By Lt. Cmdr. Bradley Boyd, Officer in Charge,
Historic Ship Nautilus Director, Submarine Force Museum
Operation Sunshine Arctic Facts
• This was the first transpolar voyage by a ship in history.
• Nautilus was equipped with a closed television network with the camera pointing up for observing ice.
• Nautilus traveled 1,830 miles in 96 hours from Point Barrow, Alaska to the Atlantic Ocean.
• Nautilus was equipped with 10 separate sound devices for detecting ice above and three for measuring the distance to the ocean floor below.
• In 1957 Nautilus traveled 1,383 miles under ice in three separate trips totaling 5.5 days.
• Nautilus was equipped with four types of direction-finding devices.
• Upon arriving in Europe, Nautilus had traveled 129,000 miles on nuclear power.
• Nautilus was equipped with automatic control gear for holding her exactly on course and at depth.
• Nautilus traveled within 30 miles of the so called Pole of Inaccessibility, the geographic center of the Arctic ice pack.
• Prior to Nautilus’ operations in 1957, the most total mileage for a U.S. submarine under ice was 50 miles by USS Redfish (SS 395) in 1952.
• Nautilus was the first combatant ship with an inertial navigational system.
• From Pearl Harbor to Iceland, 93 percent of the trip was made submerged.
August 3rd, 1958 marks the first time a naval vessel ever crossed 90° North, the North Pole. This year marks the 60th year that the United States has been operating under the Arctic ice. While operations under the ice might seem a matter of course today, in 1958 they were not. No naval vessel, let alone submarine, had ever operated that far north. Technology had to be developed and modified to allow something as simple as navigational heading to be accurately discerned. There were great concerns as to what water depth would be like as hydrographic surveys of the region were spotty if even available. What would happen if there were an emergency and the crew couldn’t find an area of no, or at least thin, ice?
Previous submarine polar expeditions involving diesel-electric boats proved that a different propulsion system would be required for under-ice operations. What was needed was a power and propulsion source that was independent of air and could divorce the submarine from having to routinely return to the surface. USS Nautilus (SSN 571), with her groundbreaking nuclear power plant, had the ability to operate underwater at maximum capacity for extended periods of time anywhere in the world’s oceans—including under the polar ice. A new chapter in polar exploration was about to begin.
With the successful construction and employment of USS Nautilus, a small but vocal group of scientists and naval officers began to influence the Navy to use the Nautilus for under-ice exploration. As she sailed to a NATO exercise in England in 1957, the Navy instructed
Nautilus to conduct under-ice forays off of Greenland. During this trip radio communication was impossible, navigational gyroscopes failed, and periscopes were damaged by the ice. Despite these setbacks, Nautilus reached within 180 miles of the North Pole and recorded more data on ice than all previous polar operations combined. Unknown to the crew at the time, this trip would provide valuable lessons for a new under-ice mission less than a year later.
The technological achievement of the Soviet Union in launching the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, grabbed the world’s attention and shocked America as it appeared that the Soviets were gaining a technological advantage over the West. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, determined to demonstrate to the world that the United States was just as capable of great technological feats as the Soviets, ordered USS Nautilus, under the command of Cmdr. William R. Anderson, on one of the most top secret peacetime naval missions in history—an under-ice voyage from the Pacific to the Atlantic via the North Pole, code name: Operation SUNSHINE.
The excerpted letters are from the crew of Nautilus written for their own internally distributed newspaper/magazine – The Nautilus Express. The letters were written during the crossing of the North Pole and are the best firsthand accounts we have of the thoughts and feelings of the crew as they completed this historic achievement. They have been edited only to correct typos and one letter was redacted for classified information.