Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


[Ed Note: 111 order to give adequate notice to each President’s association with submarines, this Reflection is being given in two parts. This first section covers the period through Mrs. Eisenhower’s christening of NAUTILUS.)

Submarines have played a minor but interesting role in the history of the American presidency. Teddy Roosevelt was the first president to go aboard a submarine, and since Franklin Roosevelt every president has, at one time or another in his life, been aboard a submarine.

The U.S. Navy had barely five years experience with submarines when Theodore Roosevelt became the first presi-dent to go aboard a submarine and to travel underwater in one. Roosevelt’s trip took place near his home on Oyster Bay in Long Island Sound on August 23, 1905. He spent almost three hours aboard USS PLUNGER (SS-2), the Navy’s second submarine; fifty-five minutes of that was submerged.

Roosevelt had been interested in submarines prior to the visit. He had planned a trip on one at Annapolis two years earlier, but his wife and his Cabinet had dissuaded him on grounds of safety. Their concerns were valid; the American experience with submarines had been uneven. During the Revolutionary War, David Bushnell’s Turtle had successfully dived and surfaced but failed to blow up its British target. In the Civil War the Confederate submersible HUNLEY sank on four occasions, killing almost forty of its own crew, including its builder for whom it was named.

Many people thought it was unwise for President Roosevelt to undertake anything as risky as submerging in a submarine. Mrs. Roosevelt was one of the last to be won over. On August 23 she watched PLUNGER maneuvering in Long Island Sound and agreed that it was safe for her husband to go aboard.

The Navy had prepared for the president’s trip, thoroughly overhauling PLUNGER prior to the descent. It took the precaution of welding eyebolts to the exterior of the hull should an emergency rescue be required. The Navy also placed a diver aboard PLUNGER as well as on her tender APACHE.

With President Roosevelt onboard, LT Charles Nelson, PLUNGER’s C.O., demonstrated all of PLUNGER’s abilities, powering full ahead, stopping, reversing, and even operating with the lights out Roosevelt toured the boat, which didn’t take too long, since her length was only sixty-three feet He operated the controls and became the first of many presidents to look through a periscope. The next day Roosevelt and members of his family boarded the presidential yacht SYLPH and watched PLUNGER on maneuvers, the high point of which was the firing of a Whitehead torpedo. Roosevelt’s experience on PLUNGER impressed him. He recognized submarine duty as being hazardous, confining, and demanding of perfection. He observed that PLUNGER’s crew “incurred a certain risk every time they go down in her and … have to be trained to the highest point as well as ..” show iron nerve in order to be of any use in their positions.”

Roosevelt believed the Navy should encourage submarine development He found, however, that senior officers were hindering it through various bureaucratic regulations that discriminated against submariners. He corrected these, issuing Executive Order 366 in November which recognized duty on submarines as the equivalent of duty on surface ships; it had previously been classed as shore duty. The order also initiated submarine pay for enlisted men.

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Following in the footsteps of his famous fifth cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt displayed a strong interest in the Navy and maritime affairs. He served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President Woodrow Wilson from 1913 until1920. His first contact with submarines came in May 1918 when he visited the Lake Torpedo Boat Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut Simon Lake’s company had expanded its capacity for building submarines for the Navy during World War I. Roosevelt spoke to a mass meeting of shipyard workers from a platform amidst the submarine building ways. Later that year FOR went to Europe on an inspection trip. On August 22, while touring Belgium, he stayed overnight at La Paone and witnessed an action between destroyers and a German subma-rine off the Belgian coast.

In 1921 Roosevelt contracted polio; his subsequent use of braces prevented him from going aboard submarines. On August 12, 1940, he visited the Naval Submarine Base at Groton. His open car tour of the base passed several subma-rines, including the recently commissioned USS TAUTOG (SS-and its crew standing in ranks for inspection. His final visit to a submarine occurred on September 24, 1942, while be was touring the West Coast to inspect defense plants and military installations. Roosevelt’s visit to Mare Island included a drive past USS POMPANO (SS-181) which was in overhaul following her third war patrol.

Harry S Truman

The second president to go aboard a submarine was Harry S Truman. He was vacationing in Key West, Florida, in November 1946 when he went to sea on the former German submarine U-2513. U-2513 had surrendered to the British at the end of World War IT, and they bad given it to the U.S. for study. An American crew, commanded by LCDR James Casler, operated the boat, conducting tests and studying German technology.

The President’s trip began on a Thursday morning when he and a party of twenty-one boarded U-2513. Included in the group were Admiral Leahy, his Chief of Staff, and Rear Admiral Styer, Assistant Chief of Naval Operations. As U-2513 put to sea the President and his group had breakfast in the wardroom. U-1513 began its dive at 9:30 and, as it passed 100 feet, rigged for silent running and briefly went to flank speed. In twenty minutes it descended 450 feet where it leveled off and cruised for about a minute. It then began to surface and about five minutes later was at periscope depth with President Truman manning the scope.

The trip developed some unanticipated excitement when the port engine flooded and smoke escaped into the after battery room. The President stayed calm during the casualty and the sub surfaced without any other difficulty.

USS WILKE (DE-800) had escorted U-2513 to her diving area and, during the return to Key West, put on a demonstra-tion of anti-submarine warfare firepower. WILKE first fired a salvo of practice hedgehogs and depth charges. The destroyer escort then made a high speed run that took her within 2,000 yards of U-2513. At this range she fired live hedgehogs and depth charges, the force of which was readily apparent to everyone on the sub.

Enroute to Key West, LCDR James Casler signed cards for President Truman and his group certifying their diving achieve-ment and designating them as Honorable Members of the Ancient Order ofDeep Dunkers. Back in port the C.O. present-ed the President with a Deep Dunkers certificate. The President and his group disembarked at noon.

President Truman liked his submarine experience. He admired “the perfect teamwork exhibited by the officers and crew at their assigned diving stations.” Their business-like , performance impressed him and he commented on it very favorably.

In December 1947 President Truman briefly revisited U-2513, and LCDR Casler presented him with several souvenirs of his dive, including a gold dolphin tie chain and a certificate designating him as an honorary Commanding Officer of U-2513.

President Truman visited USS REQUIN (SS-481) on the morning of February 28, 1948, in Key West. Greeting the President were Captain L. R. Daspit, Commander of Submarine Squadron Four, and REQUIN’s Commanding Officer, Com-mander George H. Street. Commander Street had met the President on two previous occasions – once when the President presented him with the Medal of Honor, and again when Mr. Truman presented him with a Gold Star in lieu of a second Silver Star. During his twenty minute visit, the President toured REQUIN, inspected the crew, and met with five crewmembers from Missouri.

The construction of NAUTILUS, the nation’s first nuclear powered submarine, marked the first time a President had participated in a submarine keel laying. . President Truman travelled by private railroad car from Washington to Groton, Connecticut, arriving directly in the Electric Boat Shipyard late in the morning of July 14, 1952. Cheers greeted the President as he left the train and walked to the speakers’ platform for the ceremony. After a noontime speech that was broadcast by four major radio networks, the President signaled a traveling crane to lay the keel plate in its cradle. Afterwards he left the platform and chalked “HST’ in the keel plate. A welder then burned the presidential initials into NAUTILUS’s keel.

Following the ceremony the President and his party went to the Officers Club at the Naval Submarine Base for lunch. During the meal, 0. P. Robinson, General Manager at Electric Boat, presented Mr. Truman with a model of NAUTILUS. The President returned to Washington by air.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

The early years of the Roaring Twenties found Major Dwight D. Eisenhower stationed in Panama. In the winter months of 1924, LT Everett E. “Swede” Hazlett Jr., a longtime friend from their hometown of Abilene, Kansas, brought his submarine USS S-32 (SS-137) into the Submarine Base at Coco Solo. S-32 was new, having been commissioned on September 25, 1922, and Hazlett was her first C. 0.

The submarine had been training with her squadron and came into port for replacement of the port motor armature. This lengthy repair took from late January until the end of March. At its completion, Swede took Ike for a cruise, including a dive, in Panama Bay. Ike enjoyed the trip and went through the entire boat, examining the machinery and talking with the crew about how things worked. He displayed a great interest and enthusiasm for the submarine’s operation; Hazlett later noted that “he never had a passenger who was more avid for information.”

More than thirty years later, Ike, now President Eisenhower, became the first Chief Executive to go aboard a nuclear submarine and the first to travel by nuclear power when he visited USS SEAWOLF (SSN-575). SEAWOLF, commanded by CDR Richard Laning, was the nation’s second nuclear powered submarine. The visit took place in September 1957 when the President was vacationing in Newport, R.I.

With Ike aboard, SEAWOLF got underway from anchor in Narragansett Bay and headed out to sea. In the crew’s mess Ike was greeted by a rendition of “”‘be Eyes of Texas Are Upon You,” played by one of the crewmembers. (Though Ike was born in Texas, he grew up in Kansas and considered himself a Kansan.) He ate steak and mushrooms with the crew.

A few miles southwest of Breton Reef Lightship, SEAWOLF submerged and dove to sixty feet. The C. 0. and RADM Frederick Warder, COMSUBLANT, gave Ike a tour of the boat. His interest in submarines and their operations was as sharp in Newport as it had been in Panama. As he told the crew: “Everything was of interest to me – all the gadgets and ma-chines.”

After almost two hours of operations, fifteen minutes of which was spent submerged, SEAWOLF returned to Newport Short though it was, the cruise on SEAWOLF clearly impressed the President Addressing the crew on the lmc, he said “…

more interesting to me (than the machinery) was to see the United States Navy at work. I’m proud of every man aboard ship. It was a memorable experience.” At the end of the cruise, the ship presented Ike with a submarine tie clasp and a card designating him an Honorary Atomic Submariner.

President Eisenhower logged another presidential first when he visited a fleet ballistic missile submarine. On July 25, 1960, while on vacation in Newport, Ike went aboard USS PATRICK HENRY (SSBN-599) which was at anchor off Fort Adams. The President toured the submarine and had lunch in the wardroom with the Commanding Officer, Captain (later Admiral) Harold Shear, and Rear Admiral William Raborn, head of the Navy’s Special Projects Office. Ike, with his typical curiosity, asked numerous questions about the submarine and its operations. The highlight of the visit was the firing of a dummy missile called a Launch Test Vehicle. The ship’s crew presented the President with a framed color picture of the submarine.

Mrs. Eisenhower, affectionately known to the public as Mamie, made submarine history when she became the first First Lady to christen a submarine. The vessel, appropriately enough, was USS NAUTILUS (SSN-571), the world’s first nuclear powered submarine. The date was January 21, 1954.

A crowd estimated at 20,000 people gathered at the Electric Boat Company in Groton to watch the historic launch. It was a banner day for the city, and Groton schools had been dismissed for the launch. Mrs. Eisenhower arrived from Washington in the president’s railcar, the train pulling into a siding in the shipyard only thirty yards from NAUTILUS’ building ways.

Fog had encased the city for over a day, but about 10:45, only minutes before the launch, the breeze blew it away to reveal a bright sun and blue sky. The temperature was a generous 57 degrees. The speaker’s platform was crowded with dignitaries, including the Secretary of the Navy, the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, the President of General Dynamics, the Chief of Naval Operations, the President’s naval aide, and Rear Admiral Hyman Rickover. When the speeches were over, Mrs. Eisenhower moved to NAUTILUS’ bow. She was accompanied by her Matron of Honor, Mrs. Eugene Wilkinson, wife of NAUTILUS’s prospective commanding officer. Mrs. Wilkinson carried an enormous bouquet of red roses which had been presented to Mamie.

As the time for the launch neared, DR Edward Beach, the President’s naval aide, gave Mrs. Eisenhower last-minute instructions about striking the bow. Mamie smiled, waved to the crowd, and held up the bottle of domestic champagne for the crowd to see. As the minute approached, a newsreel cameraman yelled for all to hear: “Hit it good and hard, Mrs. Eisenhower!” Mamie smiled back at him.

She was as good as her promise. Just as NAUTILUS began her historic slide into the Thames River, Mamie smashed the bottle against the sub’s port bow and said: “I christen thee NAUTILUS.” A deafening roar went up from the crowd and the horns of the boats gathered on the Thames. The age of nuclear power had begun.

(To be continued in the October 1992 issue.)

[William Galvani is Director of 1M Submarine Force Library and Museum at the Naval Submarine Base New London, Groton, Connecticut.]



Captain Daniel P. Brooks, USN(Ret.)

Joseph H. Emery

Thomas 0. Paine

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League