USS Skate (SSN 578) was the U.S. Navy’s third commissioned nuclear-powered submarine. Her keel was laid July 21, 1955 by General Dynamics Corp.’s Electric Boat Division in Groton, Conn. She was launched nearly two years later on May 16, 1957, and she was commissioned December 23, 1957 with Cmdr. James F. Calvert in command.
With the advent of nuclear-powered submarines, the latter half of the 1950s and early 1960s was a time of pushing boundaries and setting records, which began with the Navy’s first nuclear-powered submarine, USS Nautilus (SSN 571), traveling from the Pacific to the Atlantic underneath the polar ice cap in the summer of 1958. Skate did not have to wait long for her own notoriety, however.
In early 1958, Skate left her homeport of New London, Conn. to make the first fully submerged crossing of the Atlantic, arriving in Portsmouth, England. Today this would not be considered much of an accomplishment, but this was just 13 years after the end of WWII when such a capability by Germany’s U-boats could have drastically altered the course of the war.
Less than a year after Nautilus’ famed journey past the North Pole under the arctic ice, Skate departed New London for the North Pole, becoming the second submarine to reach it. Skate, however, on March 17, 1959, was the first submarine to surface there, and she did it during the Arctic’s winter. She didn’t surface in the Arctic just once, but 10 times during that deployment.
While at the North Pole, Skate’s crew deposited there the ashes of famed Arctic explorer Sir Hubert Wilkins. Wilkins was the first Arctic explorer to attempt reaching the North Pole by submarine, using the former USS O-12 (SS 73) converted for the 1931 expedition.
The purpose of this deployment to the Arctic was not to set a record, but to test the boat’s ability to surface through ice even during the region’s coldest time of year. The Navy wanted to know if its submarines could operate in the harshest maritime environment on earth during that region’s harshest time of year.
Skate also tested new technologies for operating under the ice. One such system was a bottom-sounding sonar for detecting and mapping the underside of the ice canopy, which also enabled the crew to avoid ice keels and locate polynyas through which to surface. Another was a buoyant cable that was floated up against the underside of the ice canopy that proved capable of receiving radio messages.
Skate made additional deployments to the Arctic in the following years in addition to deployments to Europe and the Mediterranean. She was the first submarine to complete the new SUBSAFE conversion in 1965. Skate was decommissioned September 12, 1986 after nearly 29 years of active service.