August 3, 1958
At 11:15 p.m., the U.S. Navy submarine USS Nautilus became the first vessel to make it to the top of the world when she passed under an ice cap at the geographic North Pole. Navy Commander William R. Anderson, the commanding officer of Nautilus, formally announced the achievement to his crew of 115 men at the time it happened. He declared, “For the world, our country, and our Navy – the North Pole.”(In addition, this transit involved the largest group of people at the North Pole during a single expedition up to that time.)
Anderson also took time to highlight others who sought to reach that region of the globe. “Let us remember too those who have preceded us by other means – some to triumph, some to defeat, some to disaster,” he said. “Without the observations of many Arctic explorers – some made at the expense of untold hardships – this voyage would not be possible.”
Nautilus, sharing the name of the state-of-the-art submarine commanded by Captain Nemo in Jules Verne’s classic 1870 novel “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” was also the world’s first operational nuclear-powered submarine. The nuclear propulsion powering USS Nautilus allowed her to remain submerged a lot longer than the diesel-electric submarines that were in widespread use at the time. This advantage became the reason why Nautilus was selected for Operation Sunshine, a scientific research expedition to the North Pole being undertaken by the Navy.
On July 23, 1958, Nautilus departed the naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii for the journey to the North Pole. Along with carrying out studies of various arctic conditions, those on board Nautilus tried to fill up their time with a host of diversions throughout the entire voyage. “Thirty-eight movies were shown during the trip,” reported an article in the Navy magazine All Hands. “Chess, cribbage and acey-deucy tournaments were held. The jukebox played almost continuously.” After the Nautilus made her historic crossing beneath a North Pole ice cap, the crew members enjoyed a meal of steak, french fries, carrots, peas, fruit salad, bread, and cake.
Nautilus could only head south, emerging in the open waters of the Greenland Sea and just west of the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen and continuing into the Atlantic Ocean. While the submarine was en route to Iceland on August 8, a helicopter airlifted Commander Anderson from the vessel so that he could then be flown via jet to Washington, D.C., for a White House ceremony. At that ceremony, President Dwight D. Eisenhower honored the accomplishments of Nautilus with the Legion of Merit military award for Anderson and a Presidential Unit Citation for his crew.
Those remaining on board Nautilus officially completed Operation Sunshine when they arrived at England’s Isle of Portland on August 12. Altogether, the submarine had covered 8,146 miles (13,109.7 kilometers) during the expedition.
Nautilus was decommissioned in 1980 and designated a National Historic Landmark two years later. She can now be visited at the Submarine Force Library and Museum near Groton, Connecticut.
For more information on USS Nautilus, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Nautilus_(SSN-571) and http://www.ussnautilus.org/nautilus/index.shtml.
For additional information on the submarine’s historic crossing of August 3, 1958, please check out the article “Under the North Pole” in the October 1958 issue of All Hands magazine at http://www.navy.mil/ah_online/archpdf/ah195810.pdf.
A video about the crossing is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z10Oyt4HZfU.