In May 1956 the Navy laid down what was intended as the first of a series of nuclear-powered radar picket submarines. This was USS Triton (SSRN-586), which at 448 feet long and nearly 6,000 tons surface displacement, emerged as the longest U.S. submarine ever built until the appearance of the USS Ohio (SSBN-726) class in the early 1980s.
Triton was unique among U.S. submarines in carrying a propulsion plant with two nuclear reactors, each an S4G rated at 22,000 horsepower. She was also the last U.S. submarine to have a conning tower inside the sail, twin screws, and an after torpedo room. Like Sailfish and Salmon, she was optimized for high surface speed - with a knife-like bow and ample reserve buoyancy - and reportedly, she exceeded 30 knots on her trials.
USS TRITON ( SSN 586) was designed to be fast enough to operate with a fast carrier task force. One of the largest submarines ever built, Triton is 447 feet long, displaces more than 7700 tons submerged, and carries a crew of approximately 170. Her keel was hid 29 May 1956, she was launched 19 Aug. 1958, and was commissioned 10 Nov. 1959. She had two pressurized water reactors, one for each of her two propellers.
Although like the most recent SSRs, Triton mounted her air-search radar on the sail where it could be stowed within the fairwater for submergence, her newer AN/SPS-26 was scanned electronically in elevation, so no separate height-finding radar was required. With three deck levels beneath the sail, there was ample room for dedicated air-control facilities just below the control room/attack center.
Triton was commissioned in November 1959 with the decorated World War II submarine skipper - and later distinguished naval author - CAPT Edward L. Beach, in command. For Triton's maiden voyage/shakedown cruise, Beach was ordered to attempt the first submerged circumnavigation of the globe, and the ship departed New London on 16 February 1960, not to return until 10 May, 84 days and 41,500 nautical miles later.
Following the same route taken by Ferdinand Magellan in 1519, Triton proceeded to St. Peter and St. Paul's Rocks in the Atlantic and crossed the equator on 24 February. Two weeks later she rounded Cape Horn and entered the Pacific Ocean. From there, she sailed to Magellan Bay in the Philippines, thence south through Lombok Strait and rounded the Cape of Good Hope. She again reached St. Peter and St. Paul's Rocks on 25 April and proceeded via the Canary Islands and Cadiz, Spain, to the United States. Surfacing off the coast of Delaware on 10 May, she had traveled 36,000 miles completely submerged in 83 days and 10 hours.
This unprecedented success brought significant international prestige to the nation and the Navy, and by maintaining a steady speed of 21 knots for nearly three months, Triton firmly established the endurance and reliability of nuclear propulsion. In recognition, President Dwight D. Eisenhower awarded the ship and her crew a Presidential Unit Citation after their return and her commanding officer, Captain Edward L. Reach, was awarded the Legion of Merit.
Triton joined 2nd Fleet in August 1960, and soon thereafter, she deployed to European waters to assume her role as a radar picket in a series of NATO exercises. And then. the bottom dropped out of her primary mission.
With the successful introduction of carrier-borne early warning aircraft in 1958 - first the Grumman E-1B Tracer, and then the successor E-2 Hawkeye in 1964 - the requirement for surface radar pickets soon faded, and the SSR/SSRN mission was quickly phased out. Thus, in March 1961, Triton was reclassified as an attack submarine (SSN) and overhauled at Portsmouth between 1962 and 1964 to refuel her reactors and convert her for a new role. Even though she was too large to be effective as an attack boat, Triton - now SSN-586 - served gamely at Norfolk as flagship of COMSUBLANT until June 1967, but nonetheless she had become an expensive white elephant. Although plans were floated to use her large, surviving CIC space as an alternative national emergency command post, these never came to fruition, and when a planned 1967 overhaul was cancelled because of defense cutbacks, her days were numbered. Triton was subsequently inactivated and then decommissioned in May 1969 - the first nuclear-powered submarine to be withdrawn from service.
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