Admiral’s Legacy Outlives Itself

Eye on the Navy<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />

USS Hyman G. Rickover (SSN 709) deactivated

Admiral’s Legacy Outlives Itself

By Edward Lundquist


Few people in history have made the impact on naval affairs as Hyman G. Rickover.  Rightfully known as the “father of the nuclear navy,” he rose through the ranks to become an admiral and the director of nuclear propulsion long after his contemporaries retired and long after many of his superiors tried to get rid of him.


His legacy is a series of engineering marvels, successive classes of nuclear submarines, carriers and surface combatants, all able to operate for sustained periods of time at high speeds without the need to refuel.  For a submarine to do this without having to come up for air is nothing short of revolutionary.  When Commander Eugene P. Wilkinson, USN, ordered the lines hauled aboard USS Nautilus (SSN 571) and shifted colors on Jan. 17, 1955, he signaled, “Underway on nuclear power.”  Naval warfare was forever changed. 


Five decades later, 213 total nuclear power warships have been commissioned.  Currently there are 82 active nuclear powered warships, all of them the result of Rickover’s vision and leadership.


Whether it was the right way or the wrong way, Rickover did things his way.  Irascible, brusque and annoying, he was also brilliant and inscrutable.  For some, Rickover was feared and despised.  For them, his legacy will remain his arrogant, abusive, condescending behavior.  But the only way to change a navy is with very strong will and very strong leadership, and Rickover supplied both. 

President Richard Nixon, speaking at the 1973 promotion of Rickover to four-star admiral, remarked on the Navy’s superb technological accomplishments. “Polaris, Poseidon, Trident. No one can ever speak of these breakthroughs without thinking of Admiral Rickover.”

“I don't mean to suggest by that that he is a man who is without controversy,” said Nixon. “He speaks his mind. Sometimes he has rivals who disagree with him; sometimes they are right, and he is the first to admit that sometimes he might be wrong. But the greatness of the American military service, and particularly the greatness of the Navy, is symbolized in this ceremony today, because this man, who is controversial, this man, who comes up with unorthodox ideas, did not become submerged by the bureaucracy, because once genius is submerged by bureaucracy, a nation is doomed to mediocrity.”



“Human experience shows that people, not organizations or management systems, get things done,” Rickover once wrote. 


Rickover lamented that officers or civilian managers were assigned to another job before the results of their work could become evident.  Although many tried to marginalize or fire him, he stayed in his job many years, cultivating strong support on Capitol Hill, so he was able to see his programs develop to fruition, from land prototypes to successive classes of ships. 


He ran the naval reactors program with what he called “courageous impatience.”  His hand was in everything.  When he was in charge, he personally selected every officer that served in nuclear power, imposing a series of difficult and sometimes bizarre interviews, and directed the rigorous year-long training the officers received before they started their other training or arrived at their first ships.  Rickover challenged them to be the best, and they furthered his insistence for total quality before the quality movement was popularized.  He promised Congress that he would ensure the integrity of his program, and demanded personal integrity of everyone involved with it. 


While Rickover was demanding of his subordinates, he expected them to speak their mind.  “One must create the ability in his staff to generate clear, forceful arguments for opposing viewpoints as well as for their own,” he said.


While today’s nuclear propulsion systems have benefited from constant improvement, they are essentially the same propulsion systems that Adm. Rickover delivered decades ago.  The result of his legacy stands out: the U.S. Navy’s nuclear propulsion program to this day has never had a reactor accident.  There have been submarine incidents, but not because of the nuclear propulsion plant.


Rickover overcame inertia and red tape to bring his Naval Reactors group together with the Special Project Group then developing the Polaris missile.  The missile team had figured out how to launch a strategic missile from underwater, and needed a submarine designed and built to do it.  The Navy hierarchy said it would be at least a five to seven year effort, maybe longer.  Rickover made it happen in less than three.


Although past mandatory retirement age, he remained secure in his position because of his strong ties with influential lawmakers.  But it wasn’t until 1982 that Secretary of the Navy John Lehman made him retire at age 82.


It was with modest reluctance, and perhaps still smarting from being ousted, that a retired Admiral Rickover attended the Aug. 27, 1983 christening and launching of the Los Angeles-class submarine named for him (the lead ship of the class, USS Los Angeles (SSN 688) just turned 30).  I was at the event which took place at the Electric Boat Shipyard in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Groton, CT.  He wasn’t a man who sought honors.  Few living men before him had naval ships named for them.  But his wife, Eleonore, was the sponsor for the boat.  It was she who broke the traditional bottle of champagne over the bow to send the boat into the water.  So he had to be there. 


In her remarks at the launching, Eleonore Rickover acknowledged the families of the submariners.  “They also serve those who only stand and wait,” she said.


A year later, on July 21, 1984, the USS Hyman G. Rickover was commissioned at the Naval Submarine Base, just up the Thames River in Groton.  Again I was there that day.  It rained, I remember.  But I also remember watching the way that Admiral Rickover looked at his wife in a very human and endearing way.


He passed away in 1986.


The submarine that served for 22 years to honor his legacy returned to port for the final time in October 2006.  Eleonore Rickover was there to welcome the ship home.  The USS Hyman G. Rickover will be deactivated in Dec. 2006.  But Admiral Rickover’s legacy will steam on.




Captain Edward Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.) is a senior science advisor with Alion Science and Technology in Washington, D.C.  He supports the U.S. Navy’s Surface Warfare Directorate.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.