story & photo
by Jessica Warzeniak
“At seventy-two degrees and fifty percent humidity, that is the way to explore the Artic!” joked retired Navy Commander Al Charette at the Submarine Force Library and Museum during his discussion of USS Nautilus’ (SSN 571) historic 1958 voyage under the North Pole. The lecture by Cmdr. Charette, a chief sonarman on board Nautilus during the voyage, began a morning of events kicking-off the museum’s Golden Year celebrations. Additionally, a special film screened and a new temporary exhibit opened; all honoring the 50th anniversary of Nautilus’ world-shattering achievement: the first crossing of the North Pole by a ship, August 3, 1958.
Cmdr. Charette’s humor veiled the seriousness of the dangers faced by submarine and crew. Dangers touched on in Cmdr. Charette’s recounting and highlighted in the film, “Operation Sunshine,” and the new exhibit “Uncharted Waters: Journey to the North Pole.”
Prior to Nautilus, much of the Arctic Ocean was unexplored. “Sub-surface it was a new frontier,” said Cmdr. Charette. A new frontier in which the US with the Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear powered ship, might have an advantage over the then Soviet Union, which was leading the space race with the launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, into orbit in October 1957. “We wanted to out-Sputnik the Russians,” explained Cmdr. Charette. To do so, Nautilus would make two attempts at crossing the Pole before success.
Gyrocompass failure forced submarine and crew to turn back from an August 1957 attempt that brought Nautilus to within 180 miles of the Pole. Navigation beneath the Arctic ice sheet is difficult and there was a risk that the submarine would become disoriented beneath the ice. Magnetic compasses are inaccurate that close to the Pole, so the submarine was equipped with two gyrocompasses, a compass that finds true north by using an electrically powered, fast-spinning wheel and friction forces in order to exploit the rotation of the Earth. When both gyrocompasses lost power, they were put on the same fuse, Nautilus Commanding Officer, Commander William R. Anderson gave the order to turn back because there was no way to find the ship’s position. The crew maneuvered a tactical turn, turning so many degrees at a certain speed, in order to follow their own track back.
During a second attempt in June 1958, extremely deep, underwater ice ridges almost trapped the ship. At the time, submarines didn’t have any equipment to look above them, so sonar from a destroyer was repurposed and pointed up to give Nautilus an idea of how close the ridges were above them. Unfortunately, the data was delayed, meaning when the crew noticed that they were being squeezed by land below them and ice ridges above, it was already happening. The submarine, more than 300-feet long, had just 20-feet of water beneath its keel and less than 8-feet of clearance above its sail. “I know we were running through mush,” said Cmdr. Charette. “You could almost feel everyone in the attack center watching the data, hunch down trying to bring the submarine with them!”
Finally, ice conditions proved favorable for a late July 1958 attempt. Ninety-six hours and 1,830 miles after submerging under the ice in the Chukchi Sea, Nautilus surfaced off the coast of Greenland and sent the momentous and succinct message: “Nautilus 90 North.”
Submarine and crew conquered the Arctic, transiting from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean and “piercing” the North Pole on August 3. As the submarine passed through the Pole, Cmdr. Anderson addressed the crew via ship’s intercom with the memorable words, “For the USA and the US Navy, the North Pole.”
“Operation Sunshine,” a film produced by the Navy shortly after the record setting voyage, documents the achievement through period photography, video, and interviews, will continue to be shown in the new temporary exhibit area dedicated to Nautilus’ Arctic transit.
Featured in this exhibit are never-before-seen color photos and artifacts from Nautilus’ under ice ventures. Highlights include a vinyl record of audio clips from the historic voyage and a special North Pole cachet, carved from the sole of a shoe by one of the Nautilus’ crewmen, for cancelling letters written during the historic voyage.
The film, “Operation Sunshine,” and the new exhibit “Uncharted Waters: Journey to the North Pole,” will run until March 2009. The Historic Ship Nautilus and Submarine Force Library and Museum are free and open to the public. Summer visiting hours are Wednesday through Monday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Tuesday 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Visit www.ussnautilus.org for more information about Nautilus and its Golden Year.