Admiral Hyman George Rickover, “the father of the nuclear Navy,” demanded stringent safety requirements and a powerful focus on quality standards. When once asked why, he responded: “I have a son. I love my son. I want everything that I do to be so safe that I would be happy to have my son operating it. That’s my fundamental rule.”1
Rickover lived up to those words, making a point to be personally on board during each nuclear-powered ship’s initial sea trials, and by his presence set his demanding stamp of approval on both the material readiness of the ship’s nuclear-propulsion plant and the state of training of her crew.
In his book Rickover and the Nuclear Navy, historian Francis Duncan wrote, “Rickover was responsible for the initial sea trials for the propulsion plant. His practice, broken only twice because of serious illness, was to direct the trials in person.”2 His presence at each trial was his message to the Navy, the executive branch, Congress, and the American public that he held himself personally accountable and acted accordingly.
Rickover also understood that ships must be funded by a budget-conscious Congress and approved by a president who often required convincing. He was a master at obtaining such funding and approvals for more than 30 years. One of his chief weapons in support of the nuclear propulsion program was the “sea trial letter.” While on board a ship during her initial sea trials, he signed virtually identical letters to be mailed to influential members of Congress, the president, and others whose support he sought.
Recipients of these letters evolved over time as national elections and subsequent presidential appointments changed the faces of senators, representatives, military leaders, and executive officials. Only one recipient—the admiral’s son, Robert—was a constant. From 126 sea trials, 111 in submarines and 15 on board surface ships, Rickover sent a letter home to Robert.
Robert is the only child of Admiral Rickover, born on 11 October 1940 to the admiral and Ruth Masters Rickover. Between Robert’s 16th and 19th birthdays, Rickover wrote six letters to his son from sea trials of some of the earliest nuclear submarines: the USS Seawolf (SSN-575), Skate (SSN-578), Skipjack (SSN-585), Halibut (SSGN-587), Triton (SSRN-586), and Seadragon (SSN-584). He wrote the first letter on 22 January while returning from the 1957 sea trials of the world’s second nuclear-powered submarine, the Seawolf:
We have just returned from the first sea trials of the Sea-Wolf. The ship got underweigh [sic] from the Electric Boat Company dock, Groton, Conn. at 0700 Monday, 21 January.
At first we operated in Long Island Sound, and then steamed out into the Atlantic beyond the 100-fathom curve to have water deep enough for submerged full-power operation at submergence greater than 300 feet.
The most spectacular test was the reversal of the engines from full power ahead to full power astern. I believe we did this in record time for a large vessel. Trials included operation at full power, surface and submerged.
The trials all went smoothly, and Captain Laning and his crew are, of course elated that their ship has finally gone to sea. We returned to our mooring at Groton at 1700, having steamed 312 miles, 212 of which were submerged.
I believe it to be no overstatement to say that the Sea Wolf is the most complex machine man has ever devised.
Your father, H. G. Rickover
The admiral signed his last sea trial letter to Robert from the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson (CVN-70) in January 1982, his final trial before his forced retirement.
In his book Eminent Americans: Namesakes of the Polaris Submarine Fleet, Rickover states he wrote about 80 letters during the Nautilus sea trials; the mailing list would soon increase to more than 600.3 Submarine trial letters to Robert continued with few exceptions through Rickover’s last submarine sea trial on board the Los Angeles–class fast-attack submarine Boston (SSN-703) in November 1981. (Rickover was at sea on board the Boston directing her trials when his wife overheard a radio broadcast that her husband had been fired—he had not been told.4)
While Rickover’s first six letters to Robert are penned in his hand, the next ship to undergo sea trials was the first Polaris missile submarine, the George Washington (SSBN-598), and from this time on they were typed. The only difference between the typed letters that he signed to Robert and those he signed to congressmen and others is that in the letter from the George Washington, Rickover precedes his closing signature with “Your father.” None of the remaining letters are so personalized; they are identical to those prepared for others.
Typically, a sea trial letter started with the announcement that the ship had successfully completed initial sea trials. The significance of the particular ship under trial and the number of nuclear submarines already in service might also be included; e.g., in the case of the George Washington, Rickover writes:
I am writing from the USS GEORGE WASHINGTON, our first of nine nuclear powered submarines designed to fire Polaris ballistic missiles. We are presently returning from her first sea trials during which she operated at depths greater than 400 feet and successfully passed her full speed trials, both surface and submerged.
The GEORGE WASHINGTON now joins our nuclear submarine fleet which gives our Navy anti-submarine, Regulus missile firing and fast radar picket capability.
By omitting “Polaris ballistic missile firing” from the list of nuclear submarine capabilities in the second paragraph, was Rickover goading Special Projects for not yet having the Polaris missile ready for the George Washington’s missile tubes?
During an early 1964 sea trial, Rickover for the first time included in his letter a biographical sketch of the patriot for whom a Polaris submarine was named. That letter, dated 7 January 1964, was signed on board the 17th ballistic-missile submarine, the Henry Clay (SSBN-625).
This ship, a powerful instrument of peace and the enforcement of right dealing among nations is most fittingly named for Henry Clay. Virginian, Kentuckian, American, his aphorism ‘I’d rather be right than be President,’ has become part of our political heritage. His reputation as ‘the great compromiser’ has been universally recognized, not as a yielding to any pressure to abandon principles but a constant desire to sacrifice the personal interest where the national interest required it.
The Henry Clay sea trial letter barely fills a single page, but by the time the last of the “41 for Freedom” ballistic-missile submarines, the Will Rogers (SSBN-659), returned from her trials, the letter with its biographical sketch had grown to three closely spaced, typewritten pages.
The sea trial letters from the first 16 SSBNs include no information about the life of the patriot for whom the submarine was named. The lack of such information conflicts with Rickover’s statement in the preface to Eminent Americans that such sketches began with the George Washington’s trial letter.5 Perhaps Rickover may be forgiven for the oversight. His wife, Ruth, died suddenly on 25 May 1972, and the book was published later that year. In dedicating the book to her, Rickover wrote that she “was of unmeasurable assistance in preparing the text.” Robert Rickover went even further, writing, “the letters [in Eminent Americans] were, for the most part, actually researched and written by my mother.”6 In the interim between Ruth’s death and the book’s publication, as the admiral drafted the preface, the difference between her biographical sketches and the content of his sea trial letters a dozen or so years earlier may well have blurred.
In addition to Rickover’s sea trial letters, the admiral often asked commanders of early nuclear submarines to include Robert on their lists of addressees for letters from Arctic voyages. Hence Robert also received letters from the Nautilus, Sargo, Skate, and Seadragon while at the North Pole. Captain Edward “Ned” Beach sent him a letter from the Indian Ocean while making the first submerged circumnavigation of the globe in the Triton, and Commander James Osborn mailed him a letter from the George Washington commemorating the first submerged launch of the Polaris missile.
The content of these letters is often remarkably personal. For example, in an August 1958 letter to Robert from the Nautilus at the North Pole, the submarine’s skipper, Commander William R. Anderson, tells of his historic first submerged transpolar voyage, adding: “I’m sure you realize that this historic trip was made possible by the brilliant and untiring work of your father in giving nuclear propulsion to the NAUTILUS and the Navy.” In another example, Commander George P. Steele, commanding the Seadragon in 1960 on a submerged polar transit from the Atlantic to the Pacific via the Northwest Passage, writes: “As the whole world knows, your father is the naval engineering genius of our time. We could not have seriously attempted this trip without the results of his work.”
Rickover’s legacy is nowhere captured more completely than in this archive of letters to his son, a unique career-encompassing reflection of the admiral’s heralded career as the father of the nuclear Navy.
More for Fathers Day:
2. Francis Duncan, Rickover and the Nuclear Navy (Naval Institute Press, 1990), 63.
3. Hyman George Rickover, Eminent Americans: Namesakes of the Polaris Submarine Fleet (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1972), vii.
4. Francis Duncan, Rickover: The Struggle for Excellence (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2001), 287.
5. Rickover, Eminent Americans, vii, viii.
6. Robert Rickover, email to author, 1 January 2015.