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Inside the Belly of the NAUTILUS, the First Nuclear Sub

By James H. Hyde

The NAUTILUS as she is today, proud of her illustrious list of firsts, secret missions and now a guide to life aboard a submarine. Copyright © 2000-2008 The U.S. Navy Submarine Force Museum. All Rights reserved.

"I’m not going down there. You can go, but I’m claustrophobic," says a lady not far from us. Typical response from people who suffer from the fear of small, confining places, myself included.

We’d just been invited by my brother (freshly out of the Navy) to step below decks and into the belly of a submarine. Not just any sub. The world’s first nuclear-powered sub.

I found myself somewhat sympathetic with that lady, and was a bit leery as I climbed down the thirty steps into the torpedo room.

But once coaxed below decks, claustrophobes find it amply spacious, their phobia back in its cage until next time.

We all look around in awe at how ingenious the interior design is.

The particular submarine about which I write is the NAUTILUS, now permanently docked in a special berth in Groton, CT.

The stairs leading down into the Torpedo Room. Copyright © 2000-2008 The U.S. Navy Submarine Force Museum. All Rights reserved.

A small building-like structure is built where a forward hatch once opened. It keeps visitors and the sub's interior dry on rainy days. Stairs within it lead below decks. I'd been an avid sailor all my life, but that was always above the waves. This was decidedly different.

Now taken for granted, nuclear power is to submarines what "Warp Drive" is to the starship Enterprise. As the first sub powered by nuclear fuel, she seemed a miracle at the time.

Propeller heads of the PhD kind working at the Naval Reactors Branch of the Atomic Energy Commission figured out nuclear propulsion under the watchful eye of Captain (later Admiral) Hyman G. Rickover, USN.

Once theory was engineered into fact, Congress authorized the NAUTILUS’s construction in July of 1951.

President Harry Truman actually laid her keel on June 14, 1952 at the Electric Boat Shipyard in Groton, Connecticut, across an inlet from where the sub is now moored.

Though she saw no combat during the cold war, she did engage in secret missions. Besides being the first nuclear-powered sub, she was also the first ship to sail across the North Pole under its ice. It was a Top Secret mission. According to the sub's Web site (http://www.ussnautilus.org/), on August 3, 1958, her Commanding Officer, William R. Anderson, let the crew know about the historic moment they and their ship were creating. He read a short, famous announcement: "For the world, our country, and the Navy; the North Pole."

While he was thrilled to be the first to make such an improbable trip, the feat would remain unknown until after the NAUTILUS completed her mission and returned to base.


Commanding Officer, William R. Anderson, who was the first to skipper a ship across the North Pole. Copyright © 2000-2008 The U.S. Navy Submarine Force Museum. All Rights reserved.

For its success, the NAUTILUS won a Presidential Unit Citation, which reads in part, "For outstanding achievement in completing the first voyage in history across the top of the world, by cruising under the Arctic ice cap from the Bering Strait to the Greenland Sea."

"During the period 22 July 1958 to 5 August 1958, U.S.S. NAUTILUS, the world's first atomic-powered ship, added to her list of historic achievements by crossing the Arctic Ocean from the Bering Sea to the Greenland Sea, passing submerged beneath the geographic North Pole."

In 1959, she had her first major overhaul at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, and after some training exercises, she set sail for the Mediterranean Sea and became a part of the U.S. Sixth Fleet.

The NAUTILUS logged over 300,000 miles underway, another record at the time, and served her country until March 3, 1980 when she was decommissioned. On May 20, 1982, the Secretary of the Interior granted the NAUTILUS National Historic Landmark status. She was towed from the Mare Island Shipyard back to Groton, where she is berthed now.

If you’re going to be visiting or going through the southeastern corner of Connecticut on a New England vacation, getaway or long weekend, I strongly advise making the stop in Groton to go aboard the NAUTILUS. It is a real treat, even for claustrophobics.


After of the Torpedo Room are ten berths, close together. The only privacy was a curtain submariners could pull to hide their bunks. Copyright © 2000-2008 The U.S. Navy Submarine Force Museum. All Rights reserved.

As noted above once you reach the bottom of the stairs you’re in the torpedo room. The sub has six torpedo tubes and two Mk 14 torpedoes aboard on display. She was able to carry 24 when on mission.

Continuing on, you find yourself in the first crew quarters area. Striking is how vertically close each bunk is over the one below it, but the bunks serve a dual purpose. The crew slept on thin mattresses, but they could lift their bunk to stow their personal effects.

In this room are ten bunks and privacy was had by drawing a curtain across the front of your bunk. When quarters are this intimate, privacy is nearly impossible anyway, but the curtains helped. In this section of the sub are toilets, sinks and a shower. To keep the space authentic, the Navy convinced ex-crew members to leave photos of wives, girlfriends and what have you taped to the walls. These can be found all over the ship.

As you go through the next bulkhead (a water-tight door) you’ll be in the Wardroom and Officer Stateroom. In the lexicon of the era, this was called "Officer Country." Here, officers dined and socialized, and when the need arose, held meetings. On one wall are various dials that let the officers know the sub’s depth, speed and what course it was on.

Just off the Wardroom are officer’s staterooms, in which there are three bunks, separate desks, and fold-up sinks.

Commanding and Executive Officer staterooms are across from the Wardroom. The one private room on the vessel was the commanding officer’s stateroom.

After these rooms come the Attack Center and then the Conn with two periscopes. The Navigation Center comes behind the Conn, where the sub’s position could be tracked. Next is the Sonar Room. Here, crewmembers could listen for any contacts manifesting as echo-like pings and small dots on a black screen with concentric green circles.

The ESM (Electronic Surveillance Measures Center) has the gear needed to hear electronic messages coming from other vessels. It’s here that they make the sub "invisible" and are able to eavesdrop on the enemy’s transmissions.
The Conn is where the sub's position could be tracked and in which there are two periscopes. Copyright © 2000-2008 The U.S. Navy Submarine Force Museum. All Rights reserved.

The Control Room is next and it’s beneath the Attack Center. It’s here that the controls for steering, diving and surfacing are placed. Orders from the Control Room are taken here by the Diving Officer, who passed orders along to the crewmembers at the helm and plane controls. Planes on a sub control the angle of descent or ascent.

Aft of the planesmen are the controls for the main ballast tanks, which, when filled with water, cause the sub to submerge. On the right-hand side of the Control Room is where the ship’s radio sits. Specially designed antennae were used when NAUTILUS was submerged.

In the crew’s Mess Area are tables at which crewmembers ate or socialized. Across from it are the quarters for the Chief Petty Officers, where they had a separate living area; a place where they could take it easy when not on watch.


The galley is small, but meals are served every six hours to feed crew members who are just coming off duty. Copyright © 2000-2008 The U.S. Navy Submarine Force Museum. All Rights reserved.

Finally, you find yourself in the ship’s Galley, better known to land lubbers as the kitchen. It’s small, cramped and enough to make the most patient cook crazy, but that speaks to the special breed of sailor who volunteered to serve on a submarine.

When you exit, you’ll learn that this is but one large exhibit in the U.S. Navy Submarine Force Museum. There’s much more to be seen in a separate building that harbors all manner of really fascinating exhibits about what life aboard a submarine was really like. The museum has done a magnificent job of collecting the items necessary to specifically guide you through the history of the submarine, and at the same time give you a rich education in these remarkable vessels. But that will be detailed in a future article.

Outside the museum are displayed a number of submarines, including a two-man submarine similar to the one used by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor.

With it are The SS X-1, an experimental sub designed to work in shallow water and the Swimmer Delivery Vehicle (SDV), that took frogmen, usually Navy Seals, to enemy ships where they could place demolition devices on their hulls.

It was also here where we learned that Navy Seals aren’t named after the sea-and-land mammals who share the name. Rather, the word "SEAL" is an acronym for Sea-Air-Land.

All of the exhibits, inside, outside and the NAUTILUS herself provide an amazing panoply of information that is not to be missed. This is one museum complex that gives you not only the full story, but also the experience of actually being aboard a submarine with a very distinguished service record of important "firsts."


For places to stay near the museum and the NAUTILUS, please click on the following links:
Groton, Connecticut and Mystic, Connecticut.


For other things to see and do in the Groton and Mystic areas, please Click Here.

The entrance to the U.S. Navy Submarine Force Museum. The red arrow points to NAUTILUS's "sail" and just in front of it, with the oragne hull, is the SS X-1, an experimental sub designed to work in shallow water. Copyright © 2000-2008 The U.S. Navy Submarine Force Museum. All Rights reserved.


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