Building the next generation of boats – Nuclear power in 1955

Building the next generation of boats – Nuclear power in 1955

The power and possibility revealed in the USS Nautilus was enough to inspire the Navy’s leadership to want to move more quickly into this bold new age. The challenge was to find a way to build the new boats using existing resources blended with the new technology.

America had proven its shipbuilding prowess in the war that had ended in victory over the Japanese and Germans. Shipyards were filled with experienced tradesmen and engineers that had built a massive Navy second to none in the entire world.

The combined abilities of the shipyards in America had created a fleet that was capable of crushing any aggressor. Everything from modern aircraft carriers to battleships were cranked out with amazing speed. Submarines were no exception. By the end of the war, the United States had built an astounding 120 Balao class submarines built and with an additional 80 of the Tench class ordered. By 1945, it was obvious that the need for the Tench class was not going to be needed to defeat the Japanese and 51 were cancelled.

As the post war analysis had revealed, the possibility of marrying submarines with nuclear power was the next evolutionary step. Much of the energy in the Navy’s leadership became focused on achieving the goal.

Albert G. Mumma (2 June 1906 – 15 July 1997) was a rear admiral in the United States Navy who played a pivotal role in the development of nuclear propulsion for warships. During World War II, he served in France and Germany with the Alsos Mission.

A 1926 graduate of the United States Naval Academy, Mumma served on a number of warships. He studied marine engineering at the L’École Nationale Supérieure de Maritime in Paris, where he learned the latest techniques of maritime construction. During World War II he served at the David Taylor Model Basin, where he investigated problems of propeller design. In January 1943, he took over the Propeller desk at the Bureau of Ships. He joined the Alsos Mission in 1944, and in the last days of the war was part of a 75-man task force that captured the city of Kiel, including the whole garrison of 150,000 men.

After the war he returned to the Bureau of Ships, where he was involved with the development of nuclear propulsion. Mumma was promoted to rear admiral in 1954, and assumed command of the Mare Island Naval Shipyard. He became responsible for celebrating its 100th anniversary. However, his most important task was converting the shipyard over to the construction of nuclear submarines. In 1955 he became chief of the Bureau of Ships, where he championed the adoption of the teardrop hull, and oversaw the design of nuclear submarines, cruisers and aircraft carriers.

This excerpt comes from a source I have used before. The focus is on the classes of boats that followed the Seawolf.

Nuclear Navy 1946-1962

Richard G. Hewlett and Francis Duncan

Building the Skate Class

On July 21, 1955, the nuclear submarine Seawolf slid down the ways into the Thames River at Groton, Connecticut. As the tugs nudged the ship to the pier, Electric Boat shipyard workers laid the keel of the Skate (SSN578), the first of a new class of attack submarines using the S3W/S4W propulsion plant. Although the two events were timed to give maximum publicity to the company and to the nuclear submarines, they pointed up a significant fact: that Electric Boat was the only American yard which could build nuclear ships. That fact was hardly surprising only six months after the first sea trials of the Nautilus, but it suggested an important step the Navy would have to take in building a fleet of nuclear ships. Once the Navy had decided to build a class of nuclear submarines at more than one yard, it was possible to apply the lead-and-follow system which had been common Navy practice for decades. In essence the lead yard designed and usually built the first ship. The follow yards used the design and experience of the lead yard to construct the “follow ships.” The arrangement avoided a vast amount of duplication, particularly in producing the thousands of drawings required to design a modern ship.

On the other hand, since no two yards had precisely the same layout or the same equipment, the follow yard could not blindly accept the design drawings and procedures of the lead yard. For the Skate-class submarines, Electric Boat would be the lead yard and Portsmouth and Mare Island the follow yards. The selection of Electric Boat as the lead yard for the Skate class was an obvious choice. No other yard, private or Navy, had yet constructed a nuclear ship. Electric Boat had designed and built both the Nautilus and the Seawolf, and the company had been working for months with Bettis on preliminary designs and mock-ups of both the S3W and S4W versions of the Skate. Any other yard would need months to reach the competence Electric Boat had already attained for designing the new class. The company’s familiarity with the design was especially important because the Skate class was to be built without the benefit of a land-based prototype. There was a danger, however, of placing too great a load on Electric Boat.

Admiral Mumma began worrying about this possibility after he became chief of the Bureau of Ships in April 1955. In addition to the two Skate designs, Electric Boat was also starting work with Knolls on the S3G plant for the radar-picket submarine. On top of this was the design of the new Skipjack class which Admiral Burke had approved soon after he became Chief of Naval Operations. The Navy would have to rely on Electric Boat for the Skipjack (SSN-585) as well. As a way of lightening the load on Electric Boat, Mumma favored transferring to Portsmouth the design as well as the construction of the Swordfish (SSN-579), which would use the S4W plant, while Electric Boat completed the Skate with the S3W plant. The assignment made sense because later Portsmouth would also build the Seadragon (SSN-584), which would be an S4W ship. Rickover, bristling at the suggestion, pointed out that Leggett had raised the same issue when the need for alternate designs for the Skate class had first become apparent and had decided to leave the design for both versions at Electric Boat. Since then the yard had proceeded to build mock-ups of the two plants and prepare detailed plans. Furthermore, in Rickover’s opinion, Electric Boat was still the only yard qualified to design nuclear ships. Transferring design work to Portsmouth would only delay completion of the Skate class and increase the already heavy demands on Code 1500 and Bettis.

After reading Rickover’s arguments Mumma dropped the idea. The differences between the two men probably went deeper than this particular issue. Mumma might well have seen assigning the Swordfish design to Portsmouth as a way of breaking the hold of Electric Boat on this activity. His action could also have been part of an effort to bring nuclear propulsion back into the bureau’s fold. Implicit in Rickover’s opposition was his determination that he would be the one who would decide when a yard was ready to build a nuclear ship.

The primary role of private industry in Navy construction was never seriously challenged, and the policy of the Eisenhower administration in nuclear shipbuilding marked no new departure. Of the seven submarines originally in the Skipjack class, five were built in private yards and only two in Navy yards.

One of these two was the Thresher, in which the Navy incorporated so many changes that it was eventually considered the lead ship of a new class. Although Portsmouth built the Thresher, most of the submarines in the class came from private yards. Industrial yards appeared to have a monopoly of nuclear surface ships. Newport News was already working with Bettis on the development of the A1W prototype for an aircraft carrier and Bethlehem Steel had a contract for the guided missile cruiser Long Beach.

Builders of Two Nuclear Submarine Classes

Skate class Builder
Skate (SSN-578) Electric Boat
Swordfish (SSN-579) Portsmouth
Sargo (SSN-583) Mare Island
Seadragon (SSN-584) Portsmouth
Skipjack class Builder
Skipjack (SSN-585) Electric Boat
Scamp (SSN-588) Mare Island
Scorpion (SSN-589) Electric Boat
Sculpin (SSN-590) Ingalls
Shark (SSN-591) Newport News
Snook (SSN-592) Ingalls
Thresher (SSN-593)


The evolution of the Fast Attack submarines would be overshadowed in the coming years with the birth of the Polaris Submarine program. Yet the Navy kept its focus on making boats that were deeper diving, more technologically advanced, and powerful. The nuclear powered Fast Attacks were about to come of age. But not before some costly lessons in safety and quality. The price would be paid in lives and treasure.

Mister Mac


3 thoughts on “Building the next generation of boats – Nuclear power in 1955

  1. My father had congressional invitation to launch the Seawolf in 7/21/55. He was on original Seawolf SS197 sunk in WWII all hands lost. He was on emergency leave burying his mother.

  2. I worked on the Boomers aboard the USS Hunley as31 out of Charleston South Carolina we had the floating drydock Alamogordo across the river from us and we did extensive amount of work as an MR always amazed by our nuclear-powered submarines in our Boomers

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