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“What one man can conceive, another man can achieve.” — Jules Verne, 1873

“It was the skipper’s intention to surface at the North Pole, but there was no break in the ice.”

— CAPT Shepherd M. Jenks, USN, Ret., Navigator, USS NAUTILUS (SSN-571) — North Pole Transit, 1958


From the Greek word nautilos, meaning mariner,many vessels shared the name Nautilus, some long before the fictional Nautilus surfaced in Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

The first was Robert Fulton’s Nautilus. His submarine design was patented in France in 1798. His prototype had a collapsible mast and sail for surface propulsion and a hand-turned propeller for underwater propulsion. Before USS NAUTILUS, there were five U.S. Navy vessels by the same name. Two were sailing ships, a 12-gun schooner, commissioned in 1803, and another schooner, commissioned in 1847 for service in the Mexican-American War.

There was a Holland-class submarine prototype originally named NAUTILUS at keel-laying that became USS H-2 (SS-29) in 1911. There was USS NAUTILUS II (SP-559), a motor patrol boat, commissioned in 1917 for WWI service and there was an old diesel-electric boat, the decommissioned O-12 (SS-73), that was converted for use by the ill-fated 1931 Wilkins-Ellsworth Trans-Arctic Expedition and renamed Nautilus in honor of Jules Verne.

USS NAUTILUS (SS-168),a Narwhal-class diesel boat, saw WWII action in the Battle of Midway. Due to her large size, she was outfitted as an undersea troop carrier, landing Marines in the Gilbert Islands in August 1942 and again in November 1943 and putting scouts ashore on Attu in the Aleutians in May 1943. All in all, she made fourteen war patrols. The Royal Navy had eight sailing ships, a destroyer and a submarine named NAUTILUS but that’s another story.

Jules Verne’s Fictional Nautilus

In 1871, Jules Verne published the French edition of Vingt Mille Lieues Sous Les Mers —the classic adventure of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus submarine. The British edition of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea followed two years later. Today, onboard the NAUTILUS (memorial museum) is a first edition of the novel; it was also onboard during the submarine’s historic North Pole run.

Verne’s concept of a submarine was prophetic. He envisioned a high-speed, deep-diving vessel that could travel under polar ice. He saw stealth as the key to secret military operations. His submarine theme was inspired by the ongoing work of pioneer submarine designers as well as exhibits at the 1867 International Exposition in Paris where Verne witnessed progress in developing diving suits and other mechanical marvels. He was highly influenced by the discovery of electricity as well as a model of the French submarine PLONGEUR. But it was Robert Fulton’s primitive Nautilus of 1800 that inspired the name for Captain Nemo’s submarine. It naturally followed that the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine should also carry the name Nautilus.

In nautical terms, a league refers to a measure of distance traveled at sea, not to a measure of operating depth. At the time of Verne’s writing, no submarine could travel one league, let alone the fabled 20,000. Regardless, as Verne’s story goes, it was deep in the Pacific where a frigate encounters a giant sea monster. During the ensuing attack, three men are thrown into the sea and promptly captured by the steel beast. The story follows their undersea adventures aboard the Nautilus, a secret electric submarine. Wandering the seas, seemingly in exile, Nemo directs Nautilus on a series of global adventures.

The mythical voyage starts in Japan and crosses the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean before venturing into the Red Sea. From there it traverses the Suez Tunnel, an underwater passage connecting the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea.Nautilus then visits the submerged land mass known as Atlantis, cruises in the South Atlantic and even noses up to the ice shelf in Antarctica, then reverses course, following the eastern seaboards of South and North America. The voyagers are attacked by a giant squid, walk along the sea floor with special air-breathing backpacks, and sink a marauding warship by ramming. They then cross the North Atlantic and are sucked into the Maelstrom off the coast of northern Norway. The three prisoners escape but the fate of the Nautilus and Captain Nemo remains unknown until the end of Verne’s sequel novel, The Mysterious Island.

Verne’s electric-powered Nautilus displaced 1507 tons com-pared to our Navy’s nuclear-powered NAUTILUS displacing 4092 tons. The mythical submarine had a double hull, a length of 230 feet, a beam of 26 feet and a draft of 24 feet. The real-life NAUTILUS, with a single hull, is longer at 324 feet but nearly matches Verne’s beam and draft at 28 and 26 feet, respectively. Both had floodable tanks and hydroplanes. Where they greatly differed was in test depth—an astounding 52,490 feet for Verne’s submarine. Crew complement also differed—only 20 or so for Verne’s Nautilus compared to 116 for USS NAUTILUS. Armament was simply a sign of the times–ramming at collision speed of 50 mph for Verne’s boat, six torpedo tubes for USS NAUTILUS.

Walt Disney’s first science fiction movie, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, is probably the best known of the many screen adaptations of Verne’s novel. Less than a month after release of the movie, the real captain, CDR Eugene P. Wilkinson, of the real NAUTILUS radioed “Underway on Nuclear Power”. NAUTILUS became the technological turning point in propulsion beneath the waves—the vanguard of a new age in undersea warfare.

The pioneering submarine designer Simon Lake was inspired by Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues. His first operational submarine sailed from Norfolk to Sandy Hook, New Jersey, a distance of 120 leagues. Oceanographers Robert Ballard, William Beebe and Jacques Cousteau were also inspired by Verne, as were CAPT Hyman G. Rickover, an immigrant from the Czar’s Russian empire, destined to become a 4-star admiral and Father of the Nuclear Navy, and an enterprising young naval officer, LT Shepherd M. Jenks.

NAUTILUS Navigator

When LT Shepherd Shep Jenks reported aboard USS NAUTILUS in 1956, he was originally assigned as the Engineer but then CDR William R. Anderson, Commanding Officer, made him the Navigator. It was a challenging role, especially when NAUTILUS embarked on the first-ever cruise under the North Pole. When we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the commissioning of the submarine in September 2014, Shep Jenks would have celebrated his 88th birthday. Sadly, he passed away on March 26, 2014

Shep graduated from the United States Naval Academy, class of ’49. After Submarine School in 1952, he was transferred to the USS BLACKFIN (SS-322) where he qualified in submarines. He was accepted into Nuclear Power School in 1955. He served aboard NAUTILUS from 1956 to 1958.

Operation Sunshine

In the late 1950s, the Cold War was heating up; we were beginning to build ballistic missile submarines; the International Geophysical Year—man’s most ambitious study of his environment—was well underway; A-bombs were being detonated in the Nevada desert; and the United States was caught flat-footed when USSR launched Sputnik-I (Russian for fellow traveler) in October 1957. The launch of Sputnik-II a month later caused great concern with predictions of imminent disaster for the Free World. Of course the worry was that if the Soviets can put satellites in space, they may soon be able to fire a nuclear-armed ballistic missile at the United States. The space race was on but the U.S. program was sputtering over USSR’s sputniks, as evidenced by the embarrassing, but highly televised, launch pad explosion of Vanguard in December 1957.

Reacting to the psychological impact of the Soviets placing two satellites in orbit, President Dwight Eisenhower directed the U.S. Navy to plan an undersea transit of the Arctic Ocean by the world’s first nuclear submarine. He felt such a feat would enhance the credibility of the United States. Looking back, Shep recalls, “I think the President wanted to reassert our position as a world power, but the main reason was to prove that we could transit to the North Pole by submarine.” Indeed it was most important to determine if the Arctic could be exploited to our strategic military advantage, especially in view of the emerging threat of ICBMs.

Officially, the White House called for Operation Sunshine, a misleading code name to imply a mission in warm southern waters. Furthermore, a cover story was concocted on why NAUTILUS had ventured into the Pacific. She visited San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle, ostensibly to help familiarize our Pacific forces with the advantages of nuclear submarines when in reality she was on a classified mission.

Navigation Challenges

The senior civilian scientist on the successful transpolar voyage, Dr. Waldo Lyon, had developed an instrument to help a submarine avoid ice collisions. It worked in the reverse of a fathometer, with an upward-looking sonar transducer to map the bottom profile of the icepack. Shep is highly complimentary of his civilian counterpart, the world’s foremost authority on sea ice, “Waldo Lyon was really good at his job, very intelligent.”Besides continuous use of her sonar systems and topside fathometer, NAUTILUS also conducted CCTV and periscope observations of the underside of the icepack. At that time of the year, they had continuous daylight.

And then there is the problem of magnetic compasses—they are just not reliable near the geographic pole, but instead tend to align themselves with the magnetic pole. Gyrocompasses, aligning to true north and measuring deviations from that axis, perform more reliably. But as East-West meridians or longitudinal lines converge on the pole, gyrocompasses also become erratic.

The solution was the Ship’s Inertial Navigation System or SINS. Shep explained, “We had the first SINS; it was installed aboard NAUTILUS in April 1958.” It operated independently of any reference point, except for the submarine’s starting position. It was an elaborate set of electronic equipment, unlike anything then in use. With it, the navigation team, which consisted of the navigator and four enlisted quartermasters, created a virtual map of the voyage from start to finish.

If NAUTILUS had depended on standard navigation equipment at the time, it could have become so confused that it risked traveling in circles or veering off on the wrong longitudinal tangent—a phenomenon the crew called longitude roulette.

Although impressed with SINS, the skipper had reservations, at least initially. Being new technology, he proceeded with considerable caution, minimizing the number of changes in course, speed, angle and depth, so as not to confuse SINS. As submariners of the late 50s and 60s will remember, there was a saying about SINS:If you tell it where it is, it will tell you where you are.As unproven as it was, this revolutionary navigational tool contributed greatly to the success of the mission.

Setting a Course for the North Pole

As the Navy continued to gain more operational experience with its first nuclear submarines, it came time to test their capabilities in the Arctic. By early February 1957, NAUTILUS undersea warriors could boast that their submarine had already steamed 20,000 leagues under the sea. In fact, they were so giddy about the submerged endurance capabilities of nuclear submarines that some jokingly stated they planned to surface every four years to re-enlist.

On August 19, 1957, NAUTILUS departed Groton on a classified mission. Ten days and a submerged run of 4000 miles later she rendezvoused with the conventional submarine USS TRIGGER (SS-564) in the north Greenland Sea. Before approaching the icepack, she practiced vertical ascents at zero-speed, and then made her first exploratory probe under the ice. At 81-degrees North latitude, NAUTILUS found open water, but overshot the mark and slammed into the ice, bending back both periscopes and damaging the leading edge of the sail. She was now optically blind, but managed to return to TRIGGER waiting at edge of the icepack. The crew, despite high seas and bad weather, straightened and repaired no. 1 scope but no. 2 was a total loss.

On a second excursion under the icepack in early September, NAUTILUS reached 87-degrees North—180 miles from the North Pole—further north than any ship had ever ventured. On that run she lost both gyrocompasses and in turning back she lost her way. Surfacing was not an option. By September 6th, TRIGGER was about to report NAUTILUS past due. Happily she showed the next day. TRIGGER then made a few short runs under the icepack and Nautilus made one more on September 8th. NAUTILUS then joined NATO’s naval exercise —Operation Strikeback.

Despite navigation system failures and periscope damage, NAUTILUS collected valuable scientific data on polar conditions and ocean depth for future Arctic operations. While Pentagon officials dribbled some details of the Arctic expedition to the news media, NAUTILUS ice operations were soon overshadowed by Sputnik news which in turn provided even more impetus for a transpolar voyage.

In June 1958, NAUTILUS departed Seattle with top secret orders to conduct Operation Sunshine, the first crossing of the North Pole by a ship of any kind. Ten days later, she passed through the Aleutians, gateway to the Bering Sea and the Arctic Ocean. She transited the Bering Sea and entered the Chukchi Sea, but was forced to turn back to Pearl Harbor due to a combination of giant ice stalactites hanging above the sail and shallow water below the keel—with fifty-two feet from the top of the sail to the keel, there was not much water space left for safe submarine operations. Shep points out, “We turned around not only because of insufficient safety margin for maneuvering, but because we did not have reliable charts.” In an emergency, the skipper was prepared to use torpedoes to blast a hole in the ice if NAUTILUS,which did not have a hardened sail, needed to surface quickly.

During the layover at Pearl Harbor, waiting for the Chukchi ice to thaw, Shep, posing as a DEW Line Inspector from the Pentagon, anything but a submariner, conducted many aerial reconnaissance flights over the icepack aboard a P2V, ironically, a submarine hunter operating out of Fairbanks. Shep explained, “I flew over the icepack to study the ice and look for holes.”He gathered vital information that allowed NAUTILUS to embark on a second attempt. The layover also provided an opportunity for the crew to brief our Pacific Forces at Pearl Harbor in the ways of the Nuclear Navy.

In a way, the misleading mission name, Operation Sunshine, really did apply for a time, as the boat waited more than a month in warm Hawaiian waters. Shep finally observed dramatic improvements in ice conditions. It was July 23, 1958 when NAUTILUS quietly slipped away in the night, bound for the Arctic and a secret west-east transit under the North Pole.

Transpolar Track

CDR Anderson, well aware that Washington was anxious to make headlines, suspected that there were plans for an Atlantic-side run to the pole by the nuclear submarine USS SKATE (SSN-578)—a race of sorts to the North Pole. After all, NAUTILUS had her chance, now it was SKATE’s turn, and she would have the benefit of data collected by NAUTILUS the previous year. As it turns out, SKATE suffered propeller damage in a collision with USS FULTON (AS-11) and did not leave until July 30th.

On July 27th, at a point where the 170-degrees West meridian crosses the Aleutians, NAUTILUS passed a group of volcanic islands to starboard with the name Islands of Four Mountains—seemingly ripped from one of Jules Verne’s novels. To port was Yunaska Island. Here NAUTILUS reached a new milestone, having now traveled 40,000 leagues.

NAUTILUS threaded her way through the Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska where the depth averaged a mere twenty fathoms. The crew was not too worried about being detected by the Soviets. According to Shep, “We were sure they did not patrol that area.” Now in the shallow Chukchi Sea and just above the Arctic Circle, NAUTILUS surfaced and spent two days searching for deep water at the edge of the icepack along Alaska’s northern coast.

Just off Point Barrow on August 1st, NAUTILUS submerged, turned due North and started her long historic run to the geo-graphic North Pole. This was a straight run under the ice along the 155-degrees West meridian through uncharted waters. Shep explains that they were able to do some mapping of the ocean floor, “That was one of the reasons we made the trip. I don’t remember discovering any underwater mountain ranges or canyons. It was basically a flat bottom.” Actually, bathymetric readings across the Arctic Basin showed depths plunging to 2100 fathoms between 72 and 74-degrees North latitude, then depths ranging between 500 and 2000 fathoms to the Pole. Shep was rather surprised about their soundings in the Arctic Basin. “It was very deep!” he recalled. Admittedly, there were some underwater mountain ridges that rose quite suddenly, giving pause to the quartermasters hovering over the plotter and causing the officer of the deck to order reduced speed.

About 1000 yards from the Pole, the skipper addressed the crew on the 1MC: “All hands, this is the Captain speaking, in a few moments NAUTILUS will realize a goal long sought by those who have sailed the seas . . . standby, 10, 8, 6, 4, 3, 2, 1, mark — for the USA and the U.S. Navy—the North Pole!”The submarine reached 90-degrees North latitude at 11:15 pm (EDT) on August 3, 1958 but continued her arrow-straight course along the 155-degree meridian, now headed due south. Shep reports, “It was the skipper’s intention to surface at the North Pole, but there was no break in the ice.” As tempting as it was, the skipper decided not to risk confusing his navigation gear by looking for a place to surface. As NAUTILUS zoomed under the Pole at 20 knots and 400 feet, the fathometer measured the depth at 2235 fathoms or 13,410 feet!

Shep does not remember any celebration when they reached the Pole, probably because he was busy in the control room, but the skipper read a letter he had composed for the President to ship’s company crowded into the crew’s mess. In the back of his mind, the skipper worried that SKATE could have reached the pole before them and was on her way back. There was no way of knowing.

It is interesting to note, while NAUTILUS crossed under the pole, a half-century earlier, RADM Robert Peary, USN crossed over the pole. He traveled over the pack ice by dogsled and reached the geographic North Pole on April 6, 1909.

After another day, NAUTILUS adjusted her southerly course to follow along the Greenwich Meridian into the Greenland Sea.By August 5th she was proceeding south between the northern extremities of Greenland and Spitz bergen. After traveling 1830 miles under the ice, NAUTILUS finally surfaced northeast of Greenland to radio CNO Admiral Arleigh Burke a simple but historic message “NAUTILUS 90 North”. On August 7th, between Iceland and Greenland, NAUTILUS passed SKATE heading north. Five days later, SKATE reached the pole and surfaced in a polynya (area of thin ice or open water), becoming the first to break through the icepack at the North Pole.

Meanwhile,NAUTILUS angled southwesterly through the Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland and made a slight jog toward Reykjavik so that the skipper could board a helicopter and make his way to Washington where he participated in a press conference and a briefing for President Eisenhower on the success of Operation Sunshine.

During the White House visit, an event that inadvertently failed to invite RADM Rickover, CDR Anderson was awarded the Legion of Merit by the President for pioneering a “Northwest Passage”, albeit, a submerged sea-lane, from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Later, the entire crew was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, the first peacetime bestowing of such honors. Meantime, with Executive Officer LCDR Frank Adams in command, NAUTILUS made a beeline for the British Isles where the skipper rejoined his boat.

An Extraordinary Naval Career

Shep, by then a rising star in the Submarine Force, was the commissioning engineer on USS GEORGE WASHINGTON (SSBN-598) in 1959 and onboard during the first Polaris ballistic missile firing. He was second in his PCO class; his good friend and NAUTILUS shipmate LT John W. Harvey finished first and was assigned as CO of the USS THRESHER(SSN-593). Unfortunately, Wes Harvey perished when THRESHER went down with all hands on April 10, 1963. Shep became the CO of USS SKIPJACK (SSN-585) in 1963, CO of Nuclear Power Training Unit at West Milton, NY in 1964, CO of USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN (SSBN-602) in 1968 and CO of the submarine tender FULTON in 1970. He retired in 1971 with the rank of Captain. After working for Bechtel for ten years, Shep had a new calling and became an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church. Reverend Jenks performed funeral services at Arlington National Cemetery for retired RADM Richard O’Kane, WWII Medal of Honor recipient, in 1994 and for retired CAPT William Anderson, his former commanding officer of NAUTILUS, in 2007.

Shep Jenks was a longtime member of the Naval Submarine League and the Navy League of the United States. He served on the Navy League’s USS New Mexico Committee in the early days, when he and wife Nancy lived in Albuquerque, and delivered the invocation at the naming ceremony with Secretary of the Navy Gordon England in December 2004. Shep and Nancy then moved to Vallejo, California.

As an aside, this past March, the Groton-based USS NEW MEXICO (SSN-779) participated with the San Diego-based USS HAMPTON (SSN-767) in ICEX 2014. Such Arctic exercises help prepare our Submarine Force for a wide range of operations in a most challenging environment. The base of operations for ICEX 2014 was Ice Camp Nautilus, 200 miles north of Prudhoe Bay. ICEX 2014 assures continued access to the Arctic region and hones the skills of our submarine crews as they transit between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.


CDR Bill Anderson, whose strength was in giving his ship-mates all the credit, considered the work of Shep and his team to be the most remarkable piece of nautical navigation ever accomplished. In the absence of nautical charts, taking star sightings, shooting bearings on landmarks, exchanging electronic transmissions, or viewing what lay ahead through a window like Verne’s NAUTILUS, the first submerged Arctic crossing was indeed remarkable. Years later, Shep reflected, “Our navigation team, by the grace of God, had individual personalities and gifts that perfectly fit the challenge we had on each of the voyages north”. Jules Verne once wrote “My readers are my passengers and my duty is to ensure that they are properly treated during the voyage and satisfied on their return”. Shep shared this sentiment. Safety of the crew was paramount and his careful navigation under the ice led to the safe return of NAUTILUS.

Polaris—the North Star—that holds steady as the northern skies circle around it, has guided sailors across the oceans for centuries. While Polaris was not available to assist Shep and his team, it was there in spirit, and it continued to play a significant role in Shep’s naval career—first Polaris ballistic missile submarine—first Polaris missile firing—first Polaris strategic deterrent patrol. CAPT Shepherd Jenks—a legend in the submarine community—saw dreams of early science fiction become a real-life ocean-to-ocean journey beneath the North Pole.

Note: The author thanks CAPT Shepherd Jenks, USN, Ret. for his valuable contributions to this article. Other contributors include Al Cole, Vice Commander of USSVI’s Mare Island Base, who served aboard USS TINOSA (SSN-606), USS SKIPJACK (SSN-585) and as COB on USS SEAWOLF(SSN-575); LCDR Ray Raczek, USN, Ret. who was the Reactor Control Division Chief aboard NAUTILUS on the 1957 polar run; and NAUTILUS Plankowner LCDR Tom Brames, USN, Ret.

About the Author: Dick Brown served when our Submarine Force was transitioning from die-sel-electric to nuclear propulsion and from Regulus to Polaris missile strategic deterrent patrols. He qualified on USS BARBERO (SSG-317) while on patrol in the Bering Sea, and was on the launch crew for the nuclear-tipped Regulus cruise missiles that BARBERO carried. He made four patrols on USS LAFAYETTE (SSBN-616) as a member of the Reactor Control Division. He currently chairs the Navy League’s USS NEW MEXICO Committee.

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