On this date in 1958 the nuclear submarine USS Nautilus was directly under the north pole traveling across the Arctic sea beneath the ice cap, the first time that such a feat was achieved, and the first time any waterborne vessel had reached the north pole. In response to the nuclear ICBM threat posed by Sputnik, President Eisenhower ordered the US Navy to attempt a submarine transit of the North Pole to gain credibility for the soon-to-come SLBM (submarine launched Ballistic Missile) system.
USS Nautilus (SSN-571) was the world’s first operational nuclear-powered submarine. Sharing names with the submarine in Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and named after another USS Nautilus (SS-168) that served with distinction in World War II, Nautilus was authorized in 1951 and launched in 1954. Because her nuclear propulsion allowed her to remain submerged far longer than diesel-electric submarines, she broke many records in her first years of operation, and traveled to locations previously beyond the limits of submarines. In operation, she revealed a number of limitations in her design and construction. This information was used to improve subsequent submarines.
On 25 April 1958, Nautilus was underway for the West Coast, commanded by Commander William R. Anderson, USN. Stopping at San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle, she began her history-making polar transit, Operation Sunshine, as she departed the latter port on 9 June. On 19 June she entered the Chukchi Sea, but was turned back by deep drift ice in those shallow waters. On 28 June she arrived at Pearl Harbor to await better ice conditions. By 23 July her wait was over, and she set a course northward. She submerged in the Barrow Sea Valley on 1 August and on 3 August, at 23.15 (EDT) she became the first watercraft to reach the geographic North Pole.
The ability to navigate at extreme latitudes and without surfacing was enabled by the technology of the North American Aviation N6A-1 Inertial Navigation System, a naval modification of the N6A used in the Navaho cruise missile. (The N6A-1 had been installed on Nautilus and Skate after initial sea trials on the USS Compass Island in 1957.) From the North Pole, she continued on and after 96 hours and 1,590 nmi (2,940 km; 1,830 mi) under the ice, surfaced northeast of Greenland, having completed the first successful submerged voyage around the North Pole. The technical details of this mission were planned by scientists from the Naval Electronics Laboratory including Dr. Waldo Lyon who accompanied Nautilus as chief scientist and ice pilot.
Navigation beneath the arctic ice sheet was difficult. Above 85°N both magnetic compasses and normal gyrocompasses become inaccurate. A special gyrocompass built by Sperry Rand was installed shortly before the journey. There was a risk that the submarine would become disoriented beneath the ice and that the crew would have to play “longitude roulette”. Commander Anderson had considered using torpedoes to blow a hole in the ice if the submarine needed to surface.
The most difficult part of the journey was in the Bering Strait. The ice extended as much as 60 feet (18 m) below sea level. During the initial attempt to go through the Bering Strait, there was insufficient room between the ice and the sea bottom. During the second, successful attempt to pass through the Bering passage, the submarine passed through a known channel close to Alaska (this was not the first choice as the submarine wanted to avoid detection).
The trip beneath the ice cap was an important boost to the U.S. as the Soviets had recently launched Sputnik, but had no nuclear submarine of their own. During the address announcing the journey, the president mentioned that one day nuclear cargo submarines might use that route for trade.
Proceeding from Greenland to the Isle of Portland, England, she received the Presidential Unit Citation, the first ever issued in peace time, from American Ambassador J.H. Whitney, and then crossed the Atlantic reaching New London, Connecticut, USA on 29 October. Captain Anderson would also be awarded the Legion of Merit by Eisenhower. For the remainder of the year Nautilus operated from her home port of New London.
Nautilus was decommissioned in 1980 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1982. She has been preserved as a museum of submarine history in Groton, Connecticut, where she receives some 250,000 visitors a year.
Naturally a submarine sandwich (aka “sub”) is the perfect way to mark today’s anniversary. The origin of the name is not known but the explanation I prefer suggests the submarine was brought to the US by Dominic Conti (1874–1954), an Italian immigrant who came to New York in the early 1900s. He is said to have named it after seeing the recovered 1901 submarine called Fenian Ram in the Paterson Museum of New Jersey in 1918. His granddaughter said: “My grandfather came to this country in 1895 from Montella, Italy. Around 1910, he started his grocery store, called Dominic Conti’s Grocery Store, on Mill Street in Paterson, New Jersey where he was selling the traditional Italian sandwiches. His sandwiches were made from a recipe he brought with him from Italy which consisted of a long crusty roll, filled with cold cuts, topped with lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, onions, oil, vinegar, Italian herbs and spices, salt, and pepper. The sandwich started with a layer of cheese and ended with a layer of cheese so the bread would not get soggy.”
Conti’s granddaughter is describing a classic New York deli sub, but you could make any of a thousand variants. My sub recipe here, which I invented in honor of today, is a version of the New Orleans po’ boy using as a base “Captain Nemo’s clam cakes” (one of many fanciful names for a traditional Southern fried clam cake). Nemo, you will recall, was captain of the Nautilus in Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. In addition I give you an accompanying drink (not my recipe), Captain Nemo’s Squid Cocktail (celebrating Nemo’s battle with the giant squid).
Captain Nemo’s Submarine Sandwich (components)
Captain Nemo’s Clam Cakes
2 cups minced clams
2 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
2 eggs, beaten
½ cup whole milk
¼ cup clam juice
1 medium onion chopped fine
butter and vegetable oil for frying
Sift the flour and baking soda together into a mixing bowl.
Add the milk, eggs, and clam juice and stir to combine.
Add the clams and onions, plus a few grinds of black pepper to taste. Mix well, adding a little more milk if the batter is too thick. It should be thick but pourable.
Heat equal amounts of butter and oil in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Drop the batter into the skillet to make cakes that are about 3” across. Cook only 2 or 3 at a time.
Brown on one side and then turn to brown on the other. Keep warm.
Yield: 12 clam cakes.
Spicy Sweet Pepper Slaw
3 cups very finely shredded green cabbage
½ a large green bell pepper, very thinly sliced
6-8 sweet gherkins, very thinly sliced
1 large jalapeno pepper (seeds and ribs removed), very thinly sliced
2 tbsp sweet pickle juice
2 tbsp white wine vinegar (or rice vinegar)
1 tbsp thinly sliced scallion (green parts only)
salt and black pepper to taste
In a large bowl combine all the ingredients (except salt & pepper) and mix well. Add additional pickle juice and/or vinegar to taste. Add a pinch of salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Keep at room temperature to make the sandwiches, and refrigerate the leftovers.
Yield: 3 ½ cups
I cup mayonnaise
1 tsp cayenne powder
1 tsp fresh ground black pepper
1 tsp garlic powder
Mix together the mayonnaise and spices. Use your own judgment to determine the precise amounts of spices.
Yield: 1 cup
Cut a crusty sub roll open but do not cut all the way through. Lightly brown the open faces under a broiler.
Spread spiced mayonnaise thickly on both faces.
Place 2 or 3 clam cakes on the bottom face (in one layer that covers the bread). Top with spicy slaw. Close up and serve.
Captain Nemo Cocktail
1 ½ oz vodka
3-4 oz clamato juice
1 tsp horseradish
½ tsp Worcestershire sauce
¼-½ oz fresh lime juice
1 small squid
4 – 8 drops tabasco sauce
½ tsp cracked black pepper
½ tsp celery salt
cracked ice cubes
Combine vodka, clamato juice, horseradish, lime juice, celery salt, Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco sauce in a cocktail shaker half-filled with ice cubes. Shake well, and strain into a highball glass half-filled with ice cubes. Top with cracked black pepper. Garnish with a squid and serve.