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.
"Iím not going down there. You can go, but Iím claustrophobic," says a lady not far from us. Typical response from people who suffer from the fear of small, confining places, myself included.
Weíd 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 worldís 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.
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 NAUTILUSís 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 youíre 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.
TOURING THE SUB
|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 youíre 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) youíll 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 subís depth, speed and what course it was on.
Just off the Wardroom are officerís 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 officerís stateroom.
After these rooms come the Attack Center and then the Conn with two periscopes. The Navigation Center comes behind the Conn, where the subís 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.