UNDER ICE: THE STORY OF WALDO LYON AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE UNDER ICE SUBMARINE
Under Ice is a story of the life’s work of Dr. Waldo Lyon as told to the author through interviews with Dr. Lyon and through the copious notes compiled throughout his scientific endeavors. Woven into the story of Waldo is the story of the Under Ice Program, instigated and guided by him, which gave the U.S. Submarine Force an operational under ice capability.
The author whets our appetites with an excellent history of early Arctic exploration and then leads into Waldo’s early life as a student at UCLA during the Great Depression, his marriage to Virginia Bakus, and his continuing education which resulted in his Ph.D. During this time, Waldo was associated with professors and scientists, working in varied fields such as radar, acoustics, and spectroscopy. War was just around the comer and it was very prophetic that Waldo became involved with several Navy Labs in the San Diego area and eventually elected to follow that route rather than accept an offer to become a physics professor at UCLA.
December 7, 1941 gave the scientific community at Navy Labs, myriad challenges. Waldo soon became involved in ASW and worked closely with Canadian scientists in the British Columbia waters. His nomadic life was forming and he managed to include his family in some spectacular junkets into the Canadian Northwest. Along with mosquito bites, were Ice Bug bites and Waldo’s future was formed.
The real story of Under Ice begins with Waldo’s desire to understand the frozen North in the event the Navy had to extend its influence into the Arctic. He was determined to go to the ice pack and find out what problems had to be solved in order for ships to operate in the ice environment. He even went to the Antarctic to experience the differences or similarities between the two poles. After considerable excursions into the fringe ice he realized that surface ships lent little comfort in an ice floe and that a submarine would be a more user friendly vehicle in which to continue his research and finally conquer the North Pole.
Waldo Lyon was a visionary and after his first voyage in a nuclear sub, he realized that the vast expanses of the arctic belonged to submarines and that it was up to submariners to conquer, tame, and rule, only they could live under the ice and therefore survey the topography and study the Arctic’s changing moods and its fickle character. Even though Waldo’s thoughts were Those of a true scientist, he was able to grasp the military advantages and consequence of conquering the Top-of-the-World. His goal was to see a fleet of nuclear submarines, equipped to operate in and out of the ice canopy, safely, efficiently, and routinely. Waldo was “The Advisor” aboard all the early submarines that ventured under the ice, but his goal was to train the submarine crews to become independent through experience and knowledge.
Need I say that there were people in high places, wearing Navy uniforms, who did not share his enthusiasm? Some did, and author Leary pointed out that Waldo’s Under Ice Program was like all other Navy programs in that personalities, budget constraints, and operational commitments wreak havoc with the best of efforts.
Waldo had his good years and his bad years depending on the personalities of the Submarine Fleet Commanders. The problems he faced in a peacetime Navy were great and when things looked most discouraging for Waldo’s program, Admiral Rickover delivered NAUTILUS, the Russians delivered Sputnik, and President Eisenhower sent NAUTILUS under the ice to transit the North Pole. Politics be damned, The Under Ice Program was back on track and the nuclear submarine saved the day.
After NAUTILUS transited the Pole, SKATE, SARGO, and SEADRAGON paved the way for development of a truly capable under ice submarine. Readers of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW will recognize the submariners who played important roles in The Under Ice saga. Many are mentioned and all became well known to the Submarine Force. The author, in order to write a true and exciting book, used all of Waldo’s notes, as well as those of the submarine commanders, contained in their detailed trip reports.
Books written by SKATE’s Commanding Office, Jim Calvert, and SEADRAGON’s George Steele, provided author Leary with breathtaking events to which he devotes entire chapters. SARGO’s winter transit of the Bering Strait, with Jack Nicholson in command. fills another spine tingling chapter. This transit, deep into the frozen waters of the Bering Strait, through canyons of ice within a few feet of the top of the sail and the ocean bottom within a few feet of her keel, created some very tense hours. Mother Nature presented some formidable odds. Those uniformed explorers deserve a lot of credit. They did it their way and came through unscathed. scared to death. but elated at the finish line.
Once those early under ice submariners were operationally competent, and adequately equipped, they runes their attention to under ice fighting, the ultimate goal for Arctic supremacy. Along with the development of tactics came the test and evaluation of weapons-torpedoes. The chapter covering this aspect of our weaponry leaves the reader to wonder how we spent so much money developing such sophisticated weapons that would not work under ice. In fact, one begins to wonder if they work anywhere. Who would have believed that the underside of the ice canopy captures torpedoes and, should they blow a hole in the ice, it refreezes intermediately.
At about this time in the calendar of events, Jim Calvert alerted Dr. Lyon that an outstanding officer who had served in SKATE was leaving the Navy and would be of value to Waldo’s program. Dick Boyle was hired and became Waldo’s man Friday. Though now retired, Dick is still actively carrying the torch for the continuance of a submarine capability of which we were once so proud. The new classes of submarines, under construction and on the drawing board, will be capable of deep water Arctic operations, but will have inadequate maneuverability to conduct shallow water operations under ice.
The author has done a remarkable job producing a biography and an historical account of ice exploration, each of which is a tribute to a great scientist Waldo’s ashes lie with his goal, his spirit, and his dreams-at the North Pole.
Reviewer’s Note: As the L. MENDEL RIVERS submarine goes out of commission and the 637 class disappears. we will probably never see another submerged transit of the Bering-Chuckchi Shelf. The Los Angeles, Seawolf, and Virginia classes will not have the low speed maneuverability to operate safely in shallow water under ice.