How fast will that thing go? The USS Skipjack Story

How fast can you go on a submarine?

Along with how deep, how fast is often one of the most asked questions once someone knows you were on board a submarine. The standard answer that was pounded into our heads in submarine school was in excess of 20 knots and deeper than 400 feet.

Once you go to your individual submarine, you found out how fast you could actually go. Despite the fact that you can’t “see” where you are going, when a modern nuclear powered submarine goes from all ahead 2/3 to all ahead flank, you FEEL the change. The sound of rushing water outside the hull is also a pretty impressive sound as the boat charges into the darkness.

I had the honor of driving a couple of my boats as a very young man. We were strapped into our seats and the “sticks” were just like those from an old fighter plane. You could feel your heart beating in your chest as the screw crushed the seawater around it to propel you into the deep. Every turn and every depth adjustment at higher speeds produces unique reactions from the boat. My favorite was a right full rudder… those that have made that run know exactly what I am talking about.

I can only imagine the thrill of the planesman and helmsman on the Skipjack on her first real test. A relatively new hull married to a relatively new form of propulsion in an uncharted combination. Each of the boats I served on had already performed these flying tricks long before I came on (or at least that class of boat). But it was still new to a young machinist mate fresh out of school.

You train yourself to listen and just do as you are told. Even with the feel of the vibrations and the gravitational pull as the boat turns, you hold the wheel steady. You follow the directions of the Diving Officer and do not hesitate. You watch the depth gage spin but you learn to ignore it. You have to have faith that the man sitting directly behind you knows what he is doing. Sometimes, you pray.

Looking back over forty seven years, I can still feel the rush. To be honest, I miss it. But I am not sure my heart could take the adrenaline.

This story is about the Skipjack, Admiral Rickover and a meeting with some Senators and Congressmen in 1959. It’s a bit longer than some of the stories I post, but it is filled with some amazing information.

Launching of the Skate (SSN-578) on 16 May 1957. Skipjack (SS-585) is under construction on the left. The Triton (SSRN-586) is under construction on the right.


Flying Skipjack

“USS Skipjack, SS (N) 585, which shattered all submarine speed records on her builder’s trials, has been commissioned at Groton, Conn. The sixth nuclear-powered sub, this 2850-ton under seas ship is the first of a series of seven high-speed attack submarines. She represents a union of the tear drop hull with a nuclear engine. With these two features, SS (N) 585 will actually “fly” underwater as an airplane flies through the air. She will be able to cruise submerged at speeds in excess of 20 knots. Every projection of Skipjack has been eliminated except her thin, dorsal fin-like fairwater (the submarine’s sail on superstructure). Her round hull has a minimum of flat deck surface and her diving planes are built into the fairwater instead of the hull. Skipjack’s top speed is achieved by means of a single propeller. All the other active nuclear-powered submarines, and all conventional subs (except USS Albacore, AGSS 569), are driven by twin screws. Skipjack, under the command of Commander William W. Behrens, Jr., USN, of Harrisburg, Pa., has joined USS Nautilus, SS (N) 571, and USS Skate, SS (N) 578, in Squadron 10 of the Atlantic Fleet Submarine Force at New London, Conn.”








APRIL 11 AND 15, 1959

Printed for the use of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy



The Joint Committee hearing of April 11, 1959, was held aboard the U.S.S. Skipjack at sea while the nuclear submarine was establishing new records for speed and depth of operation. The record of that hearing except for deletions of classified information is hereby made a part of the printed record.

The hearing of April 15, 1959, was in open public session for the purpose of presenting to Vice Adm. Hyman G. Rickover a special congressional gold medal in recognition of his achievements in successfully directing the development and construction of the world’s first nuclear-powered ships and the first large-scale nuclear power reactor devoted exclusively to production of electricity. The hearing also included a review by Admiral Rickover of the naval reactor program which is hereby made a part of the printed record.



Congress of the United States, Joint Committee on Atomic Energy.

The Joint Committee on Atomic Energy met pursuant to call at 8 p.m., in the ward room of the U.S.S. Skipjack, at sea, Hon. Clinton P. Anderson (chairman of the Joint Committee) presiding.

Present: Senators Clinton P. Anderson, John O. Pastore, Henry M. Jackson, and George D. Aiken; and Representatives Chet Holifield, James E. Van Zandt, and Jack Westland.

Also present: James T. Ramey, executive director; John T. Conway, assistant director, David R. Toll, staff counsel; and Edward Bauser, technical adviser, Joint Committee on Atomic Energy.

Vice Adm. Hyman G. Rickover, Assistant Director for Naval Reactors, Division of Reactor Development, Atomic Energy Commission; Comdr. William W. Behrens, U.S. Navy, commanding officer, SSN-585 Skipjack; and Carlton Shugg, general manager, electric boat division, General Dynamics Corp.

Senator Anderson. This is an official meeting of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. We meet this evening in executive session aboard the U.S. nuclear submarine Skipjack, more than 400 feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean and approximately 135 nautical miles out of New London, Conn.

We are present here today to receive a report from Vice Adm. H. G. Rickover, Assistant Chief for Nuclear Propulsion, Bureau of Ships, and Comdr. William W. Behrens, commanding officer of the U.S.S. Skipjack on the operation of this new nuclear submarine which completed its first sea trials on March 10, 1959, just 32 days ago. We are present here today also to observe for ourselves the operation of this outstanding submarine and thus obtain firsthand knowledge of what has been accomplished.

It was 4 years ago last month, on March 20, 1955, that the Joint Committee held a hearing aboard the U.S.S. Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear submarine. We met as a committee below the surface of the Atlantic in approximately the same location we are now.

Congressmen Chet Holifield and James Van Zandt and Senator John Pastore who are present here today were among those who were with me that memorable day 4 years ago aboard what was then the only nuclear submarine at sea. Since then five additional nuclear sub marines have gone to sea: the Seawolf, the Skate, the Swordfish, the Sargo, and the Skipjack. This is a marvelous record of the accomplishments of Admiral Rickover and his splendid team.

On behalf of the committee, I wish to say how pleased we are to be aboard this, the newest addition to our nuclear undersea Navy, and to have the opportunity to meet the fine officers and crew of this submarine and to observe them in their important work.


Admiral Rickover. Thank you very much, sir. I want to say one thing right at the beginning, and that is that each one of these nuclear submarines constitutes a complete task force in itself. Each of these ships is able, on its own, to perform functions which outstrip the requirements placed on it. Sometimes people ask why these submarines are so big and complex; why don’t we make them tiny? Some people would like to see nuclear submarines operate like air planes — small craft with only a few people aboard, dashing out on a quick mission and then having to return to some protecting ship or base. I believe strongly that such a concept is a degradation of the tremendous potentiality of these ships. In a large surface-ship task force the Navy makes a tremendous investment to get a self-sufficient offensive capability where and when it wants it, with a capability for staying there and doing a job. Now in the nuclear submarine, we have such a capability at low cost. The ocean acts as its protecting screen and as its armor. As a result, the submarine can be made all weapon, rather than part weapon and part shield. Therefore we should look at each new improved feature which is added to the sub marine as an increase in the effectiveness of this one-ship task force, rather than concern ourselves unduly over the fact that the submarine may be getting bigger than other submarines or bigger than some body’s idea of an underwater “pursuit ship”.

Perhaps I have belabored this point but I think it is an important one.

With this concept in mind we lay out the machinery in these ships so that the ship’s force can maintain it. We also provide installed spares of all important equipment wherever practicable. This permits the ships to stay at sea for several months and even to stay submerged for 2 months or more. It means we can operate throughout the whole Arctic region any time of the year and surface at will through the many openings or thin spots in the ice. It means that the ship does not have to return to a base for servicing after a few hours of operation as an airplane does, or as a “small” submarine with “aircraft-type engines” would.

The real significance of these polar voyages is that another large area of the world — larger than the whole United States — which was heretofore secure from war has now been exposed by these exploits. The entire northern coastline of Russia, formerly protected by the Arctic icepack, is now exposed. And of course the same applies to Alaska and to Canada.

So far as the ship is concerned, it is the fastest submarine in the world. It has made a speed of over (classified) knots. The highest previous speed for a nuclear ship was (classified) knots, by the Nautilus. These figures are classified. The Skate makes about (classified) knots. In this ship we made improvements to get it over (classified) knots. (Classified.) A surface ship often can’t make her maximum speed because of the variable surface conditions of the sea or because of heavy weather; a nuclear submarine isn’t affected by these weather conditions. Even diesel submarines are dependent on surface weather conditions to use their snorkel.

Our hard-worked diesel submarines now steam about (classified) miles a year at an average speed of less than (classified) knots. A small fraction of this, less than 15 percent, is totally submerged. On the other hand, our nuclear submarines are now averaging about 40,000 miles a year of which as much as 90 percent is completely sub merged.

Senator Pastore. Does the performance of the Skipjack make the Nautilus obsolete?

Admiral Rickover. No, sir; the Skipjack does not make the Nautilus obsolete because even the Nautilus is so far superior to all others constructed before it. The performances of the Skate, Nautilus, and Skipjack are making all conventional submarines obsolete. They are making perhaps 800 to 900 submarines in the world obsolete.

Senator Pastore. How do you account for the difference between the Skipjack and the Nautilus?

Admiral Rickover. The Nautilus is a two-propeller ship. Her hull shape is not designed for optimum performance submerged. The Skipjack, on the other hand, is designed to make maximum speed submerged. She has essentially no superstructure. You may re member when you came aboard there was very little room for people to walk around up there. Also, the fact that she has a single propeller gives her better propulsive efficiency.

Representative Van Zandt. What percent of your steampower are you using?

Commander Behrens. 85 percent.

Admiral Rickover. We are not putting out as much power from the reactor as it is capable of. The limitation comes in the machinery plant. Most of our problems on these ships, incidentally, have been with the conventional machinery and not with the reactor.

Representative Van Zandt. We are now turning over the machinery to its full extent?

Admiral Rickover. There are various limitations. At this particular moment our condenser vacuum is too good. If we were operating in warmer water we would get higher speed.

I would like to announce at this time, 8:26 p.m., e.s.t. on April 11, 1959, that the captain of the Skipjack has just reported to me that we are at a depth of (classified) feet, the greatest depth a submarine has ever been, and that we have attained a speed of (classified) knots, the highest speed any submarine has ever attained. This is the first congressional committee that has ever deliberated so deeply and so fast.

Senator Anderson. I am happy to participate in this second record- breaking action. The members of the Joint Committee are very confident that you and your team will continue to lead the world in this area. There is no argument about it. There may be arguments about other programs, but in this one there isn’t.

Admiral Rickover. I would like to thank the gentleman of the Joint Committee. Without your constant help we would not have this submarine or any other of our nuclear-powered ships.

Senator Anderson. More money has already been spent on the nuclear airplane than all the research and development money spent on nuclear submarines, including the cost of your land prototypes and your laboratories, and all of your research and development, and the complete cost of the reactor plants for the first two nuclear submarines; isn’t that correct, Admiral?

Admiral Rickover. Yes, sir.

Senator Jackson. I know the entire committee congratulates the captain of the ship and the entire crew for the very competent job they are doing in getting the Skipjack ready for acceptance during these trial runs and for the new records they have just established.

Senator Pastore. Would it violate any rules for us to say publicly we have done this?

Admiral Rickover. No, sir, not that you have traveled at a depth in excess of 400 feet, and that you traveled faster than any submarine has ever traveled. (See p. 24.)

Senator Anderson. That doesn’t mean anything in itself. Has there been any published speed of any of the nuclear submarines?

Admiral Rickover. The only figure released publicly is that they can make over 20 knots and go deeper than 400 feet. The British say one of their submarines made 27 knots.

Senator Anderson. There are reasons why a nominal speed and depth are given?

Senator Pastore. Are the figures 400 feet and 20 knots used because they are the figures for a conventional submarine?

Admiral Rickover. No; that speed was laid down by President Truman in a speech he made at the Nautilus keel laying. The President decided to say “in excess of 20 knots” and that is the figure that has been used since that time.


Senator Anderson. Captain Wilkinson, we are happy you are here with us. Would you care to comment on the operations of our nuclear- powered ships?


Captain Wilkinson. Having had the honor of taking you and other members of your committee on your first nuclear submarine ride 4 years ago, it is a great pleasure to be with you again on this trip. The Nautilus was the culmination of a major scientific effort under the inspired leadership of the admiral and was made possible by your support. Most of my Navy career has been spent at sea. How a ship performs at sea means a lot to me. It has to be reliable; it has to run far and fast. The Nautilus ran and ran. I could count on her. In the 4 years since she was commissioned, a lot has happened. We have in the Skipjack a submarine that is entirely different. It is easier to get at her machinery for maintenance, so that people working at sea in case of necessity can fix it and keep it going for a long period of time. I know that this can’t be done cheaply. The things that count — such as reliability, speed, maneuverability— they mean much to me.

It is fabulous that so much has been done in these 4 years.

Captain Behrens and his crew are to be congratulated on their handling of this new model that is so important to the security of our country.


Senator Pastore. As you build new ones you make improvements and you have to build and try them out.

Admiral Rickover. It is more than that, sir. A lot of programs that are presented to your committee are just paper studies, and you never can tell what will come of a paper study, if anything.

A few weeks ago there was an article in one of the Sunday newspaper supplements stating that a man had invented the Nautilus in 1946. Well, Jules Verne did it long before that, and Buck Rogers was using an atomic bomb in the comics in 1930. A mere idea and a little paperwork is not enough. There is hardly a single idea that is new. What really counts is to take an idea, fight for the authority to do it, establish the organization, find and train the necessary scientists and engineers, justify to Congress the large sums of money involved, worry over and solve the thousands of technical difficulties. Well, about $200 million and 8 years after the 1946 “idea,” and with the devoted efforts of many, many hundreds of scientists and engineers, and the active participation of many hundreds of companies, we finally had the Nautilus.

Ideas and paper studies alone do not solve anything. You run into no trouble until the instant you start the designing and development and the manufacture of the new items. Actually, it would have made no differences if Jules Verne had never written about the Nautilus. No matter what new thing comes out, there will always be thousands of people to say that they were the first ones to have the idea.

Senator Pastore. I asked you earlier whether or not the. Skipjack made the Nautilus obsolete. Let’s assume that the Russians had a Nautilus and we had one. Then they get a Skipjack. Would our Nautilus then be obsolete? In other words, it is not obsolete if you compare it with a conventional submarine.

Admiral Rickover. Right, sir; the Skipjack can make it pretty tough for the Nautilus.

Representative Van Zandt. In your new submarines, will you get any more speed out of them?

Admiral Rickover. I can’t answer that right now. If we redesign it, we may. Higher speed usually means more displacement, more machinery. You always hope for higher speed. Speed is important, because it may make the difference between catching up with a ship and sinking him or just watching him pull away. You can’t sink him if you can’t catch him.

Representative Van Zandt. On the high seas in rough weather, surface ships have to slow down. The Skipjack does not.

Admiral Rickover. You have been on surface ships and you know that in a rough sea you can’t maintain a high speed. I was on a battleship once that could only make 8 knots in a heavy sea, even though we were using close to full power.

Representative Holifield. How much could she make in a calm sea?

Admiral Rickover. Twenty-one knots. I think the Skipjack might set a record in a winter crossing of the Atlantic.

During the war we learned from hard experience that surface ships have to slow down in heavy seas. We had cases of the flight decks of aircraft carriers being damaged by the seas when too high a speed was attempted.

Before I close my testimony, Mr. Chairman, I would like to thank the Westinghouse people at the Bettis plant for the outstanding job they did in the design of the Skipjack power plant. And I want to thank Electric Boat and Mr. Shugg for the very fine job they have done. They have designed and turned out these fine ships. The Navy’s Board of Inspection and Survey has just completed its inspection of the Skipjack and I understand they found it in as fine a state of readiness for war as any new ship they have inspected.

What an amazing time to have been involved with submarines.

Admiral Rickover was rightfully awarded the medal for his part in pursuing the dream.

I often wonder if he can look down (or up depending on how you viewed his treatment of you) and still make observations about where we will go next?

Mister Mac


11 thoughts on “How fast will that thing go? The USS Skipjack Story

  1. This was very interesting and informative for this old man of 74 who Road the old diesel boats in the 60’s. Thank you for taking the time to keep us old guys interested and Informed of what was taking place while we were just having fun with the old boats.

    1. Much respect for all submariners my friend. We went where we were assigned and we have the memories we have. America was served well by people who wore the fins

  2. I totally agree about the statement on “all ahead flank, left full rudder”. As the battle stations planesman/helmsman on the USS Scorpion SSN-589 I can attest to it being the greatest rush I’ve ever had. Rode her 62,63,64. After I received my dolphins and promotion to QM3 (SS) I assisted in navigation. However, my fondest memories is singing some DOO-WOPS for Chief Mazzuchi who was the COO. May he and all the men of the Scorpion RIP. GOD BLESS AMERICA!

    1. People who have never experienced it probably read our stories and wonder if it could have been that amazing. It was
      Thanks for your part of defeating the Soviets


    1. As I write these stories, I think about how many good men we have lost already. Its always very nice when I hear from a son or daughter (or younger) that find stories about their sailor’s past. That makes it all worthwhile

  4. As a young battle station planesman on the USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN SSBN602 B I recall Capt. Erb ordering 30 degree down and full dive on fairwater planes (me) and then when the digital depth gage started singing Capt. Erb ordered Right full rudder. Squirming in my seat I asked Capt. ordered depth? He told me I did not give you one. Now I am scared….Then he ordered both planes on zero, then just like magic, we leveled off at test depth with a slight up bubble. . My faith in my Captain and my first boat was fulfilled to the max. God Bless all brothers of the phin

  5. I served on the Sculpin SSN 590, the same class as the Skipjack, from 1970 to 1974. I don’t know if you younger guys ever knew that the original speed record was done with a 5 blade screw. They were fast and they were very noisy. The 7 blade screw replaced it because it was so much more quite with just a small loss in speed. The “angles and dangles” of this class was legendary because of it’s length of 252 feet. It was like being in a sports car, especially when there was a VIP on board who wanted the experience.

  6. I qualified on the 585 boat in 1961 and she was my home until 1967. Great experience and the very best people, with one officer exceptions, that I have ever been around. What a ride!

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