With a simple radio message of “Underway on Nuclear Power,” on the morning of 17 January 1955, the submarine Nautilus (SSN-571) cast off her mooring lines and steamed into a new era. Although brief and to the point, the message in a larger sense bespoke a revolutionary achievement in naval capability. Today, the advent of seagoing nuclear propulsion is approaching its 60th anniversary.
The first skipper was Commander Eugene P. “Dennis” Wilkinson. He was as remarkable as his submarine, which I discovered during a five-day visit to his home in Del Mar, California, in January 1998 for the Naval Institute’s oral history project. By that time he was a retired vice admiral. He passed away in 2013 at the age of 94, his place in history secure.
Sitting with Admiral Wilkinson was a fascinating experience, akin to his holding court for six or eight hours a day. Often he would bring up topics when we were just chatting in his den or having a meal, and I’d get him to repeat them on tape. Sometimes he responded directly to questions. Other times he talked about whatever subject popped into his head, a stream-of-consciousness format that demonstrated how his mind worked but wasn’t necessarily conducive to a linear, chronological telling of the story.
I found him to be personable and cooperative, and an individual with a sometimes devilish sense of humor. He enjoyed playing tricks on people, and he relished winning. Since boyhood, Wilkinson was an extremely competitive person, as illustrated by his success at marbles. He practiced hour after hour, and, as he said in remembering the experience, “I always beat all comers, and I always played for keeps.” That was true as well of his prowess as a poker player, in which his skill was widely recognized. In the oral history, he said, with false modesty, that he was quite lucky. The real explanation for his success in many arenas was that he was shrewd to begin with, then worked harder than others to make sure he did as well in war games and other endeavors as he had in marbles.
Success in poker calls for more than having the right cards; it requires the ability to read people. Wilkinson was a master psychologist. One amusing example occurred during his time as a student in submarine school in 1942. Though he was outworking many of his classmates and doing better on tests, his class standing didn’t reflect that because he was still a reserve officer rather than a regular. He approached the head of the school and said he wanted to drop out, because he apparently wasn’t suited to be a submariner. With a poker face, he implied that his class standing was the result of his own shortcomings rather than a biased system. The skipper saw through the charade and fixed the system.
Another facet of Wilkinson’s personality was loyalty. One example after another in his service told of his sticking up for his men, so that they knew he was looking out for their interests and making sure they gave their best to the Navy. The old saying has it that loyalty downward produces loyalty upward. When he commanded the diesel submarine Wahoo (SS-565) in the early 1950s, for instance, defective diesel engines made operations difficult, but he didn’t complain to higher authority. He expressed confidence that his men could solve the problem, and they did. He believed that subordinates would outdo themselves to live up to expectations. The confidence he injected into them gave them a sense of swagger as well.
On top of these personality traits, especially the desire to succeed, was a great deal of native intelligence. In particular, he had a special gift for dealing with numbers. Captain Hyman G. Rickover recognized this and brought Wilkinson into the Navy’s nuclear-power program in 1948, even though Wilkinson was not a Naval Academy graduate. Admiral Rickover eventually established himself as the powerful czar of the program, but in seeking the initial Nautilus skipper, Rickover needed Wilkinson, a top operational submariner with nuclear-physics training, more than Wilkinson needed Rickover. Knowing that he was capable of continuing to earn operational assignments, Wilkison declined the admiral’s request to specialize in engineering duty.
One of my favorite Wilkinson stories was from June 1957, shortly before he left command of the Nautilus. On board was influential Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, and the submarine was due to arrive in Seattle at 1700. Harbor traffic delayed progress a bit, so Wilkinson, with his sense of showmanship, made his approach submerged. On the pier awaited a welcoming crowd, including a Nautilus officer, Lieutenant Ken Carr, who was returning from leave. A few minutes before 1700, newsmen asked him why the submarine was late. Carr pulled out his watch and observed, “They’re not late yet.” Then Wilkinson surfaced dramatically right next to the pier, blew ballast tanks, backed into position, and ordered mooring lines thrown ashore. As Wilkinson related, “Senator Jackson walked off the ship to meet all that press at exactly 5 o’clock.”
In hearing this naval pioneer spin out such stories from his life, I frequently observed that Wilkinson had a supreme sense of self-confidence, often to the point of cockiness. But, as Dizzy Dean, the great pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1930s, observed, “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.”