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First Submerged Circumnavigation of the World

The ship which left New London, Connecticut for her shakedown cruise on the afternoon of 16 February 1960 was already unique. She was the only non-Soviet submarine to have a dual reactor propulsion plant, and at a length of 4471/2 feet and surface displacement of nearly 6,000 tons, was the largest sub ever built. I recall clearly the day TRITON was launched, 19 August 1958, when as a boy of eight-and-a-half I stood on the dock at Groton, staring high up at the line of men in dress-whites on the forecastle, and with the help of the unfortunate Electric Boat official who had drawn children ‘s duty finally located my uncle Ned Beach who had not yet ascended his platform. Equally vivid is my memory of the afternoon of 10 May 1960, when I came home from school and my mother gave me the newspaper with Ned’s photo and the astonishing story of TRITON’s submerged circumnavigation on the front page. Today, although hat f a century has passed, this epic voyage remains as one of the proudest and most significant achievements in the history of our Navy.

Following TRITON’s launch in 1958, fitting out and preparation for sea trials would require another thirteen months, during which the crew were assembled and organized into a cohesive ship’s company. Both the future skipper and the executive officer, Ned Beach and Will Adams, had undergone months of nuclear power training at the NAUTILUS prototype power plant near Arco, Idaho to prepare for service on the only two-reactor nuclear submarine in the fleet. The entire engineering crew came directly from TRITON’s own prototype at West Milton, New York.

But whatever their background, all officers and men aboard TRITON were proficient in their duties, and as the circumnavigation would later prove, .. goddamned good people.” Having passed her initial sea trial at the end of September 1959 and preliminary acceptance trials during the latter part of October, TRITON was commissioned on the tenth of November, commanded by Captain Edward L. Beach, Jr. The ship had been named for the sub TRITON of World War II, which after compiling an outstanding record, was presumed lost to Japanese depth charges on 15 March 1943 and now rested at the bottom of the South Pacific. But her ship’s bell had been removed before that tragic day and kept for years by her first skipper, whose widow now graciously presented it to the grand new ship of that name.

Ned Beach, first son of Captain Edward L. Beach, Sr., was a highly-decorated submarine officer who had seen action at the Battle of Midway and in twelve combat patrols in the Pacific. From 1953 to 1957 he had served as naval aide to President Eisenhower, and was also the author of the best-selling novel, Run Silent, Run Deep. Tom Clancy was later to write, “Ned loved the Navy as a man might love his own family. For the Navy was his family, the junior officers he trained and the enlisted men who did so much of the hand-labor in the boats. He served with distinction approaching perfection and, like his father, would then write about the things he’d seen and done.”

Torpedo trials and special tests followed the commissioning, and in early December 1959 TRITON returned to Groton for installation of some new communications equipment. All aboard were grateful to spend the holidays with their families but became restless in January and were anxious to leave the dock at Electric Boat. The ship was scheduled to begin her shakedown cruise to the North Atlantic on 16 February and valuable time was passing. Finally, toward the end of January, EB finished the equipment installation and TRITON got under way immediately to complete all remaining tests and evaluation. She returned to New London late in the evening of 1 February 1960, and once safely moored, Captain Beach came down from the bridge and found waiting on his desk a soiled and slightly crumpled envelope, apparently carried some distance by hand.

Operation Sandblast
Inside was a brief note: Ned was required to be in Washington in three days and was to call immediately for instructions. Accordingly, early on the morning of the fourth of February, he appeared in civilian attire at the office of the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Fleet Operations and was ushered at once into an inner room. Maps were spread out on a large table, and in addition to the Deputy Chief, Admiral Wallace M. Beakley, two other admirals and a number of captains and commanders were present. Almost immediately, Admiral Beakley came to the point. “Beach,” he said, “you’re about due to start your shakedown cruise. Can TRITON go around the world- submerged-instead?”

“Yes, Sir!”

And so TRITON’s carefully prepared trip to the North Atlantic would be scrapped for a Top Secret expedition infinitely more exciting, but the departure date of 16 February must still be met. Operation Sandblast, the name chosen for the circumnavigation, would closely follow the track of Magellan’s voyage of 1519, and among other activities was to collect oceanographic and gravitational data. But Captain Beach was puzzled by a remark made at the end of the conference: “There’s a lot more riding on this than what you’ve heard today, Ned. We’re depending on you to get back on the tenth of May!” The crew were not to know of the change in plans until TRITON was under way, but this presented a number of problems. Personal affairs would have to be arranged for an extended voyage which was sure to raise questions. Additional provisions and instructions to all hands to lay in an extra supply of personal necessities were issued. The secret of the voyage could not be kept from the officers and Chief Quartermaster, however, because there was simply too much work for them to do. And although it was not entirely authorized, Ned’s wife Ingrid was given the clue. But one bit of information Ned did withhold was the urgency of returning on time.

A sea trial on 15 February uncovered a few problems with some of the new gear installed for the expedition, however emergency repairs the next day at Electric Boat put all but the wave motion sensor back in commission. But TRITON could not be delayed for that final piece of equipment. So at 2: 16 PM on Tuesday, 16 February 1960, her last line was taken in and the great ship eased away from the dock at Groton to earn her place m history.

Bound for “The Rocks”
An hour and a half later, TRITON passed Montauk Point Lighthouse, turned due south, and increased speed to flank. A couple more hours and she had reached the thirty-five fathom line, and Captain Beach gave the order to take her down when ready. “Depth one hundred and fifty feet, no closer than seventy-five feet from the bottom; at one hundred and fifty feet sounding, follow the bottom on down to running depth.” A short time later he returned to his tiny stateroom, sat at his desk, and began his report: “Dived. We shall not surface until May.”

The first leg of the voyage was a 3,250-mite run to St. Peter and St. Paul’s Rocks, a small group of islets some five hundred miles northeast of the bulge of Brazil and fifty miles north of the equator. This was the point selected for the start and end of TRITON’s circumnavigation. By the afternoon of 17 February the crew had realized that the ship was not on course for the North Atlantic and pressure was building on Captain Beach to inform them of their true destination. His announcement was heard throughout the ship: “Now, at last, I can tell you that we are going on the voyage which all submariners have dreamed of…. We have the ship and we have the crew. We are going to go around the world, nonstop. And we’re going to do it entirely submerged!”

The Court of King Neptune
On 24 February TRITON reached the vicinity of St. Peter and St. Paul’s Rocks- barren and forbidding bits of land topped with guano. For several hours she cruised slowly about, gathering data and photographs, while those who were interested were permitted to come to the conning tower for a look.

Four hours later TRITON hit the equator with a grinding jolt, or more accurately, a water slug fired from the forward torpedo room. What followed was a time-honored tradition; that all those who had not crossed the equator before (known as pollywogs) must be properly indoctrinated. The captain was promptly notified that King Neptune and his Royal Party had just arrived on board and that his presence was desired in the crew’s mess hall. He wrote in the log:

“2003- Their Majesties, Neptunus Rex, and his Queen, accompanied by Davy Jones, the Royal Baby, and the entire Royal Entourage, ascended from the depths and entered the ship through the After Torpedo Room escape trunk to greet all Loyal Shell-backs and to visit their wrath upon the lowly pollywogs who had dared to enter his realm.”

After assuming operational control of TRITON, Neptune summoned unworthy pollywogs one by one into the Royal Presence to be confronted with evidence of their guilt- and to tremble in fear before his Magnificent Grandiloquence.

There followed accusations of great crimes and incredible wickedness against the hapless pollywogs, all of whom were incompetently defended by the Royal Sea Lawyer who had never won a case. Terrible punishments were inflicted with glee, such as artful haircuts other humiliations, but at the end of his ordeal each wretched pollywog received a salt water shower to remove the last vestiges of pollywogness. Thus purified, all became loyal Shellbacks and worthy to enter the watery realm of the Royal Ruler of the Raging Main. The first leg of her trip now completed, and all those willing now initiated into the mysteries of the deep, TRITON proceeded toward the southwest and Cape Horn.

Triple Trouble
The run down the coast of South America started well enough, but good fortune was not to last. On I March the ship’s doctor told Captain Beach that J.R. Poole, Chief Radarman, might have a kidney stone. Usually the condition cleared up spontaneously, but if not, treatment would require special medical tools which TRITON did not carry. Without that proper care the individual would suffer terribly and in extreme cases could die. While pondering how to help Poole, Ned received another disturbing report. There was a problem with the fathometer. The strength of the echo was becoming noticeably weaker and the equipment could fail completely at any time. As TRITON would be traveling in uncharted waters, a working fathometer was vital, but if need be, precautions could compensate for its loss.

That evening brought more bad news- something might be seriously wrong with one of the reactors. But apart from monitoring the readings to see that they didn’t go over limits, and investigating to determine if the issue were caused by a design flaw which might manifest itself in the other reactor, nothing needed to be done at the moment. Poole, fortunately, was better.

In the control room men were working on the fathometer problem, and after ascertaining the status, Ned proceeded toward the engineering spaces. Soon after joining the engineers there, he received a call to the effect that the trouble with the fathometer had been located and would be fixed in a couple of hours. But then the next reactor readings were delivered and showed the plant to be at the limits of safe operation. “Shut her down,” said the captain.

With the reactor secured, all readings were carefully reviewed and before long the crucial anomaly was located. There was nothing wrong with the plant after all- the problem had simply been an error in calculation. Captain Beach gave instructions that this be verified and then made his way forward, his only concern now being Poole.

Mission in Jeopardy
Poole’s condition worsened during the early morning hours of the following day, at the same time that the sonar picked up a possible submarine contact. The submarine turned out to be a school of fish, but Poole’s situation was real and had to be resolved before TRITON rounded Cape Horn. From a briefing prior to departure, Captain Beach knew that the cruiser MACON was likely to be in the waters near Uruguay. If necessary, it might be possible to transfer Poole to MACON- how to do so without surfacing was a question for later.

Surprisingly, Poole improved that day, and on the morning of 3 March he looked almost well. TRITON’s course for the Cape would bring her close to the Falkland Islands and a run near Port Stanley for photo reconnaissance. But just as the ship came within range of the Falklands, the doctor sought out the captain once again. It was Poole, and he was worse than ever.

There was no question about risking Poole’s life. He had to get to a hospital even if it meant jeopardizing the mission. TRITON turned and raced north toward Montevideo. Her plea for help was drafted, encoded, and transmitted. It concluded: “Can MACON meet us and transfer Poole?”

Rendezvous with USS MACON
If MACON could not assist, then TRITON would have to surface and enter port. But if the cruiser were in the vicinity of Montevideo, then TRITON’s mission could be preserved. She could broach with only the upper part of the conning tower above water. Poole and the transfer party would be inside the conning tower sealed off from the rest of the ship, and the pressure hull and superstructure would remain entirely beneath the surface.

Just before midnight TRITON received a message from Rear Admiral Lawrence R. Daspit, ComSubLant. MACON was under way and would rendezvous at the time and place requested. Some twenty-seven hours later, in the early morning darkness of 5 March, the two ships were in position.

TRITON’s conning tower was three feet above water, illuminated by the huge spotlights of MACON, five hundred yards distant. Captain Beach was the only man topside. MACON’s deck crew hoisted out a whaleboat, and when it was in the water, Beach ordered the topside line handling party to the bridge. Soon after, MACON’S boat alongside, Poole appeared on deck steadied by two men. Two others in the whaleboat made ready to catch Poole as their craft rocked from side to side, and seizing the moment when the gunwale of the boat was level with TRITON’s deck, he was propelled into the whaleboat and the transfer was complete. The line is cast off. the boat pushes away, the engine is gunned, and Poole is gone.

TRITON returned to running depth and headed south, wide open for Cape Horn.

Cape Horn to Easter Island
Two days later, on 7 March, TRITON reached the rocky tip of South America. In the days of sailing ships, if a sailor rounding the Horn saw the promontory, it was legend that a shipwreck was sure to follow. But the modem tradition, Captain Beach announced, was much different: a sailor who deliberately viewed Cape Horn would have good luck follow him all the rest of his days at sea. To give every man aboard his time in the conning tower, TRITON circled twice and passed in front of the Cape five times.

The run northwest to Easter Island would be twenty-five hundred miles through deep water, but there was trouble almost immediately. Late in the night of 8 March, a severe leak around the starboard propeller shaft broke loose, forcing great sheets of water perpendicularly out from the shaft around its entire circumference. Captain Beach ordered the starboard shaft stopped and the ship brought to a shallower depth. With the reduction in outside water pressure, the leak decreased, and investigation showed that the water seal had been improperly installed.

It had become partially cocked on its seat and proved impossible to straighten, but after many hours of back breaking work a modified clamp was in place and the leak was manageable.

At 0020 on 12 March, the captain recorded in the log that the fathometer was once again out of commission. This time it could not be fixed since the problem was determined to be in the installation of the fathometer head itself. But even without the fathometer TRITON could continue her voyage, using her search sonar to detect shallow water and warn of sudden changes in the depth of the ocean bottom. At five o’clock on the morning of 13 March, TRITON came to periscope depth and shortly afterward made radar contact with Easter Island. Two hours later she commenced photographic reconnaissance of its northeastern coast, and at about 0930 the huge stone monolith re-erected by Thor Heyerdahl was located. As at Cape Horm, anyone who wanted a glimpse of the statue was invited to come to the conning tower. Then at a quarter past eleven TRITON departed Easter Island for Guam, a distance of more than sixty-seven hundred miles.

Sea Monster at Mactan Island
The passage across the Pacific took two weeks. On 20 March TRITON was at her closest point of approach to Pearl Harbor and celebrated with a Hawaiian Luau complete with poi, leis, Hawaiian shirts, and a coconut tree. Three days later the ship crossed the International Date Line and Captain Beach received a message from King Neptune, informing him that due to exemplary conduct during the crossing of the equator four weeks earlier, there was no need for further examination and all hands were automatically inducted into The Royal Order of Golden Dragons.

On 27 March TRITON reached her closest point of approach to the presumed location at which TRITON of World War II had gone down in action. A memorial service was held with the captain in dress uniform and sword, and at its conclusion, the ship’s company came to attention as the forward torpedo tubes were fired three times in salute.

On 28 March TRITON made landfall on Guam, and at 0726 came to periscope depth. For one seaman, that day was especially significant. Edward Carbullido was born on the island and as a youth had lived through the Japanese occupation. Just after the war he enlisted in the Navy and had not been back in fourteen years. So after her photographic reconnaissance drill, TRITON closed Agat harbor to give Carbullido the best view possible of his home town. No one asked for any of his time in the conning tower- he received maximum periscope liberty.

Three days later, on 31 March, TRITON passed through Surigao Strait, crossed Mindanao Sea, and started to work her way up Bohol Strait northward to Mactan Island and Magellan Bay. There, in April 1521, the Portuguese explorer lost his life in a battle with native warriors. TRITON entered Magellan Bay at 1100 on I April and began to search the south shores for the monument. Twenty minutes later it came into view- a rectangular pedestal, gleaming white in the sun. Just before noon, upon raising the periscope again, Captain Beach found himself looking straight into the eyes of a young Filipino in an outrigger canoe. Down went the periscope, but the opportunity for a picture couldn’t be missed. “Up periscope!” said the captain. “There he is- here!” After some pictures, “Down periscope!” Then a moment later the periscope was raised once more, and the young man was still there, staring right at it.

After spinning the periscope for one last look around, Captain Beach snapped up the handles. “All ahead two-thirds …. Right full rudder!” TRITON slipped away as the young man in the canoe began to paddle furiously in the opposite direction. The only unauthorized person to spot TRITON during the voyage, he was later located and identified as Rufino Baring of Mactan Island, age nineteen. On that day, coincidentally April Fool’s Day, he was certain that he had seen a sea monster.

Casualty in the After Torpedo Room
On 5 April Triton transited Lombok Strait, between the islands of Bali and Lombok, and entered the Indian Ocean. Five days later, after a complete sweep-out of the atmosphere of the ship, ventilation was secured for a sealed-ship test. During the next two weeks it would be found that a standard level of oxygen and humidity was much more comfortable than the daily cycle of gradually diminishing oxygen followed by rapid replacement with fresh sea air.

The no-smoking test began on 15 April and proved to be very difficult for some of the smokers, who also had to contend with the superior attitude of a number of their non-smoking shipmates. The test was expected to require only a few days but all that was said was that it would last no more than ten days. Shortly after the smoking lamp was put out tensions began to build, and minor hostility and irritability soon became evident.

On Easter Sunday, 17 April, Triton re-entered the Atlantic Ocean and reached Cape of Good Hope. But the sky was overcast and so photo reconnaissance was not as successful as at previous landfalls. Mt. Vasco de Gama reminded Captain Beach of Diamond Head, although not quite so rugged, and there was surprisingly little vegetation for a temperate latitude. At 1721 Triton departed for St. Peter and St. Paul’s Rocks, eight days distant and the point which would mark the finish of the circumnavigation.

On 18 April the no-smoking test came to an end, but the captain decided against merely ordering the smoking lamp relit. Instead he fired up a cigar and strolled about the ship, casually blowing smoke in the faces of various people. “Don’t you wish you could do this?” he inquired pleasantly. This new torture by their sadistic captain was too great for the suffering smokers to bear, and within seconds they had mutinied and were busily lighting cigarettes.

Late in the evening of 24 April, with the circumnavigation virtually complete, a serious casualty occurred in the after torpedo room. The torpedoman on watch, Al Steele, heard a loud report followed by a heavy spraying noise, and upon turning saw clouds of oil vapor issuing from beneath the deck plates forward on the starboard side. Steele instantly called the control room and then dived into the high-pressure spray to find and isolate the leak. He was able to shut one of two quick-closing valves but the other resisted until help arrived. For his swift and decisive action, Steele was to receive a Letter of Commendation for meritorious service and a Commendation Medal.

History is Made
At 1500 on Monday, 25 April 1960, having carefully passed on the western side of St. Peter and St. Paul’s Rocks this time, the first underwater circumnavigation of the world was complete. The total distance traveled Rock to Rock was 26,723 nautical miles, and elapsed time was 60 days of twenty-four hours, plus 21 hours. Average overall speed came to slightly more than 18 knots.

But it was not yet time for TRITON to return home. She proceeded to a point off Cadiz, Spain, and was met on 2 May by the destroyer Weeks. Remaining submerged and using the conning tower once again as an air lock, the bronze plaque designed in tribute to Magellan was brought aboard. It would later be presented to Spain by the American ambassador. TRITON then headed west across the Atlantic for the Delaware Capes, and early on the morning of Tuesday, 10 May 1960, she surfaced, having been submerged for exactly 83 days and 10 hours.

As TRITON steered toward the rendezvous off Rehoboth Beach, the darkness of night gave way to heavy gray skies. Two helicopters approached from the west and soon one was overhead, lowering a seat to the deck. Captain Beach was lifted up and into the helicopter, and TRITON set course for New London.

Waiting for Ned at the White House were many well-wishers, and most importantly, his wife Ingrid. The helicopter landed a few yards in front of the South Portico and TRITON’s captain was soon in the midst of a celebration – later he was ushered into the oval office for a meeting with President Eisenhower. And now Captain Beach understood the urgency of returning on time. Someone said to him, “You’ve shown the oceans are still free to all. Of all the things we’d planned to prove for the summit conference, you were the only one to come through!” TRITON’s epic voyage had enhanced American prestige just before the 16 May opening of the Four Power Summit in Paris.

Five hours after leaving TRITON’s deck, Captain Beach returned in the same manner. The next morning in drizzling rain, the greatest submarine in the world proceeded to berth in New London, welcomed by pleasure boats and cheered by people on both banks of the Thames River. Among the women and children assembled on the dock were signs, “Welcome Home TRITON,” and the Coast Guard Band played martial music. “Dockside liberty” was announced pending the arrival of Secretary of the Navy William B. Franke who was en route from Washington. After presenting the Commendation medal to Steele, Franke then awarded the Presidential Unit Citation to the ship, a grateful acknowledgment from their country to the men now reunited with their families and filled with the conviction of “a job well done.”

Many thanks to Ingrid Beach, Jim Hay, and Al Steele/or their invaluable assistance with this article.)

TRITON’s voyage was not without equipment problems typical of a shakedown cruise. Some of these were:

  • Smashed and rusted flashlight lodged in induction valve seat.
  • Leak in port engine condenser circulating water pump.
  • Bad electrical connection in circuit of reactor warning siren.
  • Insufficient ventilation for ship inertial navigation system (SINS).
  • Jammed outer door on garbage ejector.
  • Fathometer malfunction and failure.
  • Reactor shut-down due to calculation error.
  • Starboard propeller shaft leak.
  • Control air compressor electric motor failure.
  • Periscope sextant out of order.
  • Severe oscillation in gyro repeaters.
  • Active sonar out of commission.
  • Stern plane control valve – cracked body.

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