In retirement, the vessel is now the official ship of the state of Connecticut. She is maintained as a National Historic Landmark at the United State Navy’s Naval Submarine Base New London, Conn.
Time has not been kind to the boat, but efforts have been underway to preserve her. USS Nautilus was towed to Naval Submarine Base New London in 2021 for dry-dock and refurbishment. Before closing in 2021, USS Nautilus (SSN-571) served as an exhibit at the Submarine Force Museum that allowed patrons to embark on the only nuclear submarine open to the public.
During the scheduled closure, the historic submarine received $36 million in refurbishments and preservation efforts. She underwent structural maintenance, which included replacement of the boat’s wooden deck, repairs to the vessel’s superstructure, and restorations to the subs hull. Those refurbishments will help extend the vessel’s longevity.
Following repairs, Nautilus returned to Naval History and Heritage Command’s (NHHC’s) fleet of naval artifacts on Aug. 4, 2022. The vessel will remain ported in the Thames River, adjacent to the Submarine Force Museum. She is now scheduled to reopen to the public on September 9.
“Nautilus revolutionized not only submarine warfare, but all of naval warfare. The capability to operate virtually indefinitely without need to surface to run Diesel engines or recharge batteries gave it an immense tactical advantage,” said Naval History and Heritage Command’s (NHHC) Director, Samuel Cox. “Today we forget the existential nature of the Cold War, which drove the incredible pace at which Nautilus was conceived, designed and built, truly a testament to American ingenuity. NHHC is proud to deliver this vessel back to the public and give future generations an opportunity to see it.”
Saving America’s Historic Warship
NHHC, located at the Washington Navy Yard, is responsible for preserving, analyzing, and disseminating U.S. naval history and heritage. It provides the knowledge foundation for the Navy by maintaining historically relevant resources and products that reflect the Navy’s unique and enduring contributions through our nation’s history and supports the fleet by assisting with and delivering professional research, analysis, and interpretive services.
NHHC comprises many activities, including the Navy Department Library, the Navy Operational Archives, the Navy art and artifact collections, underwater archeology, Navy histories, ten museums, the USS Constitution repair facility, and the historic ship Nautilus.
USS Nautilus: A Technological Wonder
Stretching 319 feet with a displacement of 3,180 tons, USS Nautilus was constructed under the direction of U.S. Navy Captain Hyman G. Rickover, a Russian-born engineer who joined the U.S. atomic program after World War II. In 1947, Rickover was put in charge of the Navy’s nuclear propulsion program and set out to develop the first atomic submarine – delivering Nautilus ahead of schedule.
During her sea trials, under the command of Captain Eugene Parks “Dennis” Wilkinson, Nautilus established the capabilities and early tactics of a nuclear-powered submarine. In the drills, USS Nautilus was able to successfully attack surface ships without being detected and was able to just as successfully evade most pursuers.
Being nuclear-powered, SSN-571 could remain submerged for almost unlimited periods and could travel far greater distances than any diesel-electric submarine of the era, while its uranium-powered nuclear reactor allowed the submarine to travel underwater at speeds in excess of 20 knots. In short order, the USS Nautilus successfully shattered many submerged speed and distance records.
Operation Sunshine and Beyond
In July 1958, SSN-571 departed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii under top-secret orders to conduct “Operation Sunshine,” the first crossing of the North Pole by any naval vessel. An initial attempt was made in 1957 but the ice proved a powerful opponent and the Nautilus returned home unable to complete the mission.
The second attempt proved successful, and with a crew of 116, at11:15 PM Eastern Time on August 3, 1958, USS Nautilus passed directly below the North Pole. The boat’s second Commanding Officer, Commander William R. Anderson, made the announcement to the crew, “for the world, our country, and the Navy – the North Pole.” Operation Sunshine subsequently created a new and shorter route for U.S. submarines from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
The nuclear-powered submarine remained in service for another 20 years, but on April 9, 1979, USS Nautilus departed Groton, on her final underway, steaming south to the Panama Canal via Guantanamo Bay and Cartagena, Columbia. From there, she cruised north and reached Mare Island Naval Shipyard, Vallejo, California, on May 26, to begin inactivation procedures. The groundbreaking submarine was officially decommissioned on March 3, 1980. In a career lasting 25 years, USS Nautilus traveled almost 500,000 miles and took part in a variety of developmental testing programs, while continuing to serve alongside many more modern nuclear-powered submarines.
The boat was saved from the scrapyard, however, and was designated a National Historic Landmark and converted into a museum ship, and towed back to Groton, Connecticut. She honors not only the sailors that served aboard her but all U.S. Navy submariners.
“Our submarine force has long been at the forefront of defending our nations’ freedom in a dangerous world,” said Cox. “The accomplishments of the crews of the Nautilus over the years, serve as inspiration to those who serve in submarines today on missions every bit as important to our national security as those of the past. We encourage the public, and submariners of today, to visit Nautilus to get a sense of what the ‘Silent Service’ has done, and continues to do, for our nation.”