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According to a frequently told story, Admiral Rickover was asked why the Navy had changed its practice of naming submarines after fish, and he reportedly replied “fish don’t vote,” indicating that politics had something to do with the change. When I was serving in the Submarine Warfare Division(OP-31) way back in 1969-1970 before OP-02, etc., etc., I had occasion to gain some insight about Admiral Rickover’s political acumen in a rather interesting fashion.

I was OP-313 and the only non-nuclear branch head and only Commander-rank branch head in the Division. For some strange reason a lot of little tasks seemed to fall my way. One of them dealt with coordinating congressional correspondence dealing with submarines. Probably that dumped the specific letter of which I am reminded, into my in-basket. The letter in question was from a retired submariner Vice Admiral to Admiral “Chic” Clarey, then VCNO. Clarey and the writer were contemporaries, had served as submarine COs in the Pacific, and collected numerous awards for their respective war patrols. The personal letter reminded Admiral Clarey of this and noted that only one thing was lacking to make his life full and complete. That was to have his wife named as a sponsor for a new submarine. Of course by this time that meant a nuclear submarine, either an SSN or SSBN.

It sounded like a natural fit to me in my naivete, but the cover sheet from Admiral Clarey’s office indicated that the answer was “No”, to be expressed in a pleasantly regretful tone. I puzzled over the instructions but finally put together a reply that made it through the 03-chop chain and was signed out by Admiral Clarey.

The issue bothered me because as I said earlier the lady in question seemed a most appropriate choice. Her husband had made many successful war patrols as a CO, he had gone on to flag rank, had served as a Vice Admiral and what more could you want? So I inquired. I quickly learned that Admiral Rickover controlled the choice of commissioning sponsors for all nuclear-powered ships. That got my attention.

My next step was to consult the Electric Boat Company Data Sheet. It listed every submarine ever built for the United States Navy, their sequential number beginning with USS Holland as number I, their length, breadth, etc., their commissioning commanding officer and their sponsor. I drew a line on top of USS Nautilus (SSN-571) and started scanning all the sponsor’s names for SSNs and SSBNs. I seemed to see some familiar sounding names. I got out my Congressional Directory and cross-checked the sponsor’s names against a listing of senators and representatives. There appeared to be a high correlation. I went even further and checked Committee assignments for those members whose mothers, wives or daughters had somehow wound up as sponsors of nuclear submarines. Here again the correlation was very high. Members of authorization committees, appropriation committees and the nuclear energy committee seemed to have done particularly well. It has been a long time now and I don’t remember the exact number but it seems to me that the correlation between sponsor and member of Congress-relative was at least 90 percent. It became clear to me that while Admiral Rickover knew that fish didn’t vote he was well aware that Senators and Representatives did.

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