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Hyman G. Rickover

Hyman G. Rickover was born in Poland on 27 January 1900, just a few months before the American submarine force came into existence. Born into poverty in Russian Poland, his family fled to America to escape rampant anti-Semitism when Rickover was 6 years old. He entered the work force at the age of 9 to help support his family. At 14 he worked full time delivering telegrams while attending high school. In 1918 he was accepted at Annapolis. There he was known for his disciplined study. “[A]t night, when his three roommates slept, he sat in the shower stall, having rigged a blanket to hide the light, and prepared for the morrow’s class.”

He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1922 and served on board USS LaVallette and USS Nevada until he returned to the Academy for postgraduate education in electrical engineering. Rickover underwent submarine training between January and June 1930.

Rickover underwent submarine training between January and June 1930. After submarine training at the Submarine Base, Groton, Conn., Rickover served in submarines S-9 and S-48 until July 1933 when he transferred to the Office of the Inspector of Naval Material in Philadephia. Sea duty in battleship New Mexico (BB-40) followed and, when detached from the battleship in mid-1937, Rickover briefly assumed command of minesweeper Finch (AM-9) on the Asiatic Station. Later that year he was selected for engineering duty and served at the Navy Yard, Cavite, in the Philippines for the next two years.

In June 1939, he was assigned to the Bureau of Ships, Navy Department, Washington, DC, where he served as Head of the Electrical Section following the outbreak of World War II. His service as head of the Electrical Section in the Bureau of Ships during World War II brought him a Legion of Merit and gave him experience in directing large development programs, choosing talented technical people, and working closely with private industry.

After several years directing the Navy's procurement and allocation of electrical equipment for the vast shipbuilding and maintenance program during the global war, Rickover commanded the Naval Repair Base, Okinawa, in mid-1945 in preparation for the impending invasion of the Japanese home Islands. Following the armistice he served as Inspector General of the U.S. Nineteenth Fleet, then engaged in the deactivation and "mothballing" warships of the Pacific Fleet.

Assigned to the Bureau of Ships in September 1947, Rickover received training in nuclear power at Oak Ridge Tennessee and worked with the bureau to explore the possibility of nuclear ship propulsion.

In February 1949 he received an assignment to the Division of Reactor Development, U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and then assumed control of the Navy's effort as Director of the Naval Reactors Branch in the Bureau of Ships. This twin role enabled him to lead the effort to develop the world's first nuclear-powered submarine, USS Nautilus (SSN-571). The latter joined the fleet in January 1955. Promoted to the rank of Vice Admiral by 1958, Rickover exerted tremendous personal influence over the nuclear Navy in both an engineering and cultural sense. His views touched matters of design, propulsion, education, personnel, and professional standards. In every sense, he played the role of father to the nuclear fleet, its officers, and its men. Assigned to the Bureau of Ships in September 1947, Rickover received training in nuclear power at Oak Ridge Tennessee and worked with the bureau to explore the possibility of nuclear ship propulsion. In February 1949 he received an assignment to the Division of Reactor Development, U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and then assumed control of the Navy's effort as Director of the Naval Reactors Branch in the Bureau of Ships. This twin role enabled him to lead the effort to develop the world's first nuclear-powered submarine, USS Nautilus (SSN-571). The latter joined the fleet in January 1955.

Promoted to the rank of Vice Admiral by 1958, Rickover exerted tremendous personal influence over the nuclear Navy in both an engineering and cultural sense. His views touched matters of design, propulsion, education, personnel, and professional standards. In every sense, he played the role of father to the nuclear fleet, its officers, and its men. After sixty-four years of service, Rickover retired from the Navy as a full admiral on 19 January 1982. He died on July 8, 1986.

In December of 1932, Hyman G. Rickover, executive officer of S-48, wrote his wife, Ruth, “I hope that never again in my naval service will I ever be subject to conditions such as these.” After graduating from submarine school in June 1930, the 30-year-old lieutenant was assigned to the submarine USS S-48 (SS 159). His assignment lasted three years. Decades later he credited the S-48’s “faulty, sooty, dangerous and repellent engineering” with inspiring his obsession for high engineering standards.

In July 1931, Rickover was promoted to Executive Officer. In November, the S-48 had another mishap. She started a dive for a practice torpedo run and immediately “she took a twelve-degree list and a sharp downward angle. At seventy feet…she was out of control…blowing the tanks…brought her up… [A later] investigation showed a vent valve had failed to open.” In February of 1932, after several diving mishaps, a group of officers “nervous and tired, had drawn up a message…for all to sign, stating the ship was unsafe and could not complete her assignment.” According to Duncan, “Rickover argued them out of it…it would be bad for the reputations of all concerned and [told them] that he could work out a new diving procedure.” His diving protocol meant diving took longer, but it worked.

Denied a coveted submarine command of his own, Rickover went on to become an Inspector of Naval Materiel, served on a battleship, and later commanded a minesweeper. In 1939 he was transferred to engineering duty (he had received his Master’s Degree in Electrical Engineering in 1929).

When Admiral Mills retired in March 1949, Rickover became the single most important actor in'the naval propulsion project. According to his biographers, "His efforts, his control, and his single-mindedness of purpose overshadowed those of all other individuals, regardless of their contributions or advocacy." To manage the project, Rickover devised management techniques and procedures that Hewlett and Duncan call "the Rickover approach." The approach was not a formal management system. It was not contained in a text book nor taught at the Harvard Business School.

It is difficult to describe or define. If the approach can be said to have had a unifying concept, that concept was NRB's centralized, "customer", responsiblity both for the definition of the desired product, the traditional Navy practice, and responsibility for the project's actual execution. NRB controlled not only what work would be carried out, but also how and when it was to be accomplished and what would be delivered.

To implement this concept, Rickover established NRB control over all the principal actors involved in the design, engineering, and construction of the nuclear propulsion system and of those portions of the ship related to the system. The control was carried out by NRB personnel both military and civilian. The NRB cadre, who were carefully selected and trained in the relevant engineering and scientific disciplines, were stationed in Washington and at all the laboratories, factories, field offices, test stations, and shipyards involved in the project.

The NRB physicists, engineers, and technicians had two major functions. The first was to monitor and report to Washington on the technical and administrative problems of the project. The second was to participate actively in the work itself. At the center, reading the reports, monitoring the replies, and issuing directives sat the tireless Rickover.

Nautilus brought Rickover the title "father of the nuclear Navy." Although conjectural, just as Nautilus marked the beginning of the nuclear era in the United States Navy, she also represented the beginning of Admiral Rickover's extraordinary career. When Nautilus got underway on nuclear power in January, 1955, the political, organizational, and prestige ingredients that contribute to the Rickover saga were, either by accident or design, in place.

As of 1955 Rickover had secured a powerful political base in the United States congress for himself and for the nuclear propulsion program. The Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, which included among its members some of Capitol Hill's most powerful politicians, supported Rickover from the beginning. Rickover's political influence in the Congress throughout his career was such that neither the Chief of Naval Operations, nor the Secretary of the Navy, nor the Secretary of Defense, his nominal superiors, were able to remove him form his position as head of the nuclear propulsion project or to amend his influence on naval personnel training and ship construction. Nautilus made Rickover not only a "father," she made him one of Congress* favorite public servants.

Also by 1955, Rickover had put on his famous "two-hats". One hat carried the braid of rear admiral in the United States Navy. In 1951, and again in 1952, the Navy hierarchy wanted to pass over Rickover for promotion and petire him. Both times his supporters in Congress, in the Navy, and in the public at large came to his defense and forced through his promotion.

Although he rarely if ever put on a uniform, Rickover retained his Navy hat until he retired. The other hat was that of a Washington official in charge of the Nuclear Reactors Branch in the AEC. "This was a masterpiece of cutting administrative red-tape." Polmar and Allan contend, "it let Rickover cite Navy rules that were not being followed when he ran into trouble with the AEC and to cite AEC rules when he ran into trouble with the Navy." As Eli Roth, who worked with Rickover, said, "It [the "two-hats"] worked both ways like the old shell and pea game even when an action was proper by both rules."

For Admiral Zumwalt the "two-hat" organizational structure that supported Rickover made him "an independent baron within the Navy." Rickover acquired his unique organizational position to build Nautilus; he retained it throughout his career.

Nautilus brought Rickover immense personal prestige for his contributions to the ship's construction. His picture appeared on the cover of Time. At a time when the naval heroes of World War II like Ernest J. King, Chester W. Nimitz, and William F. Halsey, awaited biographers, Rickover already had a book written about him. An image arose of an unconventional and progressive officer who fought a tradition-bound Navy to build Nautilus.

Thousands of Americans, who had never heard of Dr. Ross Gunn, Dr. Phillip Abelson, R. Adm. Earle W. Mills, or submariners' report championing nuclear propulsion, were convinced that Rickover alone was responsible for the revolutionary vessel. Admiral Rickover became not just an expert, but rather the expert on nuclear power in general and the nuclear Navy in particular. Thanks to this public recognition, Rickover acquired a personal prestige that transcended the organizations of which he was a part. He became a public figure in his own right. From 1955 to the day of his official retirement in January 1982, Rickover skillfully employed this prestige to retain his position and to pursue and accomplish his goals.

Rickover built Nautilus. There is general agreement that he was the single most important individual and that without him Nautilus would not have been constructed for at least another five years. But Nautilus also made a man who, for the next 26 years, influenced the United States Navy like few before him. The nature and extent of Rickover's impact, where it was negative and where it was positive, already divides students of naval history and will probably continue to do so. It is certain that Nautilus' association with Adm. Hyman G. Rickover is an important element in the ship's historical significance. The world's first true submarine is, in a sense, Rickover's monument.

In one of his many appearances before the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, Admiral Rickover in the late 1950s looked back on the development of Nautilus and told his admiring audience: "There is hardly a single idea that is new. What really counts is to take an idea, fight for the authority to do it, establish the organization, find and train the necessary scientists and engineers, justify to Congress large sums of money involved, worry and solve the thousands of technical difficulties. Well, about two hundred million dollars and eight years after the 1946 'idea,' and with devoted efforts of many, many hundreds of companies, we finally had the Nautilus. " Rickover's statement was an articulate summary of how Nautilus came to be. What she was, as he and his listeners knew, was the world's first true submarine.

Nautilus revolutionized ship propulsion and in so doing transformed the military capability of warships. Nautilus made clear that the ideal naval vessel, and not only the submarine, should be atomic powered. Sustained high speed and almost unlimited range and endurance were attributes that naval designers and engineers had previously only dreamed of and that no fossil fuel burning surface ship could hope to equal. It was understandable that members of Congress, defense experts, and many officers in the Navy desired to build, if not an all nuclear Navy, than at least as many nuclear propelled aircraft carriers and their escorts as possible. But there was a major problem. Nuclear propelled ships became progressively more expensive to build.

In time of "reduced defense budgets", such as in the post-Vietnam war years, the Navy was unable to obtain sufficient appropriations to both build ever more sophisticated nuclear vessels with their attendant weapons systems, i.e. the nuclear propelled aircraft carrier with its 90 high performance aircraft, and coincidentally have available in the fleet sufficient modern ships to meet the basic requirement of controlling the seas in the various scenarios and contingencies envisioned by naval strategists. Oversimplified, the issue became, what should be the "mix" of ships that constitute the United States Navy. There is every indication that the issue divided politicians, defense experts, and the Navy itself.

Within the Navy, the issue became personalized. In his On Watch, A Memoir, Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr., Chief of Naval Operations from 1970 to 1974, discusses his fight for more conventionally propelled ships, including smaller fossil fuel burning carriers. Calling his proposal for a balanced fossil fuel nuclear fleet a "high-low" mix, Zumwalt contends that he was defeated by Admiral Rickover, Rickover's supporters in Congress, and Rickover's so-called "nucs" within the Navy and defense establishment. "A final malady that afflicted and continues to afflict the whole Navy," Zumwalt wrote, "though the surface Navy was and is the greatest sufferer, can be described in one word, a word I have already used: Rickover." In her very success, Nautilus presented the country with a dilemma. Had the best become simply too expensive?

Admiral Hyman Rickover retired in 1982 having served 63 years — longer than any other man in naval history. The nuclear submarine fleet he helped develop resulted from exacting standards he credited to those three eventful years he lived aboard the “faulty, sooty, dangerous and repellent[ly]” engineered S-48. Adm. George W. Emery (Retired) once worked on Rickover’s staff. In a Naval History article he observed that Rickover made “a point to be personally on board during each nuclear-powered ship’s initial sea trials.” He missed two sea trials due to illnesses. According to Emery, it was Rickover’s “presence [that] set his demanding stamp of approval on both the material readiness of the ship’s nuclear-propulsion plant and state of training of her crew.” He held himself personally responsible for each submarine built and launched under his watch.

A reporter asked Rickover about his “powerful focus on quality standards,” to which he responded, “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.”

By the end of his career, he had been wined and dined by presidents, congressmen, senators, diplomats, and industry leaders. He was awarded two Congressional Gold Medals and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The young Polish-Jewish immigrant proved that hard work and diligence in America makes anything possible.

Rickover visits left memorable impressions on the people who met him. Stories about the man were passed on to a new generation of NRF workers who had not known him. Secretaries from steno pools recalled standing by to take dictation while he waited for airplanes.

He liked to collect silver dollars, commonly in circulation in the 1950s, so office cashiers checked their supplies and polished them up. Outdoors, groundskeepers gathered up cigarette butts and repainted fire hydrants if they didn’t look bright enough.

One story (among many others) is retold with many variations in it: " Admiral James D. Watkins, Chief of Naval Operations, came to the NRF to speak at an officer graduation ceremony [or for a visit.] On his way to the NRF, a guard stopped him for speeding [or for not having a security badge]. “Do you know who I am?” Watkins asked the guard. The guard said, “No sir, but you’re not short and you don’t have white hair, so you’re not Admiral Rickover.”

“What would you say if I told you I were Rickover’s boss?” said Watkins. “Then I’d know you were lying, sir. Rickover ain’t got no boss.”"

The stories celebrate a man who by the sheer force of his brilliance, wit, and dedication created an institution as complex and world-changing as the Nuclear Navy.

An abiding respect continues for Rickover’s simple belief that there was no room for error aboard nuclear-powered submarines. Rickover made sure that the thousands of Navy trainees who came through the program at Idaho — and the contractors who designed and built the Navy’s reactors — were exposed to his philosophy of safety. The men in a nuclear-powered submarine had no avenue of escape in the event of an accident.

Safety engineering and training had to guarantee that accidents would not happen. Every feature of the machine, beginning with its design, had to be completely free of error. Safety lay in the perfection of parts, components, and assemblies. Ultimately, the most important safeguard was human competence—trained, tested, reliable. Rickover explained himself clearly: the “whole reactor game hangs on a much more slender thread than most people are aware. There are a lot of things that can go wrong and it requires eternal vigilance.”

Had there been an accident, the nuclear navy might have become a political impossibility. But there was no accident, and there would be none.

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Page last modified: 07-02-2016 19:39:45 ZULU