ADM. PADGETT: Our last but not least recognition goes to our second Distinguished Submariner who in many ways paralleled Ken Carr’s career, and holds a tremendous amount of legacy in the beginning of our nuclear propulsion program. Nick Nicholson graduated from the Naval Academy, I think, in 1946. He was the second to go into the nuclear propulsion program under Admiral Rickover. He was a shipmate with Ken Carr on the NAUTILUS and served on the NAUTILUS in those early years underway on nuclear power.
He went on to have a very, very distinguished career in the Submarine Force. Again, you can read his bio in the program. He moved up through the ranks. After he made flag he served at Submarine Group 8. He was also, like Ken Carr, a director of the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff out in Omaha, very critical in our strategic deterrence programs. He had great influence there. After retirement he has continued to be very, very active in the Submarine Force and community. He continues to this day to be very actively involved in our Naval Submarine League chapter in San Diego. So it is with great, great pleasure that I introduce to you, Vice Admiral Nick Nicholson.
ADM. ‘NICK’ NICHOLSON: You’ve heard a lot of high-tech stuff and what the status is of the Submarine Force and what it’s going to look like in the future. It was really a great thing to hear, today. But you’re not going to hear that from me. I will obey the five minute limit. You’re going to get a spot look at what 65 years ago felt like. Shortly after I got qualified in submarines in a diesel boat, a secret message came out asking for
volunteers for a new atomic submarine. Of course, every JO in the force wanted to do that. They had some sort of a committee to determine which officers to pick. The Atlantic picked two officers and the Pacific picked two officers. Somehow, I was one of those from the Pacific. I got orders to go get an interview with a Captain Rickover. Nobody in the COMSUBPAC staff or any other staff had ever heard of him at that time.
It would have been a good idea to have known him. They ordered me to make this interview, so I strode into his office in the bowels of the Bureau of Ships feeling very cocky about being selected. And he said, “What have you done to prepare yourself for this nuclear power program?” I said, “I went to a two-day radiological safety course last week.” Captain Rickover’s face went like that, and then he said, “How hard are the submarines working these days?” I said, “Well, we get underway about 8 o’clock and operate three or four hours, and then the skippers race to get to the buoy to see who can get to the bar first”. With this, he didn’t look very good, to put it mildly. He said, What other books have you read?” He said, “Have you even read any nuclear physics books?” I said, “No. He said, “What books have you read?” I said, “Mickey Spillane mysteries”. Man, I tell you, his jaw really went down with that. Then, he said, “Do you study at night?” I said, “I don’t do much studying at night since I just qualified in submarines. So we usually go to a movie because they’re only 10 cents out here.” Well that was it. He said, “That’s it.” He said, “You’ve had it. You’re wasting your life away. I can’t imagine what else you’re doing. Get out.”
I felt like I was crawling out under the door. So imagine my surprise when I suddenly got orders along with the other Pacific officer, to take 10 enlisted men and go out to Pittsburgh and have Westinghouse start training you in nuclear power. We did that and I thought why on Earth did he pick me to do this? I’m lazy and naïve, but at least I’m honest. That’s the only thing I could think I learned to be honest on those interviews on the very first one,
I think I got credit for that.
After 18 months of training in Westinghouse, our group of 12 and another group of 40 headed by Buz Cobean were ordered out to the desert in Idaho Falls to learn to operate the Nautilus prototype. So we got out there and we first had to write most all of the operating procedures because this was a steam plant and not a diesel plant and there wasn’t anything to work from. So we really did it and I was in charge of trying to get it all together. But we made suggestions to Captain Rickover on several things, engineering and so forth, on changes that should be made to make it safer and more effective. The Captain really welcomed those kinds of recommendations, as we all know. And not only did he welcome them, he expected them and you’d better get them in. We finally got the reactor critical in 1953. We did a full power simulated trial across the Atlantic, and then we provided electrical power for the town that’s right next to Idaho Falls. So the plant was a big success. We still had lots of time to do some tests there and wait for the boat to be ready, so we worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to do that. Then finally several of us got orders to go to the NAUTILUS pre-commissioning. Of course we used all the procedures that we had developed and Admiral Rickover’s people had okayed.
Then on this one wonderful day in January of 1955 I was Engineering Officer of the Watch and we were getting ready to get underway. There were thousands of people there. The skipper, who was Dennis Wilkinson, ordered all back two-thirds. We started to back out and a horrible noise came out of the right induction gear. I notified the bridge and shifted to electrical power. Dennis Wilkinson said—he was up with Admiral Rickover who was on the bridge—and Wilkinson said, “I think we’d better go back in.” Rickover said, “That doesn’t sound to me from what I heard that this is serious. I’d wait a few minutes.” And as has happened to all of us in here, one of your best guys, a machinist mate, found that it was just a minor item in the gear, a locking pin on a retaining bolt, just a minor thing. So Rickover said, “That’s fine with me.” Of course, Dennis was ready to go.
So we then shifted back to nuclear power and started backing out. Somehow because of that machinist mate finding a minor item that we could get by on, saved an absolute disaster to the Submarine Force; and if you look back on it, probably to the world, I don’t know. They never found out about that. Dennis then sent the message Underway on nuclear power and they just went around like a flash and we were able to get it repaired without anybody knowing.
I retired in 1980 and we moved out to California in 1985. Just a few weeks after that I joined the southwest chapter of the Naval Submarine League and have been enjoying that and trying to help. In general, I get more out of them than they ever got out of me. But as you get my age, you don’t have that many people your age. So going to these great spots is like going back to each boat you had and becoming a submariner for at least once a month. So I want to thank you.
I want to thank you, Admiral Mies, for giving that call to notify me of this award. I really think it’s the nicest thing that has happened to me in a long time and I’ll treasure this award for—I was going to say all my life, but I don’t think I’d better do that one.