Dr. Winkler is a historian with the Naval Historical Foundation.
Berthed at San Jacinto State Historical Site east of Houston on the Gulf Coast, the battleship TEXAS (BB 35) floats as a testimony to a time when the big gun reigned as the ultimate of firepower in the Navy’s arsenal. However, the ship’s legacy extends beyond the three decades of service she gave to the nation spanning two World Wars. Indeed, two of the officers who led the Navy’s effort to put strategic missile systems to sea cut their teeth on the vintage battlewagon.
Both William F. (Red) Raborn Jr. and Levering Smith served their initial seagoing tours as gunnery officers in TEXAS. Raborn graduated from the Naval Academy in 1928 and served in TEXAS until December 1932-just long enough to greet Smith, who reported aboard after graduating from Annapolis with the Class of 1932.
Following their tours in TEXAS, the two men’s careers veered off in different directions, but were destined to be reunited a quarter century later.
After two follow-on tours in destroyers, Raborn underwent flight training and earned his wings on April 16, 1934. For the next seven years he made numerous flight log entries as he flew with fighter, scouting, and patrol squadrons and taught as an instructor pilot at Pensacola. Ironically, during World War II he would not use his flying skills in combat. For the first 15 months of the war he trained aircraft combat crews from all services in his billet as the Officer in Charge of Free Gunnery School, U.S. Naval Aviation Station Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. After a tour in Washington as the head of the Aviation Gunnery Training Division within the office of the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Air, Reborn finally reached the front lines as executive officer in HANCOCK (CV 19). As that carrier’s second in command, he earned several decorations, including a Silver Star for his leadership to contain damage from a bomb hit sustained during the Okinawa campaign.
In contrast to Reborn, Smith remained a blackshoe. After a tour as First Lieutenant in SHAW (DD 373), Smith attended Naval Postgraduate School, specializing in ordnance. After spending ten months with the Bureau of Ordnance just prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, Smith went to sea and participated in eleven campaigns in the Pacific, serving on destroyers, cruisers, and carriers. Enemy action led to the loss of two of the ships he was serving on-HORNET (CV 8) and NORTHAMPTON (CA 26).
After the war, the two men continued to pursue their different career paths. Raborn had a series of afloat and ashore staff jobs before being assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance in July 1949. With the outbreak of the Korean War, he assumed command of the carrier BAIROKO (CVE 115) and conducted ASW operations in the Western Pacific into 1951. After this command tour, he attended the Naval War College. He then served as the Assistant Director of the Guided Missiles Division within the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. His last afloat tour was as Commanding Officer of BENNINGTON (CV 20). During that tour his ship experienced a series of violent explosions while steaming south of Newport, Rhode Island on 26 May 1954. His efforts to limit the damage and evacuate casualties earned him additional recognition. Promoted to Rear Admiral, Raborn had a temporary staff job with the Atlantic Fleet before being assigned as the director of newly created Special Projects Office (SP)-which today is known as Strategic Systems Programs (SSP). Taking charge of the office on December 5, 1955, Raborn became responsible for giving his navy and nation a critical strategic capability during the early years of the Cold War.
While manned aircraft served as the primary delivery system for nuclear weapons during this era, both the Americans and Soviets had exploited technology from Germany’s V-2 rocket program that had rained explosives down on London towards the end of World War II.
Three months prior to Raborn’s arrival for duty in Washington, President Eisenhower approved a National Security Council recommendation to develop a 1,500-mile ballistic missile system, “with consideration for both land and sea-basing.” A Joint Army-Navy Ballistic Missile Committee was formed on 8 November 1955 to work jointly on the development of the JUPITER missile system. While the Anny would focus on building the missile, the Navy would concentrate on developing the ship launching system. Secretary of the Navy Charles S. Thomas established SP on November 17, 1955 for this purpose.
Early on, it became obvious that the JUPITER missile, with its volatile liquid propellant, would be dangerous to place in a submarine. The question was whether solid propellant could power a submarine-launched missile. Levering Smith would provide the answer.
In September 1944, Smith began a three year tour as Head of Rocket Propellant, Pyrotechnic, and Chemical Warfare Division of the Bureau of Ordnance. He then reported to the Naval Ordnance Test Station, Inyokern, California, as Deputy Head of the Explosives Department. Smith’s responsibilities at this facility ty-presently called China Lake-increased to include appointment as Head of the Rockets and Explosives Department and Associate Technical Director. In April 1954, after he was promoted to captain and designated as an engineering duty officer, Smith assumed command of the Navy Ordnance Missile Test Facility at White Sands, New Mexico. With his experience in rocketry, Smith was tapped to join the growing SP organization in Washington.
The reunion of the two former TEXAS shipmates would last for several years. Reporting aboard in April 1956, he initially served as the head of the propulsion branch. By this time the Navy had obtained Office of the Secretary of Defense support to pursue solid propellant development. During the month that Smith arrived, the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation was awarded a contract to determine the feasibility of placing missiles in submarines.
Led by Raborn, SP worked rapidly through the remainder of 1956 to design a solid propellant missile for submarine use. On November 9, Secretary Thomas proposed the POLARIS Program to Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson. A month later, Wilson authorized the Navy to pursue the POLARIS program and terminate its participation in JUPITER. Smith’s responsibility increased to that of Associate Technical Director.
Able to act independently, Raborn and Smith accelerated the pace of the program. On February 8, 1957, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke issued a requirement for the capability to launch a 1,500 nautical mile solid propellant ballistic missile from a submerged submarine by 1963. Following the launching of Sputnik by the Soviet Union, this deadline was advanced to December 1960. SP made this deadline. Concurrent advancements in solid propellant, warhead miniaturization, inertial guidance and ship navigation systems, hypersonic aerodynamics, and compressed air launcher design coincided to make this possible.
In January 1958, as numerous sub-contractors and government agencies worked on these critical components, construction began on GEORGE WASHINGTON (SSBN 598). Originally designed to be the fast attack submarine SCORPION, the hull was extended to allow the insertion of a 130-foot missile compartment.
On December 5, 1958, the Navy placed Observation Island (EAG 154) in commission as a test bed for the missile system and a training platform for the crew that would go to sea in GEORGE WASHING-TON. Meanwhile, test POLARIS launches from Cape Canaveral failed to yield success until the sixth try in late April 1959. Four months later, the Observation Island successfully launched a similar test missile.
The Navy commissioned USS GEORGE WASHINGTON (SSBN 598) at Groton, Connecticut on December 30, 1959. As America’s first ballistic missile submarine proceeded with sea trials, inert missile launcher tests continued on the West Coast from a static underwater launcher located off San Clemente Island, California.
Just seven months after her commissioning, on July 20, 1960, GEORGE WASHINGTON successfully launched two POLARIS missiles from below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean off Cape Canaveral, Florida. Four months later, the submarine commenced her first operational patrol. Two months later, she would be relieved by USS PATRICK HENRY (SSBN 599).
However, the Raborn-Smith team did not have the opportunity to relax. Raborn would witness the commissioning of five additional SSBNs before he left SP in February 1962, promoted to Vice Admiral to serve as Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Development. Smith, who had the unique distinction of being directly selected by President Kennedy for promotion to Rear Admiral continued on as the technical director under Rear Admiral Ignatius J. “Pete” Galan tin. He eventually succeeded Galan tin on February 16, 1965, and would serve as director until November 14, 1977, when he was relieved by Rear Admiral Robert Wertheim.
Within seven years of the commissioning of GEORGE WASHINGTON, 41 POLARIS/POSEIDON fleet ballistic missile submarines, each carrying 16 missiles, would deploy to form an invulnerable leg in a triad that included land-based missiles and bombers that deterred Soviet attack and kept the peace during the Cold War-an outstanding accomplishment for those who served under the Raborn-Galantin-Smith watch. During Smith’s long tenure, the name of the office changed from Special Projects to Strategic Systems Programs (SSP). Smith’s legacy remains with us to-day-under his leadership SSP began the design work to eventually develop today’s more capable TRIDENT submarine fleet.
As for Raborn, his service to the nation continued after he retired from the Navy with a 14 month tour as the Director of Central Intelligence starting in April 1965. He would then go on to do consulting work, as did Smith when he retired in 1977. Born in 1905, Raborn died in 1990 at age 83.
The legacy of these two officers looms large in an organization that has recently passed its half century mark. A seminar that will highlight the history of the SP/SSP organization will be held at the U.S. Navy Memorial Heritage CenterTheateron the evening of April 11, 2006. Presenters will include three of the successors of Raborn and Smith, retired Rear Admiral Robert Wertheim, and Vice Admiral Kenneth Malley, as well as the current director of SSP, Rear Admiral Charles B. Young. For information on attending this event visit the Naval Submarine League website at www.navalsubleague.com.
Sources: Facts/Chronology: Polaris-Poseidon-Trident Strategic Systems Programs, 2005; Peter Boyne, “In the Beginning … There was Special Projects!”THE SUBMARINE REVIEW. (April 2002), and the biography files of Raborn and Smith maintained in the Operational Archives of the Naval Historical Center. The author thanks retired Rear Admiral Jerry Holland, and Captain Peter Boyne for their assistance with this article.