Hyman G. Rickover: Man, Myth, and Father of the Nuclear Navy

Source: Stanford University

Some consider Hyman Rickover as the most influential person in modern naval history, while others view him with contempt. We go in-depth on this polarizing military figure.

As it had been for most of the winter, the 21st of January was cold. Smoke lazily floated from stacks near the Groton, Connecticut ship works, and a few birds sat on the far bank of the Thames River. The air was crisp and the collective breath of the huddled audience condensed into faint white clouds. Each and every person would have rather been somewhere else, preferably someplace warm. But they were there to witness something special, history in the making. The crowd had gathered around the sleek black hull of America's latest submarine. Like her namesake, Captain Nemo's famous boat, this submarine was the most sophisticated and advanced ship yet. Within its hull was the world's first maritime nuclear reactor. The ship, which sat on the Groton slipway, was the first warship ever built to be powered solely by the power of the atom. Out of the top hatch climbed a short, slim man with a full ruddy red face. Despite his suit, this man was also an admiral in the United States Navy. He was Hyman G. Rickover and this ship, the USS Nautilus, was his creation.

Rickover's Early Career

Hyman G. Rickover at the launching of the Nautilus. Source: Wikipedia
Hyman G. Rickover at the launching of the Nautilus. Source: Wikipedia

Rickover, whose 63 years of service was the second longest in the history of the entire US military and the longest in the Navy, began his career in the wake of World War I. Graduating from the US Naval Academy in 1922, Rickover moved from posting to posting until he found his niche in 1929. For the next four years, Rickover served about the USS S-8 and USS S-48, two of the United States' first submarines. Like many officers of his generation, including George Patton and Billy Mitchell, Rickover was enamored with new technologies and their potential application to the age-old problems of warfare. For Rickover, his posting to the submarine service put him on the ground floor of exciting new developments within the Navy. Rickover was thus understandably disappointed when, in 1933, he was transferred from the S-48 to shore duty at the Philadelphia Shipyards. Despite his grounding, Rickover continued to keep current with submarine developments in Britain and Germany. Little did he know that, with the exception of a short stint on a Filipino minesweeper in the late 30s, Rickover would never again return to sea.

During World War II, Rickover had two additional postings that would go on to shape the remainder of his career. Immediately after the disaster at Pearl Harbor, Rickover was sent to Hawaii to help refloat the Navy's sunken battleships. There, he was given command of a repair team that had the unique and unenviable job of "repairing" their electrical systems, which mostly meant ripping out muddy, corroded wire and replacing it with entirely new equipment. In 1944, with most of his work at Pearl Harbor done, Rickover was given another assignment as an investigator for the Navy in search of waste and inefficiency. In both positions, Rickover gained a lot of technical knowledge around shipbuilding, electrical engineering, and bureaucratic maneuvering. He also gained a well-earned reputation as a taskmaster, a skilled infighter, and a man who didn’t cut red tape so much as he just ran right over it.

After World War II, Rickover found himself on the ground floor of an exciting new development within the Navy. This time, it was centered on the development of a maritime nuclear reactor for military use. Rickover quickly became a convert to nuclear propulsion and made two key allies: Admiral Chester Nimitz and Secretary of the Navy John Sullivan. Rickover quickly found himself in charge of the entire nuclear propulsion project, and quietly accreted power to his office through persuasion, coercion, and subterfuge.

Download and Play World of Warships for Free Today

Command some of the greatest ships in history and fight epic naval battles online!

Launching The Nuclear Powered Nautalis Submarine

By 1951, he and his team developed a successful prototype reactor and were eager to test their design. It should come as no surprise that the ship Rickover designed around his new reactor was a submarine. However, the Nautilus (as the ship would come to be known) was like no submarine ever constructed. Submarine technology had evolved considerably during World War II, but the basic principles remained unchanged. The diesel engine dominated ship design, which limited both range and underwater endurance. With its nuclear reactor, the Nautilus had no theoretical limits and could stay at sea and underwater as long as its crew could stand the voyage.

USS Nautilus, the world's first nuclear powered warship. Source: Wikipedia
The USS Nautilus, the world's first nuclear powered warship. Source: Wikipedia

The launch of the Nautilus in January 1954 was the crowning achievement of Rickover's career, but it was far from the last. Through the 1950s and 1960s, Rickover remained incredibly influential within the Navy. He helped usher in newer and better reactors, engineered better submarines, and even played a role in creating the reactors which would go on to power the USS Long Beach and USS Bainbridge, the US Navy's first two nuclear powered surface ships.

By the 1970s, Rickover's legacy was thus cemented as the 'Father of the Nuclear Navy,' and he was identified with the high technology navy that grew out of World War II. But his controversial management style, as well as his tendency to centralize power and do everything himself led to friction within the Navy. Not only did Rickover make and keep, a host of enemies, but his dominance in ship design caused a series of problems in limiting the ideas and innovations of a new cohort of younger officers. So bad was Rickover's relationship with his peers and superiors that Ronald Reagan's new Secretary of the Navy John Leman declared, "one of my first orders of business as Secretary of the Navy would be to solve the Rickover problem." Leman would go on to force Rickover to retire in 1981. Ultimately, the same skills that had made Rickover such a dogged champion of the nuclear navy had brought about his downfall.

So what do you think? Was Rickover the father of the modern US Navy, as some claim? Were other admirals just as, or more, influential? And what do you think about his forced retirement? Did Rickover overstay his welcome? Leave your thoughts below!

Contributing Editor

B.T. Graves lives far from the sea amidst the trees and the hills. He spends every night at home with his two cats in a soft leather chair reading about great captains and legendary battles while he dreams of the salty sting of the ocean air.