Keep Oral Histories coming through your tax-deductible donation now.

Admiral Bruce DeMars, USN (1935- )

Admiral Bruce DeMars (1935- ) was one of the early successors of the legendary Admiral Hyman Rickover in running the Navy’s nuclear power program. He grew up in Chicago and received his bachelor’s degree and commission at the Naval Academy, from which he graduated in 1957. In the following year he served in two attack transports, the USS Telfair (APA-210) and USS Okanogan (APA-220), before attending Submarine School in 1958-59. His first submarine, 1959-60, was the diesel-powered USS Capitaine (SS-336). After a trying interview with Admiral Rickover, DeMars attended Nuclear Power School at Mare Island in 1960 and then underwent training on a prototype nuclear reactor in West Milton New York, in 1960-61. He was among the members of the handpicked crew of the nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine USS George Washington (SSBN-598) in 1961-62. He taught at the Nuclear Power School at Mare Island, 1962-64, and from 1964 to 1966 served in the nuclear attack submarine USS Snook (SSN-592) during special intelligence operations against the Soviet Navy. DeMars attended the Armed Forces Staff College in 1966-67, later served 1967-69 as executive officer of the nuclear attack submarine USS Sturgeon (SSN-637). After teaching at Submarine School, 1969-71, he was a student at prospective commanding officers’ school. He commanded the nuclear attack submarine  USS Cavalla (SSN-684) from 1973 to 1975. For a few months in 1975 was Deputy Commander Submarine Squadron Ten until April of that year, when he suffered broken ribs while being lifted from a submarine by helicopter. From 1975 to 1978, he was on the Atlantic Fleet Nuclear Propulsion Examining Board, eventually becoming senior member. He commanded Submarine Squadron 12 in 1978-79, then served 1979-81 as OP-22B, Deputy Director of the Attack Submarine Division, on the OpNav staff. From 1981 to 1983 held three simultaneous billets while serving in Guam. He was Deputy OP-02, 1983-85, and from 1985 to 1988 was Deputy Chief of Naval Operations, Undersea Warfare (OP-02). His final tour of active duty, as a four-star admiral, was from 1988 to 1996 as Director, Naval Nuclear Propulsion, serving both the Navy and the Department of Energy.

Based on four interviews conducted by Paul Stillwell in May 2012, this volume contains 268 pages of interview transcript plus an appendix and a comprehensive index. The transcript is copyright 2012 by the U.S. Naval Institute; the interviewee has placed no restrictions on its use.

An index to this volume can be viewed here (.pdf).

In the following selection from his his first interview on 3 May 2012 with Paul Stillwell at his home in Alexandria, Virginia, Admiral DeMars relates a ritual hazing when he was interviewed by Admiral Hyman Rickover (1900-1986) for placement in the Nuclear Power Program in 1960:

Admiral DeMars: So I was ordered to the first Rickover interview. I’d only been on the boat like 18 months, just beginning to enjoy life. Went back for the first Rickover interview. It was in Main Navy, downtown.[1]

Paul Stillwell: Constitution Avenue.

Admiral DeMars: Constitution Avenue. Old, beat-up old buildings. Linoleum on the deck.

You had two preliminary interviews with Rickover’s staffers. Panoff was one of them, and the Supply Corps officer who was there, who was the toughest one.[2] Panoff was one, and—it’ll come to me later.

So I went in and sat down. I had barely compressed the cushion of the chair. Rickover was the first admiral I’d even spoken to in my life, or maybe the first one I’d ever been this close to in my life. He was a three-star then. He said, “Why didn’t you stand as well at Submarine School as you did at the Naval Academy?”

The other interviewers had warned me, “Tell the truth, tell the truth.”

I said, “Well, Admiral, I was married. We lived close to the golf course, and I played too much golf.”

“Get out of here!” I was probably in there 30 seconds; he threw me out.

So I went off, and I sat in this little cubicle for two hours. Finally somebody came in—you can’t tell who’s who because they all wear civilian clothes—and he gave me two books, one on math and the other on physics. He said, “You’re going to come back in four months and take an exam.”

I said, “Look, I’m standing one in three watches under way, one in four watches in port; I don’t have time for this.”

He said, “Just do what we’re telling you, jaygee.”[3]

So I went back home. I’d come off the bridge on the Capitaine, wet, cold, sitting in my little stateroom there trying to study physics and math. Anyway, I went back four months later, took about a six-hour exam, never knew how I did at that. Then I went back in for my second interview after this three- or four-month study program, I can’t remember exactly what.

Rickover said, “Do you smoke cigars?”

Now, in the back of my mind I thought: “This is going better already, this is going better.”

I said, “Yes, sir. I don’t buy them, but if somebody gives me one I smoke it.”

So he picked up this box, opened it up, pulled out this cigar, and flipped it right across the desk to me. I caught it, and he said, “Go off, smoke that cigar, and write me a report on it.”

“Yes, sir.”

When I got up and left, I thought: “I think I’ve got it made now; how can you screw up smoking a cigar?” I could hear guys coughing in other cubicles because they were actually inhaling. You know, if you smoke cigars you don’t inhale. So I fired this baby off, and it was drier than a dog turd, so I didn’t really smoke it.

So I wrote the report. I wrote, “From: Lieutenant (j.g.) B. DeMars; To: VADM H. G. Rickover; Subj: Cigars. This was once probably a very fine cigar, but I recommend you upgrade the storage facilities. Very respectfully, B. DeMars.”

So I called in this guy who I thought was a yeoman. I said, “Would you type this up? It’s something Admiral Rickover asked me.”

He said, “Oh, we don’t have to type it.”

I said, “Type it up.” And they’d never had people talk to them like that there.

I said, “Goddamn it, type it up.”

“Oh, yes sir, yes sir.” So off he went, brrrrr. Because I wanted it to look formal. So he brought it back in, I proofread it, I signed it, I gave it to him, and he went back in. Two hours later somebody came in and said, “Okay, you’ve been accepted.”

In this selection, from his 4th interview with Paul Stillwell on 24 May 2012 at his home in Alexandria, Virginia, Admiral DeMars talks about his unofficial rules for the successful management of Naval Reactors.

Admiral DeMars: I had some sort of management rules—maybe I’ll bore you with them now, just put them down very quickly—to run that Naval Reactors thing. I thought:

  • The boss must be involved in the details. I mean, the top guy has got to be involved in the details, and if you are, the other bosses that report to you are going to have to be.

  • Most of the money should go to the technical efforts. So it’s what I spoke about before, keep the project offices small, keep the technical offices large.

  • Beware of success-oriented programs. There will be serious problems, and if you just want success you’re going to get it, but it’s all going to crash on you.

  • Control of the contractors is absolutely vital. Use all means available—contractual, political, ego, threats.

  • Keep the top company guy involved. The top guy in each company has got to be involved. He’s got to know what’s going on with what he does for Naval Reactors.

  • There can’t be too much communication from the bottom up to the very top, and it must primarily convey problems, not status. You don’t want the status, you want problems.

Paul Stillwell: Admiral Kelso was pushing the TQL at the time.[4] Did any of that permeate into NR?

Admiral DeMars: No. We had a firewall against that. [Laughter] I didn’t think it was a good idea. I think every time you get something like that where you have balloons with it on it, and buttons, and all of that, it just deflects you from real leadership and real work. I thought that was a big mistake. And those things come and go, so you just ride them out. That’s why when you project “I’m a different admiral,” you just say, “No, I’m not going to do it.” They don’t know what to do. They absolutely don’t know. “No, I’m not going to do that. We’re not going to have TQL sessions.” Oh, okay. And they go away.

Here are some more guidelines:

  • You should have a headquarters rep at each contractor site. That’s very vital, so you’ve got your man there. And he writes you regularly, writes you once a week and calls you once a week.

  • Testing must be prototypical because the product tests are performed in the real world.

  • The boss must have regular meetings that get into painful technical details.

  • Look at first principles.

  • Tend the political base.

  • Always tell the truth, don’t oversell.

  • This is kind of a humorous one—any product that has real worth to the country will be over budget, behind schedule, and have exquisite quality in the final product. Because that’s the system; the system never gives you enough money. And everybody else sucks their teeth—oh, it’s overrun, blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. And sometimes there’s vast mismanagement, but even if there isn’t, still, you don’t have enough money. But you want the end result. It’s like when you redo your kitchen; it’s going to be over budget, it’s going to be late, but you want you wife to be happy when you get done.

Naval Reactors was different, and it took me about three years to figure out what it was all about. Most places in the Navy, when you become a department head you’ve been a division officer so you know what department heads do. You become an XO you’ve been a department head. On and on. When you become CO, you’ve been an XO so it shouldn’t be a great—for some people it is—it shouldn’t be a great thing. You learn it very quickly. But Naval Reactors—I thought about this a lot after I kind of divined what was going on. It took about three years out of the eight to figure out I really had a handle on this job.

Paul Stillwell: What are some of the things you learned? Or is that what you’ve just enumerated?

Admiral DeMars: Just what I enumerated, I think. Well, the vastness of the organization, and also how to deal with civilians. All of a sudden I was dealing with civilians, largely. I didn’t find that that much of a problem but, at the same time, I found out that the people working at the two DoE labs, they were more Naval Reactors people than they were GE and Westinghouse people. They were proud to be part of that, they worked their whole life at that, they would retire from that. And so you had to maintain that. The shipyards were proud of what they did, and on and on and on.


[1] Main Navy was the popular name for the old Navy Department building at 17th Street and Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C. The building remained in use from its opening in 1918 until the early 1970s, when President Richard Nixon directed that it be demolished. The adjacent Munitions Building was long occupied by the War Department. In 1943, with the opening of the Pentagon, the Army moved out and transferred the Munitions Building to the Navy.

[2] Robert Panoff was a civilian engineer who had met Rickover while both were with the Bureau of Ships during World War II. Panoff specialized in submarine design issues.

[3] Jaygee – lieutenant (junior grade).

[4] TQL – total quality leadership is a method by which management and employees can become involved in the continuous improvement of the production of goods and services. It involves soliciting inputs from employees and acting on them.



Conferences and Events

View All

From the Press

23 February - Seminar

Sat, 2019-02-23

David F. Winkler

3 March - Lecture

Sun, 2019-03-03

Stephen A. Bourque

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 140 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership