Father of nuclear Navy — Film shows how Capt. Rickover bucked authority, helped win Cold War

  • Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, right, greets President Jimmy Carter and first lady Rosalynn Carter at the Brunswick, Ga. Airport, May 27, 1977 as they departed for Port Canaveral, Fla., to tour and ride in the U.S.S. Los Angeles submarine.  The Carter family is staying at nearby St. Simons Island, Ga. during a working holiday vacation. (AP Photo/Charles Harrity)Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, right, greets President Jimmy Carter and first lady Rosalynn Carter at the Brunswick, Ga. Airport, May 27, 1977 as they departed for Port Canaveral, Fla., to tour and ride in the U.S.S. Los Angeles submarine. The Carter family is staying at nearby St. Simons Island, Ga. during a working holiday vacation. (AP Photo/Charles Harrity)
  • President Jimmy Carter tells newsmen of his submarine ride aboard the nuclear submarine U.S.S. Los Angeles, May 28, 1977.  Adm. Hyman Rickover, left, who accompanied Carter on the all-day cruise, stands by.  In background is the conning tower of the submarine.President Jimmy Carter tells newsmen of his submarine ride aboard the nuclear submarine U.S.S. Los Angeles, May 28, 1977. Adm. Hyman Rickover, left, who accompanied Carter on the all-day cruise, stands by. In background is the conning tower of the submarine.
  • President Jimmy Carter gives a big laugh as Admiral Hyman Rickover talks about their nuclear submarine cruise, May 27, 1977 off the coast of Port Canaveral, Fla. They spent about nine hours aboard the nuclear sub U.S.S. Los Angeles. (AP Photo)President Jimmy Carter gives a big laugh as Admiral Hyman Rickover talks about their nuclear submarine cruise, May 27, 1977 off the coast of Port Canaveral, Fla. They spent about nine hours aboard the nuclear sub U.S.S. Los Angeles. (AP Photo)
  • Rear Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, father of nuclear powered submarines, boards the USS Nautilus from the Navy Tug 534 in the Narrows below Brooklyn, New York on August 25, 1958. Cdr. William Anderson, head showing at left, awaits to greet the admiral aboard the U.S. Navy’s first nuclear sub. Anderson is skipper of the Nautilus. Saluting at left center is Lt. Donald P. Hall, gunnery officer of the Nautilus. The craft returned earlier from four-month voyage. (AP Photo/Pool)Rear Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, father of nuclear powered submarines, boards the USS Nautilus from the Navy Tug 534 in the Narrows below Brooklyn, New York on August 25, 1958. Cdr. William Anderson, head showing at left, awaits to greet the admiral aboard the U.S. Navy’s first nuclear sub. Anderson is skipper of the Nautilus. Saluting at left center is Lt. Donald P. Hall, gunnery officer of the Nautilus. The craft returned earlier from four-month voyage. (AP Photo/Pool)
  • U.S. President Jimmy Carter maneuvers the nuclear submarine U.S.S. Los Angeles at the wheel off the coast of Port Canaveral, Florida, Friday, May 27, 1977, while Admiral Hyman Rickover (behind Carter) looks on. (AP Photo)U.S. President Jimmy Carter maneuvers the nuclear submarine U.S.S. Los Angeles at the wheel off the coast of Port Canaveral, Florida, Friday, May 27, 1977, while Admiral Hyman Rickover (behind Carter) looks on. (AP Photo)
  • The nuclear submarine USS Scorpion is seen in the Atlantic Ocean in 1968 - The nuclear attak submarine Scorpion which was reported overdue at sea by the Pentagon May 27, 1968. A defense department statement said the sub had been scheduled to return to Norfolk, Va., at 1 P.M. May 27 at the end of a routine training operation. The Scorpion was last heard from May 21, 1968. This June 27, 1960, Handout picture shows the "USS Scorpion" nuclear-powered attak submarine (SSN-589) at New London, Ct., USA during builders trials. Vice Admiral Hyman G. Rickover is standing on her sailplanes with another officer. (AP-Photo/ag/u.s. Navy-HO)    June 08, 2000The nuclear submarine USS Scorpion is seen in the Atlantic Ocean in 1968 - The nuclear attak submarine Scorpion which was reported overdue at sea by the Pentagon May 27, 1968. A defense department statement said the sub had been scheduled to return to Norfolk, Va., at 1 P.M. May 27 at the end of a routine training operation. The Scorpion was last heard from May 21, 1968. This June 27, 1960, Handout picture shows the "USS Scorpion" nuclear-powered attak submarine (SSN-589) at New London, Ct., USA during builders trials. Vice Admiral Hyman G. Rickover is standing on her sailplanes with another officer. (AP-Photo/ag/u.s. Navy-HO) June 08, 2000
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Dressed in his starched, white dress uniform, Capt. Hyman Rickover basked in a ticker-tape parade, waving from the Canyon of Heroes to New Yorkers celebrating the Navy officer’s phenomenal creation.

The Soviets had beaten the Americans into space in 1958 with Sputnik. The satellite further rattled a nation trying to adjust to doomsday scenarios of all-out nuclear war. How would President Eisenhower respond?


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A documentary on Rickover by filmmaker Michael Pack and his Manifold Productions in Chevy Chase, Maryland, gives the answer.

Four years earlier, Rickover oversaw the development and launch of the first U.S. nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus. Thankfully for the commander in chief, Rickover won his internecine battle with top flag officers and built the boat in a relatively brief three years.

It gave Ike a trump card. Go north, the president ordered.

In August 1958, the sub did the unthinkable for its predecessors powered by diesel. The Nautilus became one of history’s great explorers, traversing the dark, frigid waters of the North Pole and relying on a basic gyrocompass to prevent an underwater disaster.

A delighted president had the skipper, Cmdr. William R. Anderson, flown from the Arctic to the White House for a photo opportunity. Eisenhower told the world that the U.S. was indeed a nuclear power both above and below water. The Soviets owned no nuclear submarines.

As if propelled by some special fuel himself, Rickover went on to serve a total 51 years, longer than any other Navy officer, attaining four-star rank. He accumulated enemies in the Pentagon. He hated Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s “whiz kids,” but he made friends where it counted — in Congress.


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Mr. Pack debuted the two-hour biopic “Rickover: The Birth of Nuclear Power” recently at the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington.

The screening brought together old Rickover hands and current submariners, including Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations. He is one of the dwindling active-duty sailors who went through the famous (some would say infamous) Rickover interviewing process to select Naval Academy graduates for the nuclear Navy.

Mr. Pack uses a mix of on-camera interviews, newsreels and dramatizations to capture the uniquely combative bantamweight. Played by actor/director Tim Blake Nelson, Rickover tells one applicant he has 10 seconds to make him mad or flunk the session. The midshipman hears Rickover tick down the seconds, then suddenly sweep’s half the contents of Rickover’s desk onto the floor.

“I’m mad,” Rickover concedes before hiring the young officer.

Father of the nuclear Navy

Like millions of other American dreams, Rickover’s began when he was a turn-of-the-century immigrant. At age 6, he and his parents escaped Russian domination and squalor in Poland and headed for a new life via Ellis Island.

America gave him the freedom to think about the vast new universe of electrical engineering. A stellar high school student in Chicago, he became one of the few Jews at that time to gain admission to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. As an example of anti-Semitism in the 1920s, the yearbook allowed graduates to pull out the perforated pages showing Jewish midshipmen.

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