to plant the tree. Nature did that before we come. Suppose we couldn’t build something out of wood till we found a tree that we had purposely planted for that use. Say, we never would get it built. If we want anything made from Steam, all we do is go dig up the coal and make the steam . . . . If we need any more Gold or Silver, we go out and dig it; want any oil, bore a well and get some. We are certainly setting pretty right now. But when our resources run out, if we can still be ahead of other nations then will be the time to brag; then we can show whether we are really superior.” He returns to this thought time and again. “The Lord has sure been good to us,” he wrote. “Now what are we doing to warrant that good luck any more than any other Nation?” These ideas cannot have been overly popular in isolationist America of the 1920’s and 30’s.

Then, as now, Americans found it hard to understand why they were not as popular abroad as they thought they should be. “It will take America 15 years steady taking care of our own business and letting everybody else’s alone to get us back to where everybody speaks to us again,” was Will’s comment.

Another time he said: “You don‘t know what a Country we have got till you start prowling around it. Personally I like the small places and sparsely populated States. A place looks better before it gets houses on it than it does afterwards.” And here are a few shorty’s:

“Humanity is not yet ready for either real truth or real harmony.” “A remark generally hurts in proportion to its truth.” “You must judge a man’s greatness by how much he will be missed.”

Charles Collins said of Will Rogers that he was “the average American, as that theoretical figure likes to imagine himself.” His humor was in the tradition of Mark Twain, Artemus Ward, and Finley Peter Dunne’s “Mr. Dooley.” It was typically American in its determination to see things as they are and in its lack of reverence for established pomposities and pretensions. In his homely way Will made sense out of life as it is lived by ordinary men and women. And he made them laugh. He once wrote: “I have been over 20 years trying to kid the great American public out of a few loose giggles now and again. Somebody had to act the fool, and I happened to be one of the many that picked out that unfunny business of trying to be funny.”

The sense of loss so widely felt at his untimely death in an airplane accident showed that Will Rogers had done far more than entertain his public; he had touched their hearts, too. “

I would have liked to have met the man. I am glad his words live on in our culture.

I wish we had a guy like him in this day and age to settle down the people who occupy the seats in Congress today.

As always, thanks to the men who built the boat, sailed her and brought her home for the last time.

Mister Mac

9 thoughts on “USS Will Rogers SSBN 659 – Protecting the big honest majority

  1. I really enjoy your articles. They bring back many memories from my boat days. I was a nuc electrician on the 643 boat (gold). On one patrol the engineering officer happened to mention that he had a centerfold picture of his favorite playmate in his stateroom. Sure enough she dissapeared the next day. The EO offered a reward for her return.there were random notes sent during the patrol and everyone was looking for her. We spent alot of time field dating the engineering spaces! It was all very entertaining and a refreshing. It helped relieve some of the seriousness and pressures of the patrol. She was finally discovered near the end of the patrol.

  2. I was privileged to be on the last patrol ever of the 41, the Willy R’s last. Much as we struggled to maintain and operate those boats, I am in awe of the dedicated brilliance that designed them, and the bubbleheads that successfully made it an effective platform. I remember clearly the day we found that the Iron Curtain had come down, and East Germans were visiting West Berlin as relatives and tourists. Our part in that was significant. I’m proud to say that SSBN 659 was quieter and more capable on that last patrol than when it was new.

    Lift a glass to the men of the 41, and especially those on its last patrol.

  3. My boat from 1980-88, sailed with the Gold crew, then the shipyards and out again on the Blue crew. Many great guys were there with me. A great boat who never failed her duty to patrol the seas and bring her crew home.

  4. Many great memories from my two year stay aboard. Joined the crew in the spring of 1985 in Newport News Shipyard and spent two cruises with the Gold Crew. One on the east coast doing trials and one patrol out of Holy Loch. As a young man I was ignorant of the history of the boat or the man it was named for. Only recently have I learned about being part of the 41 for Freedom and now the story of Will Rogers. Thanks for your article!

  5. Thank you for honoring Will Roger’s. I truly believe he is the type of person who should be considered a “hero “. I did a lot of research about him. He was truly a great American. I am proud to say that I served on USS Will Rogers. I agree with you about Submariners. I served from October 1990 until December of 1992 aboard Willy R. The people who I met on her New were amazing people. Thank you again.

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