The Father of the Nuclear Navy – Admiral Hyman George Rickover

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“Success teaches us nothing; only failure teaches. “

Admiral Hyman George Rickover, US Naval Postgraduate Address, 1954

The United States Navy currently operates 95 total nuclear power plants including 71 submarines (each with one reactor), 10 aircraft carriers (each with two reactors), and 4 training/research prototype plants. This article is about the life story and accomplishments of the Jewish immigrant who made it happen. The article was inspired by my son, a graduate of the US Navy Nuclear Power School.

Admiral Rickover served as an officer for 63 years, longer than any other naval officer in American history. a record made possible by an act of Congress that specially exempted him from having to retire at the age normal for senior admirals.

“In his career Admiral Rickover generated controversy on all sides. He attacked Naval bureaucracy, ignored red tape, lacerated those he considered stupid, bullied subordinates and assailed the country’s educational system. And he achieved, in the production of the nuclear-powered submarine in the early 1950’s, what a former Secretary of the Navy, Dan Kimball, called ‘the most important piece of development work in the history of the Navy.’” [New York Times]

“To Rickover’s credit (per my son’s comment after reading the article), dad you forgot to mention, that even with all the reactors operating for so long, their (Rickover’s team) dedication to detailed safety policies have provided have provided for zero reactor accidents.”

“…Today Admiral Hyman G. Rickover is best remembered for developing the atomic-powered submarine. With the launching of the first of these submarines, the Nautilus, in 1954, he was dubbed ‘The Father of the Atomic Submarine.’ As Admiral Rickover’s only child, that made me ‘The Atomic Submarine’, and you can imagine what I now had to live up to. And just when I had become used to it, several atomic-powered surface ships were built and my father became ‘The Father of the Nuclear Navy’—and I acquired an even more bizarre identity!

My father had a well-deserved reputation for doing whatever was necessary to see his projects to completion. He was famous for ignoring traditional naval customs and for bypassing existing organizational hierarchies. He created his own independent power structure with the help of sympathetic members of Congress and the media. He demanded the very highest standards and pushed defense contractors, his staff and himself to the limit.

He would fly into a rage with anyone he felt was lazy or incompetent. His interviews with the young officers who wanted to join his program were legendary. He wanted to make sure they could adapt to whatever situation they found themselves in, and so they were often placed in unexpected and stressful circumstances. During the interviews, they typically found themselves sitting in a chair with the front two legs shortened so that they had to struggle to remain seated. If they gave unsatisfactory answers to my father’s questions, they were summarily dismissed or sent to sit in a broom closet for hours to re-think their answers. Many were assigned bizarre and extremely challenging tasks to test their resourcefulness… My father cared deeply about his country and was very worried about the threats to our security posed by the Soviet Union and China during the Cold War. I believe this explains why he could be such a hard taskmaster. However, his caring was not limited to the national level. He was a man who cared deeply for the Jewish values of family, charity and justice.” [Robert Rickover]

“Rickover was born Chaim Godalia Rickover, to Abraham Rickover and Rachel (née Unger) Rickover, a Jewish family in Maków Mazowiecki of Poland, at that time ruled by the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II. His parents later changed his name to “Hyman,” also derived from the same Hebrew: חַיִּים (Chayyim), meaning “life.” He did not use his middle name, Godalia (Yiddish: “God is great”), but when required to list one for the Naval Academy oath, he substituted “George”. The family name “Rickover” is derived from the village and the estate of Ryki, located within 100 kilometres (62 mi) of Warsaw, as is Maków Mazowiecki.

Rickover made passage to New York City with his mother and sister Faygele (Americanized: “Fannie”) in March 1906, fleeing anti-Semitic Russian pogroms during the Revolution of 1905 that killed over 3,000 Jews, joining Abraham who had made earlier, initial trips there beginning in 1897 to become established. Decades later, the entire remaining Jewish communities of Ryki and Maków Mazowiecki were killed or otherwise perished during the Holocaust.

Rickover’s immediate family lived initially on the East Side of Manhattan and moved two years later to the North Lawndale neighborhood in Chicago, which at that time was a heavily Jewish neighborhood, where Rickover’s father continued work as a tailor. Rickover took his first paid job at nine years of age, earning three cents an hour for holding a light as his neighbor operated a machine. Later, he delivered groceries. He graduated from grammar school at 14.

While attending John Marshall High School in Chicago (from which he graduated with honors in 1918), Rickover held a full-time job as a telegraph boy delivering Western Union telegrams, through which he became acquainted with U.S. Congressman Adolph J. Sabath, himself a Czech Jewish immigrant. Through the intervention of a family friend, Sabath nominated Rickover for appointment to the United States Naval Academy. Rickover was only a third alternate for appointment, but through disciplined self-directed study and good fortune, the future four-star admiral passed the entrance exam and was accepted.” [Wikipedia]

After completing high school in 1918, Rickover received an appointment to the United States Naval Academy, where he was often confronted with anti-Semitism. Rickover graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md., in 1922. Accounts of his years at Annapolis stress that he was a loner, perhaps because of anti-Semitism, but more likely because he preferred to concentrate on his studies.

He studied electrical engineering at Columbia University (M.S., 1929) and then took submarine training at New London, Conn. From 1929 to 1933, he was assigned to the submarine service. While posted to the Office of the Inspector of Naval Material in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1933, Rickover translated a classic World War I German text on submarines, Das Unterseeboot.

Rickover hoped to receive command of a submarine. Instead, he did a two-year tour at a naval facility in Philadelphia, after which he served two years in engineering on the battleship New Mexico. In 1937 Rickover was promoted to lieutenant commander and given command of the antiquated minesweeper Finch. His hard-driving ways seem to have caused resentment, and he was relieved after three months.

Convinced by his assignment to Finch that his aspirations for a conventional career of command at sea would not be fulfilled, Rickover had already requested a transfer to the status of “Engineering Duty Only.” Since 1916 the navy had officially differentiated between unrestricted line officers and EDO officers. Line officers were trained to command ships, being rotated to a variety of duties at sea and on shore to familiarize them with many aspects of the navy. In contrast, an EDO officer could design, maintain, modernize, and repair ships but could not command one.

In 1939 he was assigned to Washington, D.C., to the Electrical Section of the Navy Department’s Bureau of Ships; he later headed this section throughout World War II.  His acceptance as an engineering duty officer in 1939 removed him from consideration for any further commands. In 1945 and 1946 he held posts in Okinawa and in San Francisco.

Following the war, Rickover was one of a group of naval officers sent to the Clinton Laboratories, later known as Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tennessee, to study nuclear engineering in 1946. When the Clinton School closed down in 1947, Rickover was reassigned to the Bureau of Ships, but also managed an assignment with the newly formed Atomic Energy Commission in its Division of Reactor Development.

In the years just after World War II then a captain, Rickover became convinced that the Navy had to have nuclear-powered ships and had to begin with submarines. He began formulating these ideas after he was assigned in 1946 to study atomic energy in Oak Ridge, Tenn., a site of the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb in World War II.

The Navy was not enthusiastic about his ideas about atomic submarines. Rickover was called back to Washington and given an atomic energy advisory post. His office was a former women’s lounge. Rickover bypassed channels and went directly to Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, the Chief of Naval Operations, to enlist his support for the atomic submarine. Admiral Nimitz, a former submariner, approved the idea, and Captain Rickover became head of the new Nuclear Power Division of the Bureau of Ships.

The idea of a nuclear-powered submarine had been batted around within the navy since 1939. His immediate superior, Admiral Earle Mills, was in favor of it, as were others. In 1946 Rickover was sent as one of a team of engineering officers to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to learn about nuclear technology. Rickover then served as Mills’ assistant for nuclear matters until 1948 when the navy made a firm commitment to develop nuclear propulsion. Rickover then received two choice assignments: head of the Nuclear Power Branch of BuShips and, in 1949, chief of the newly established Naval Reactors Branch of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).

These dual posts gave Rickover a great deal of autonomy in that he could initiate action from either his naval billet or from his post in the civilian-run AEC chain of authority. He gathered around him a group of bright and loyal officers who worked diligently to overcome the myriad problems in harnessing a nuclear reactor for shipboard power.

By 1949, Rickover was using his industry connections to advance research initiatives. Two competing concepts for cooling nuclear submarine reactors were available, cooling by pressurized water and by liquid metal. Rickover wanted to try both of them, so he arranged with Westinghouse in 1949 to investigate the pressurized water approach, and with General Electric in 1950 to pursue a liquid sodium approach.

By the early 1950s Rickover, still a captain, had succeeded in making himself known to the media and to influential congressmen as an officer who got things done, presumably indispensable to the navy’s nuclear propulsion program.

Rickover was responsible for the design and production of the world’s first nuclear-powered engines. His energy, frequently unorthodox methods, and ability to elicit almost fanatical devotion from his team of specialists were key factors in the development and early delivery of the Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear-propelled submarine, whose keel was laid in June 1952 and which was launched on Jan. 21, 1954.

The USS Nautilus (SSN-571) was the world’s first operational nuclear-powered submarine. The vessel was the first submarine to complete a submerged transit to the North Pole on 3 August 1958. Because her nuclear propulsion allowed her to remain submerged far longer than diesel-electric submarines, she broke many records in her first years of operation, and traveled to locations previously beyond the limits of submarines. In operation, she revealed a number of limitations in her design and construction. This information was used to improve subsequent submarines. Nautilus was decommissioned in 1980 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1982. The submarine has been preserved as a museum of submarine history in Groton, Connecticut, where the vessel receives some 250,000 visitors a year.

Rickover`s faith in nuclear submarines was vindicated in January 1955, when the USS Nautilus reported that it was underway entirely with nuclear power. The Nautilus employed the pressurized water method of reactor cooling. The Navy`s second nuclear submarine, USS Seawolf, was powered by a reactor using liquid sodium.

After the launching of Russia’s Sputnik satellite, on 4 October 1957, called into doubt America’s supremacy in science, Rickover for a while also gained recognition as an authority on American education. He wrote several books criticizing what he considered its shortcomings and calling for standards of excellence like those he had always imposed upon himself.

He was also responsible for the establishment of the first large-scale all-civilian atomic power plant, at Shippingport, Pa. The plant supplies power for residents of Pittsburgh.

Rickover had an abrasive personality. He cared little for protocol, tradition or what other people thought of him, so long as he could do his job. He was detested by his enemies. Despite his achievement, despite the support of people in high civilian places, the Navy nearly succeeded in forcing his retirement as a captain by passing him over for promotion to rear admiral.

“Despite his success, Rickover faced opposition both toward his work and toward his open criticism and remarks. After he had been twice passed over for promotion to admiral (the naval codes require retirement if promotion is twice denied), congressional leaders suspected that he was a victim of “foul play.” Following an investigation, he was named a rear admiral in 1953. His many plans for nuclear ships were put aside during the Congressional hearings.” [Jewish Virtual Library]

As the navy added more nuclear submarines to the fleet, and then surface ships, Rickover was retained on active duty through a series of special two-year re-appointments that allowed him to serve long past the mandatory retirement age of 64. He was promoted to vice admiral in 1963 and a decade later to admiral. By insisting that safety considerations required him to personally approve officers of all nuclear-powered ships Rickover exerted influence far beyond his official position. As later assignments took these officers throughout the navy, Rickover’s impact was felt in many quarters.

In later years, however, Admiral Rickover came to be accepted by his fellow admirals, particularly since nuclear power gave a new global reach to aircraft carriers. Aside from the nuclear ships now sailing the seas, one of the lasting legacies will be a new generation of naval officers trained with the Rickover emphasis on details and quality control.

In 1982, he was forced into retirement at age 82.

“Many questioned Rickover’s goal of a Nuclear Navy, with its high price tag and unknown risks. Others questioned his methods — his arrogant, high-handed behavior and his creation of a technocratic elite, his own Navy within the Navy. However, few contested that he had transformed the Navy and much of U.S. industry, and changed the course of America’s technological development.”[PBS]

The USS Hyman G. Rickover attack submarine was named in his honor and so was the Rickover Hall at the U.S. Naval Academy. The USS Hyman G. Rickover was named two years prior to Rickover’s death, making it one of only a few ships to be named for someone still living. He received numerous medals and decorations, including the Distinguished Service Medal, Medal of Merit, Navy Commendation Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal. For his exemplary wartime service, he also was made Honorary Commander of the Military Division of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

Upon his retirement, he established the Rickover Science Institute at MIT, which later became the Research Science institute, one of the most prestigious high school summer school programs in the world. Rickover died on July 8, 1986, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.


USS Nautilus (SSN 571)