Editor’s Note: Dr. Don Walsh is the Submarine Officer who, with Jacques Picard, piloted the bathyscaph TRIESTE to the worlds’ deepest spot, Challenger Deep in the Pacific, in 1960. He later earned his doctorate in Oceanography and is a renowned expert in diving and undersea exploration.
This year the US Navy’s first nuclear submarine USS NAUTILUS (SSN 571), now a museum ship, celebrates the 50th anniversary of its historic 1958 submerged transit of the Arctic Ocean via the North Pole. It was a ‘first’ and truly a remarkable feat.
However, few remember that 26 years earlier there was another NAUTILUS that attempted this same voyage. It used the fonder US Navy submarine 0-12, manned by a civilian crew. Sir Hubert Wilkins, one of the great adventurers of the 20th Century, organized the expedition. In this book, author Dr. Stewart Nelson, skillfully recounts the short history of this ship and also gives the reader the fascinating story of Sir Hubert’s life and how he got a US Navy submarine for a private expedition.
Sir Hubert, an Australian who lived much of his life in the US, used a wide variety of platforms for his exploits. They included ships, aircraft, a dirigible and NAUTILUS. He primarily explored in the Arctic and Antarctic becoming one of the great polar legends. Yet few know that he also circumnavigated the world in the Graf Zeppelin or that he was involved with Roald Amundsen’s Norge zeppelin flight from Spitsbergen to the North Pole.
Now he would cross the Arctic Ocean submerged surfacing in open leads in the sea ice to charge batteries and ventilate the submarine. Forming an American syndicate he was able to get the US Navy to let him borrow an old submarine, the 0-12 that was to be scrapped. A WWI era sub with very limited submerged capabilities, it was not an ideal choice but for Sir Hubert it was the only choice.
After Wilkins’ team completely overhauled and extensively modified NAUTILUS in the Philadelphia Navy yard, the plan was to cross the Atlantic to Bergen Norway. From there they would proceed north to Spitzbergen in the Svalbard Archipelago before crossing the Arctic Ocean under the ice, with a brief stop at the North Pole. Their destination would be Point Barrow Alaska.
That was the plan but what actually happened was very different and the expedition became a magnificent failure. There were major technical problems requiring time consuming repairs so that when they got to Spitzbergen it was too late in the season to go into the ice. However they decided to go north just to the edge of the sea ice.
When NAUTILUS finally did attempt to submerge it was discovered that the sub’s stem planes were missing. Was it sabotage? Author Nelson gives the reader some interesting theories on what might have happened. Also NAUTILUS’s bow planes had been removed as part of the conversion work there so there was no way it could make any sort of controlled dive.
A determined Wilkins attempted to force the sub under the edge of the sea ice. The forward end of the boat got wedged there but it could go no further. So after doing some scientific observations the expedition returned to Bergen with great difficulty. The expedition was over.
The terms of the US Navy’s loaning the sub to Wilkins was that it was to be returned when the project was completed. However NAUTILUS could not withstand another Atlantic crossing and the Navy gave permission to scuttle it in Bergen Fjord. In November t 931 it was done and the 0-12 came to rest right side up at a depth of 1138 feet.
It remained forgotten until about IO years ago when the Norwegian Navy was doing testing of a mine hunting sonar and they discovered NAUTILUS. At that point author Nelson began to plan a visit to the site. Working with the German JAGO submersible, he was able to dive to NAUTILUS in 2006. This book follows the NAUTILUS saga from its conception in the late 1920′ s to Nelson ‘s visit two years ago.
It is a great, well-told sea story about a man, a dream and how failure was met and reluctantly accepted.