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Editor’s Note: These remarks were delivered at the U.S. Navy Memorial, Washington, DC on 30 August 1998.

Secretary Dalton, Mrs. Rickover, Admirals Bowman and McKinney, Distinguished Guests, Friend of Naval Reactors:

“It troubles me that we are so easily pressured by purveyors of technology into permitting so-called “progress” to alter our lives without attempting to control it-as if technology were an irrepressible force of nature to which we must meekly submit.”

“On a cost-effectiveness basis the colonists would not have revolted against King George II, nor would John Paul Jones have engaged the Serapis with the Bonhomme Richard, an inferior ship. The Greeks at Thermoplyae and at Salamis would not have stood up against them, or had these cost-effectiveness people been in charge.”

“Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.”

“Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must be driven into practice with courageous patience.”

This is only a small sampling of the timeless words of wisdom so often given us by a unique human being, Admiral Hyman G. Rickover. In fact, most of us here on this 501b Anniversary Celebration of the Naval Reactors organization take great vicarious pleasure in linking ourselves-and probably more than we deserve-to this legendary Admiral. How often have we puffed ourselves up with great pride when we respond with an enthusiastic “yes” to such questions as “Did he really treat you that way?” We Jove to reminisce interactions with the Admiral, more and more with the passage of each year since our last encounter with him. That’s a true legacy, for the Admiral is still with us and walks the halls of Navy and NR everyday. While he left us a dozen years ago, what great respect and admiration we celebrants still hold for him. For we are members of his very exclusive club. Perhaps the Rickover lore is the glue that continues to bind us all together after he left the NR leadership role and successfully passed the baton to three uniformed four-star successors.

It was 18 months after I reported to NR in the spring 1962 that I first began to understand the Admiral’s long-range goals and objectives related to enhancement of naval officer professionalism. Prior to that time, I experienced a degree of humbling not unlike that during plebe year at the Naval Academy 17 years earlier. But, then. one morning, Mark Forsell and I arrived at the old N building on Constitution Avenue about 7:15 AM. This was the nomal time for commencement of NR daily activities, that is, just prior to the possible 7:30 pink slip rebuke of selected authors from the previous day. Promptly at 7:30 the call came down from the Admiral, 11 Get Watkins up here!’ 11 What now, God” I thought. But having been somewhat numbed by frequent trips down the hall over the prior 1-1/2 years, I took the current impending trauma in reasonable stride. Clearly, I believed that this was just one more case of poor thinking and writing on my part-you know like all those other dumb naval officers. But on this occasion, a miracle was about to take place. Apprehensively, I entered the Admiral’s office and he began yelling at me … but this time with a different ring to the voice. He said, 11 Watkins, go down the hall and tell Jack Grigg how to write a letter.” He then dismissed me abruptly. Poor Jack obviously had his turn in the barrel that morning as had we all at one time or another. On my way out, I said to the Admiral’s secretary, Jean Scroggins, “Jean, did you hear that?” Jean said to me rather matter-of-factly, “Mr. Watkins, today you have arrived.” … Well, I walked down the hall toward Jack’s office with a skip and a smile, my first at NR. Admiral Rickover had spooned me in his own way. In fact, I can look back on his words that day as being the nicest compliment Admiral Rickover ever paid me in the more than two decades I worked for him. I might add here that, even though I left NR in 1964, the Admiral always considered me his employee until almost the day he passed away in 1986. At any rate, the light had just come on for me. I now understood his tactical plan to attempt to train all with whom he came in contact and through them, spread the good news through- out the Navy of the right way to do business. But I also realized that he would expend his energy only on verbally chastising those whom he still believed had the right stuff to help him achieve his goal of instilling a new sense of professionalism in future naval leaders, civilian and military. Woe to the person who was treated with kind words by the Admiral-dearly someone he assessed as not having the right stuff and hence totally unworthy of his time, attention and energy.

One of the key objectives inside his broader professional enhancement goal for all naval officers was to put into concrete such a strong and respected military and civilian body of professional and technical competence within Naval Reactors, sustainable long after his departure from the scene, that it would unlikely be dismantled by the normal bureaucratic decay mechanisms so often prevalent in government agencies. My experience is that most of these agencies find it much easier to relax standards than to set high ones and then hold to them. Rickover knew that unless his growing cadre of professionals was so imbued with his philosophy, and armed with his skills to see this philosophy brought to fruition, that the future of the Navy’s nuclear powered fleet would be short lived. The fact that we are all here today celebrating 50 years of professional and technical excellence is testimony that this key objective was achieved and has been sustained for the 16 intervening years since he departed NR. Not an organizational ripple in the Navy’s nuclear power program water occurred when the admiral was piped ashore for the last time in 1982; most importantly, the technical competence within NR remained intact. Yes, Admiral Rickover had won his hard-fought battle after nearly 40 years. What an incredible accomplishment.

Now, let me talk briefly about how a few of us worked hard to help ensure that a smooth transition to new leadership would take place.

In the fall of 1981, I was called back to Washington, DC at the behest of Admiral Hayward, then the CNO, and tasked to prepare everything necessary to assist in effecting a good transition from Admiral Rickover to his successor. I was CINCPACFLT at the time. I asked Bill Wegner to help me prepare the Executive Branch directives which would be required to accomplish this. Our first move was to discuss our planned approach with key supportive House and Senate leaders such as Scoop Jackson, Mel Price and number of other Armed Services Committee members, many of whom had served on the former Joint Committee on Atomic Energy during the early days when the Atomic Energy Commission was still in being. Our common objective, with their strong backing. was to put into place all the best of Rickover, if you will, to insure against any raid on his well-proven standards or practices. Since time was then very short to effect legislative protection, Wegner and I set our sights on executive orders and related DoD directives, knowing that legislation would eventually be required to help guard against any future political mischief with the nuclear power program. We prepared all needed documentation, sent it forward from Navy to the Secretary of Defense, and to the White House. All this was done with Congressional knowledge. Documents were then signed by the President, the Secretaries of Defense and Navy and were ready for implementation by the Admiral’s birthday, a date set by the Administration for his retirement. Wegner and I were amazed at how easily we marched our documentation through the normally hazardous route for such matters. But, the old man himself helped us. How? Well, he felt he had been rather shabbily treated by the Administration in what he viewed as a stealthy forced retirement move. As a result, he let them have some of his well-known broadsides and the Administration was then ready to sign almost anything at that point to move the process along … a classic Rickover maneuver. So, as ususal the Admiral had won again. The long range sustainability of the Navy’s nuclear power program was a vitally important by-product of this resultant transition to new leadership in NR. The most important transition document was a Presidential Executive Order which set the stage for everything else. This Executive Order was turned into statue a few years later during Admiral McKee’s tour. Admiral Rickover’s visionary dream was now protected by law. By the way, it was another NR graduate, Mel Greer, who was a key member of the House Appropriations staff at that time who helped shepherd this legislation through the Congress. Those trained by Rickover were fast moving into other influential decision-making bodies in the government.

One related anecdote -what I didn’t tell you in carrying out this transition process was that Admiral Rickover refused to talk to either Wegner or me about it. For he would view any such perceived complicity with us as acquiescence to whatever Administration schemes were underway to move him into real retirement. But the old man really knew what was going on based on a number of earlier political signals that his continued two year Congressional extensions on active duty were probably in jeopardy.

Shortly after his death, I was requested by Eleonore to give Admiral Rickover’s eulogy at the memorial ceremony which was held here at the National Cathedral in 1986. I opened my remarks by employing a simple quotation from Voltaire in which he tried to capture the essence of a purpose of life as follows: “Not to be occupied, and not to exist, are one and the same thing.” And, I can think of no man who better epitomized that tough standard. For Admiral Rickover was occupied. He was a unique individual who accomplished great deeds through hard work and struggle, and thereby gained respect f a nation and the world. He was an original thinker who dared to peer beyond boundaries set by others, and therefore accomplished that, about which, others only dreamed. This was a special American, naval professional, visionary, intellectual, engineer, iconoclast and most importantly, teacher-Hyman George Rickover-whose life and accomplishments we celebrate at this 50th Anniversary of the Naval Reactors organization he founded, nurtured to maturity, and passed on without a ripple to a committed team he had personally trained.

In 1984, the Admiral was asked once by the TV commentator, Diane Sawyer, in an interview, “Do you believe there’s an afterlife?” Rickover responded, “I don’t know. I’ve never talked with many of the people there.” Ms . Sawyer responded, “You don’t think it’s likely there’s a heaven and a hell7″ He responded, .. I think you make your heaven and hell right here on earth. You should act on this earth as if it were heaven.” She asked no more questions along this vein.

On another mores serious occasion, however, for an address to be delivered at St. John the Divine in New York, the Admiral and Eleonore together wrote this final paragraph, which put into perspective the Admiral’s beliefs about life:

“The man who knows his purpose in life accepts praise humbly . He knows that whatsoever talents he has were given him by the Lord. And, that these talents must be developed and used, and that learning never ends . In this way, man renders thanks for the Lord’s gift-and finds meaning in his life.”

Admiral Rickover well used the many gifts given to him by the Lord, and found full meaning in his life, while sharing this meaning with those around him, many who are gathered here today. All those who served with him and those who follow in his footsteps are thankful-and blessed-that the Lord shared this gifted and talented man with us.

Happy 50th Anniversary, Naval Reactors.


As you gather to commemorate the accomplishments of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program and to pay tribute to the memory of Admiral Rickover, it is with the utmost respect that I extend hearty congratulations to all men and women associated with the Program from the United States Navy, our government, and American civilian industry.

In August 1948, the Program was created under the leadership of a brilliant, resourceful, and determined visionary, Hyman G. Rickover. This momentous event was the beginning of a scientific, technological, and military revolution that remains unprecedented among our Nation’s peacetime accomplishments. Only six years later, USS NAUTILUS (SSN 571) forever changed the character of sea power by signaling the historic message, underway on nuclear power.” Over the last half century, naval nuclear reactors have steamed over 110 million miles with an unmatched, absolutely flawless record of safety and performance. Today, nuclear powered aircraft carriers reign as the centerpiece of America’s strategy of forward presence, and nuclear powered submarines remain a crown jewel of our Nation’s defense arsenal.

As you gather to memorialize Admiral Rickover and to celebrate his remarkable legacy, recognize with well-earned pride the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program’s invaluable contribution to the peace and security of our great Nation. The men and women of the Armed Forces and the Joint Chiefs of Staff join me in sending best wishes for a memorable ceremony.

Henry H. Shelton


It is with great pride that I offer my congratulations on the 50th anniversary of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program. This historic occasion reflects an unequaled record of professional excellence and technological breakthroughs.

In early 1955, the world’s first nuclear powered submarine, USS NAUTILUS, put to sea. A mere five years later, USS TRITON followed the route of Ferdinand Magellan to become the first warship to circumnavigate the globe while submerged. That same year, USS GEORGE WASHINGTON, our first fleet ballistic missile submarine, fired the first Polaris missile while submerged.
This amazing enhancement to our national defense was quickly followed by the world’s first nuclear powered aircraft carrier, USS ENTERPRISE, guaranteeing America’s dominance at sea.

These early successes led to the fleet of nuclear powered aircraft carriers, cruisers and submarines that proved so vital to achieving victory in the Cold War and maintaining the peace today. As we look to the future, nuclear powered warships will continue to protect our Nation by offering vital options for preserving the peace, responding to crises, and prevailing in war.

Nuclear propulsion provides our aircraft carriers with virtually unlimited range and endurance at high speeds, allows carrying substantially greater amounts of munitions and aircraft fuel, and dramatically reduces dependence on logistical support. These advantages result in increased operational flexibility, independence, and survivability.

Nuclear power also arms our submarines with the stealth and mobility needed to survive in the most lethal battlespace. Whether operating independently or in concert with aircraft carrier battle groups, nuclear powered submarines are critical to achieving forward presence, sea superiority, and strategic deterrence.

The remarkable contribution of nuclear powered warships to our national security results from the commitment and hard work of thousands of individuals-military and civilian-who have served and are serving in the Nuclear Propulsion Program. I salute these patriots and mariners as we commemorate this landmark event. Well Done!

Admiral Jay L. Johnson, USN

Naval Submarine League

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