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Vice Admiral Eugene P. Wilkinson, USN (Ret.) (1918-2013)

Based on five interviews conducted by Paul Stillwell in January 1998, the volume contains 436 pages of interview transcript plus a comprehensive index. The transcript is copyright 2006 by the U.S. Naval Institute; the interviewee placed no restrictions on its use.

This memoir reveals a great deal about the character and personality of one of the U.S. Navy’s pioneers—the first officer to command a nuclear-powered submarine and the first to command a nuclear-powered surface ship. The interviews reveal Wilkinson's competitiveness, sense of obligation to fulfill commitments, leadership qualities, and his methods in interpersonal relationships. He grew up in California in the 1920s and 1930s, graduated from San Diego State College at age 19, and was commissioned as a Naval Reserve officer through the V-7 program in 1940.  After nearly a year’s service in the heavy cruiser USS Louisville (CA-28), he completed Submarine School in early 1942. His World War II submarine service was in the USS R-10 (SS-87), Blackfish (SS-221), and Darter (SS-227).  The latter played a significant role in the 1944 Battle of Leyte Gulf.  In early 1945 he taught in the Prospective Commanding Officer (PCO) course at Submarine School. Later in the 1940s he was executive officer of the USS Menhaden (SS-377), Raton (SS-270), and Cusk (SSG-348) before getting in on the ground floor of the Navy’s nuclear power program.

In the early 1950s Wilkinson commanded the diesel submarines USS Volador (SS-490), Wahoo (SS-565), and Sea Robin (SS-407).  From 1953 to 1957 he was PCO and then commanding officer of the nuclear submarine USS Nautilus (SSN-571). After a tour as a student at the Naval War College, he commanded Submarine Division 102, the first division of nuclear-powered ships. From 1959 to 1963 was PCO and then commanding officer of the cruiser USS Long Beach (CGN-9), the Navy’s first nuclear-powered surface ship. As a rear admiral Wilkinson served from 1963 to 1966 as Director, Submarine Warfare Division, OP-31, in OpNav, from 1966 to 1969 was Chief of Staff, U.S. Forces Japan, and in 1969-70 was Commander Submarine Flotilla Two.  In the early 1970s he had two three-star billets, as Commander Submarine Force Atlantic Fleet and as Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Submarine Warfare), OP-02. Following his retirement from active duty in 1974, he worked in private industry, most notably as head of the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations. Because of Wilkinson’s role in the nuclear power program, his oral history contains a great many of his observations on Admiral Hyman G. Rickover.

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

In this clip, from his second of five interviews at his home in Del Mar, California, in January 1998, Vice Admiral Wilkinson relates how Admiral Rickover involved contractors in building the reactor for the Nautilus.

Admiral Wilkinson: Rickover was very eager to get a contract let with industry instead of having a national laboratory work on something. Rickover realized that no national laboratory would ever actually be the one to build hardware. So he got the Electric Boat Company involved, the Westinghouse Company, the General Electric Company, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. The Electric Boat Company and the naval shipyard would be the ship constructors, and General Electric and Westinghouse as component and nuclear reactor developers. General Electric followed after Westinghouse. Westinghouse was first.

Westinghouse had the responsibility of developing the thermal energy neutron water-cooled reactor, which was what was built in the prototype at Idaho and in the Nautilus. But Rickover used an arguing point when talking to Congress. Referring to me, he said, "Listen, this poor dumb line officer has shown that the work the national laboratory did was wrong." That wasn't really quite fair. I had just continued on and found out some of the things they did were wrong [laughter] and corrected them. But Rickover used that to make his point that he needed to get industry involved. He had his way, and Westinghouse was given a contract.

The Pittsburgh area office was set up, and Rickover sent me there as the operations officer. I wrote my own job code description: "As the operations officer of the Pittsburgh area office, you are responsible for the technical program." So that gave me a lot of insight in dealings with Westinghouse in the development that was to follow during the rest of time at Pittsburgh.


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