Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


Rensselaer Polytechnic: Institute
Alumni House, 30 December 1997

Captain Woodman, honored guests, newly commissioned officers, ladies and gentlemen, good morning. It is a pleasure to speak at the commissioning ceremony today and address the newly commissioned ensigns of the United States Navy. Each one of you enters the future with a real edg–a leg up. You’ve received a Rensselaer Polytechnic education-one with a reputation for turning out fine engineering and technical graduates-graduates with a can do reputation.

And with an added plus-an opportunity to serve your country as an officer in the United States Navy-a tour of duty in what I believe to be the finest military service in the world. You’ll be working with, and leading, first class people. You’ll have a greater responsibility at an earlier stage of your career, and you ‘ll develop leadership skills and self assurance faster than you would otherwise. The RPI-Navy combination is indeed a real winner-be it a four year hitch or a full Navy career.

Having personally been exposed to this combination, albeit 52 years ago, I envy you the experience and opportunities that you ‘II face in the coming years. Old sailors like to tell sea stories, so if I indulge from time to time, I hope you’ll understand. I joined the NROTC at RPI in 1943, during the war years. One of the pleasures was to undertake a four year Bachelor’s curriculum compressed to 2-1/2 years, and the all-too-brief summer vacation periods were replaced by shipboard assignments on escort vessels, protecting tankers from U-boats on the Caribbean to New York City run.

I remember one cruise was aboard ST. AUGUSTINE-a converted luxury yacht owned by Barbara Hutton. The ROTC crew was outfitted in bell bottoms like the ship’s crew-with one exception–our caps had a wide blue band around the brim. Pretty jazzy until we had liberty in Guantanamo Bay, and the word had already been passed by the real sailors to the local ladies that the blue piping identified those in the crew that had social diseases.

Not withstanding that, we had an uneventful return north. However, we speculated that with little in the way of compartmental bulkheads and watertight integrity, ST. AUGUSTINE, if torpedoed, would sink in about 90 seconds-a premonition unfortunately validated on the escort run a month after we were back at RPI.

Subsequent to my commissioning in early 1945, I was assigned to a new 2200 ton destroyer, USS PURDY (DD 734), that I picked up at Pearl. My billet was as navigator. I guess they figured a chem engineer was out of place in a ship’s engine room. The war was over, but being navigator was exciting as we made courier runs all through the inland seas of Japan-an area very heavily mined by U.S. aircraft. After 10 or 12 hours on the bridge, the supposedly 500 yard paths the mine sweepers cleared became, or at least seemed, smaller and smaller. PURDY was the first U.S. naval vessel to make port in Hiroshima after the bomb had been dropped. The chance to observe, first hand, the nuclear age was most sobering to all on board.

After my discharge in 1945, I signed up with General Electric in Schenectady believing my association with the Navy to be at an end. But it was not to be. GE asked me to work with a group in Schenectady which was to become the Knolls Atomic Power Lab and which had the mission to develop, fur U.S. Navy BuShips, a nuclear propulsion system fur submarine application. That started a 23 year assignment that put me in close contact with both Navy and civilian personnel in BuShips, Electric Boat, naval architects and ships’ crews and nuclear trainees. It was good to be home!

The BuShips program, which in a short span of years converted the U.S. submarine fleet to nuclear power, was a major undertaking. All submarines, up to 1946, were basically surface ships that were diesel powered. To submerge, the diesels were shut down and electric batteries powered the U-boats underwater, with submerged endurance limited to 1/2 hour at top speed or 12 hours at low speed. The submarines then had to resurface to recharge batteries from the diesels. Toward the end of WWII, the Germans fitted some of their submarines with a snorkel system-a large air intake tube, the height of the periscope, which sucked air in and allowed the diesels to be used at periscope depth. The snorkel provided much improved underwater range, but did leave a significant wake and severely limited the operating depth to a few feet. As I was to find out on a cruise on a snorkel equipped boat, another feature was a clapper valve that shut the air supply when waves covered the snorkel tube. The diesels remained operable because they just sucked air from the submarine bull instead. The effect was an atmospheric pressure change inside the bull from sea level to 15,000 feet, in seconds, and back again. I personally considered the effect on the crew to be almost inhumane.

When offered the potential of nuclear power, the prospective COs and their crews were ecstatic-unlimited cruising, never having to surface except to take on food, making voyages from the Atlantic to Pacific Oceans under the polar ice cap, true underwater hull shapes like a guppy and not like a surface ship, and with diving planes located on the conning tower (or sail). I had numerous impromptu lectures from the PCO of SEA WOLF (SSN 575), Commander Dick Lanning. His eyes would light up and he was actually talking like a fighter pilot-sub vs. sub battles at 1000 feet, etc. The submarine sailors could hardly wait.

The remarkable program was launched in 1946, headed by BuShips with Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics as builder and Westinghouse as reactor designer. The first effort, USS NAUTILUS (SSN 571), was to be a high pressure, water cooled reactor with uranium fuel, clad with zirconium. A full size replica of the nuclear machinery was to be built at the nuclear test site in Idaho, and followed by the ship construction at Electric Boat-almost in parallel. There was serious speculation that the zirconium clad fuel rods would exhibit excessive corrosion by the water coolant and hence BuShips authorized a full blown backup to the pressurized water program. The GE backup effort was just as comprehensive. The coolant was metallic sodium that was liquid from 200 degrees to 1600 degrees Fahrenheit It behaved well with the stainless clad reactor, but otherwise was nasty stuff. When exposed to air, liquid sodium burned vigorously; on contact with water it generated hydrogen and virtually exploded. My Westinghouse friends used to jest, saying if the oceans were made of sodium, GE would propose a water cooled reactor!

The water cooled USS NAUTILUS went to sea in January 1955 and sent the historic message: “underway on nuclear power.” The sodium cooled USS SEA WOLF (SSN 575) followed two years later. It was a real thrill to be on the original sea trials. I wasn’t as much concerned about the plant machinery as I was diving in a submarine with a crew that hadn’t been to sea in four years! Incidentally, the crew advised me that the SSN (as in SSN 575) stands for Saturday, Sunday and nights for crew members on a nuclear boat. SEA WOLF was a success and after the initial trials completed a 66 day submerged run covering 14,000 miles. A far cry from a four hour high speed run on a diesel/battery submarine!

Fortunately the potential corrosion problems of the water cooled NAUTILUS plant did not materialize, and all future GE effort was directed to the pressurized water type. The first being for USS TRITON, a twin nuclear reactor, 5900 ton ship as large as a WWII cruiser. TRITON circumnavigated the globe, totally submerged, in May 1960-41,500 miles in 84 days, following the original trek of Ferdinand Magellan. Later, with the advent of the Polaris missiles, the attack submarine bull design was modified to incorporate a 130 foot section for the tubes housing the Polaris missiles, the portion of the boat nicknamed Sherwood Forest. These submarines, named after American patriots, had the first successful Polaris firing by USS GEORGE WASHINGTON in July 1960.

The very extensive nuclear powered ship propulsion program has resulted in a current fleet of 72 SSN nuclear attack submarines, 18 SSBN ballistic missile submarines and 8 CVN nuclear powered aircraft carriers. I believe that, regardless of the cost, the program was a huge success. First and foremost was the deterrent effect of Polaris-armed nuclear submarines hiding in the ocean depths, any place around the globe, and capable of retaliation to an enemy attack on the U.S. It provides a deterrent that cannot be minimized. The will of the United States to use such capability, if necessary, I believe, kept the peace in the years of the Cold War. The unlimited range and flexibility of a nuclear carrier force, protected by nuclear attack submarines, also was and is a major deterrent particularly in today’s mid-East situation.

A second benefit from the extensive Navy program is the technology boost to the world’s civilian nuclear power efforts. With the exception of the former Iron Curtain countries, the technology of the Navy program has provided the stimulus for the development of the pressurized water reactors throughout the world. The U.S. Navy set the example, set the standards, funded most of the relevant technology, and, at least in the U.S., trained many of the operations personnel. These Navy reactor operators, on leaving the Navy, took key positions with many of our electric utility companies. And they will be available to be called on in future years when the world really gets serious about global warming and moves away from burning fossil fuel for electrical generation. We should talk not only about alternate energies but also about alternative wastes. For example, 1 kg of firewood produces 1 kwhr of electricity; 1 kg of oil produces 4 kwhr of electricity; 1 kg of plutonium produces 6 million kwhr of electricity. The limited volume of nuclear power wastes is one of the greatest advantages of nuclear power.

The success of the Navy nuclear program to a large extent was due to the caliber and dedication of the Navy personnel involved. Be they officer or enlisted, they believed in what they were about and without their commitment, it couldn’t have happened. One individual who merits being singled out was Admiral Hyman Rickover. More than any other, be was committed, impatient, an effective leader, a brilliant intuitive engineer, and a master politician. Without his drive the program would have cost more and taken longer. I’m glad he was on our side and I learned more from him than any other person in my career.

I’m afraid that this afternoon I’ve concentrated too deeply on the nuclear power side of the Navy but it’s the part I am familiar with and is a great success story. Some of you are committed to Navy pilot training, and your chosen branch has had their major success and heroes. I’ve watched too many carrier landings, really controlled crashes, to not have a great admiration for people who do that for a living. And I’m impressed with you computer system graduates applying your Rensselaer education to cryptology a science that gave the U.S. Navy a huge advantage in the Pacific theater in the 1940s.

Gentlemen, to you who are graduating and being commissioned this afternoon, my heartiest congratulations. Well done! God speed.

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League