By Lt. Cmdr. Bradley Boyd Officer in Charge, Historic Ship Nautilus Director, Submarine Force Museum
On August 3rd, 1958, the crew of USS Nautilus (SSN 571) successfully navigated the Arctic ice pack and was the first vessel to ever reach the geographic North Pole. The achievement, while almost commonplace today, was the culmination of centuries of research and exploration. Beginning in 1553 the world had searched for the elusive Northeast and Northwest passages that would allow a vessel to transit from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean without having to transit south past the southern tips of South America or Africa, or later through the Suez and Panama Canals. The first successful transit of the Northeast Passage was in 1878-1879 by Finland and the first continuous transit was accomplished in 1932 by the Soviet Union. The first successful transit of the Northwest Passage was in 1903-1906 by Norway, and the first continuous transit was completed in 1944 by Canada. Despite the success in finding a route through the ice, these passages were only open for a few months each year. A year-round passage seemed impossible until the submarine was considered.
The first submarine expedition occurred in 1931 with Sir Hubert Wilkins. Wilkins had traversed the North Pole in 1913 by airplane and he realized that a submarine may have the ability to successfully transit the Arctic ice by submerging beneath the ice floes. In 1931 Wilkins assembled his research team and leased the USS O-12 (SS 73), built by the Lake Torpedo Boat Company of Bridgeport, Conn., from the U.S. Navy for $1.00 per year. The boat was taken to Mathis Shipyard in Camden, N.J. to have modifications made for its arctic journey. On March 23rd, 1931, the boat pulled into the Brooklyn Navy Yard of New York and Sir Wilkins’ wife, Lady Suzanne Bennett, christened the ship Nautilus. While in New York, Nautilus was outfitted with a hydraulically operated vertical probe and drill that were designed by Simon Lake and installed by the Otis Elevator Company. These modifications were intended to provide Nautilus with a means to measure the clearance between the ice and the top of the hull and allow for drilling through the ice in the event fresh air was needed and they were unable to get to the surface. On May 10th Nautilus transited to the submarine base in Groton, Conn. for provisions and further testing. On June 3rd Nautilus went to Provincetown, Mass. for speed testing and finally set out for the Arctic on June 4th, 1931.
Wilkins’ first attempt to reach the North Pole aboard Nautilus ended with engine trouble on June 13, 1931. Nautilus was rescued by USS Wyoming (BB 32) and towed to Queenstown, Ireland and later on to Davenport, England for repairs. After numerous delays due to parts availability in England, Wilkins made a second attempt on August 5th, 1931. On August 31st the Nautilus was about to attempt her first dive under an ice floe when the captain, Sloan Danehower, noticed the stern diving planes were gone. How they were lost remains a mystery, but Capt. Danehower and Sir Wilkins believed it was sabotage as the rudder was part of the same housing but it was completely undamaged. Despite this hindrance, Wilkins pressed on and they were able to submerge Nautilus under multiple ice floes and continue their experiments by flooding the ballast tanks and setting a 2.5-degree downward trim. Wilkins conceded a few days later that the voyage was no longer safe and the crew set sail for Longyeartbyen, Svalbard. Nautilus set sail for England again, but a storm that caused massive hull damage and engine failure forced them to Bergen, Norway. The United States Shipping Board agreed that Nautilus would not be returned to the United States and ordered her sunk in a Norwegian Fjord on November 20th, 1931.
Operation NANOOK was a U.S. Navy Arctic expedition in 1946 that consisted of USS Norton Sound (AV 11), USS Atule (SS 403), USCGC Northwind (WAG 282), USS Alcona (AK 157), USS Beltrami (AK 162), and USS Whitewood (AN 63). The operation was to be predominantly cartographic but was also used to erect a radio and weather station near North Star Bay, Greenland.
Operation BLUE NOSE was a U.S. Naval Arctic mission in the Chukchi Sea to explore under the polar ice cap. The operation took place in 1947 and consisted of USS Caiman (SS 323), USS Boarfish (SS 327), USS Cabezon (SS 334), and the submarine tender USS Nereus (AS 17). On August 1, 1947, USS Boarfish conducted the first under-ice transit of an ice floe in the Chukchi Sea. The transit lasted over an hour, and at the end Boarfish proved that extended under-ice navigation was practical. The expedition achieved a maximum latitude of 72⁰ 15’ North.
Since the nuclear-powered USS Nautilus (SSN 571) traversing of the Arctic on August 3rd, 1958 and Skate’s surfacing there on August 11th, 1958, the U.S. Navy has conducted Arctic operations on a consistent basis. The most recent operation was this past March when submarines homeported at Groton, Conn., Bangor, Wash., and Plymouth, England converged at Camp SKATE for ICEX 2018. The USS Hartford (SSN 768), USS Connecticut (SSN 22), and HMS Trenchant (SS 91) are the latest participants in the U.S. Navy’s under-ice exploits, but they won’t be the last. The Arctic has become even more relevant in today’s era, and the U.S. Submarine Force will continue to test and prove its capabilities beneath the roof of the world.