August 3, 1858: U.S.S. Nautilus reaches North Pole

Digital Originals

In this photo provided by the U.S. Navy, Cdr. William R. Anderson of the USS Nautilus, above right, on the bridge duirng a period of low visibility, searches for a spot deep enough to submerge safely under the ice to pass under the North Pole, Aug. 1958. (AP Photo/U.S. Navy)

(WHTM) — It’s called Operation Sunshine.

On July 23, 1958, the world’s first nuclear submarine, the U.S.S Nautilus, departs Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and sails north. Onboard are Commander William R. Anderson, 111 officers and crew, and four civilian scientists. Its top-secret mission travel to the North Pole and beyond.

Because of its nuclear power plant, Nautilus does not have to surface to recharge batteries, like the diesel-electric submarines of World War Two and earlier. They will be able to make the entire journey under the arctic ice cap submerged.

First, though, they have to get under the ice. This is actually the Nautilus crew’s second try. An earlier attempt in June has to be scrubbed when they discovered the ice pack near the Bering Sea is much thicker than they expected. After a harrowing incident where they have to squeeze under an enormous iceberg with just five feet to spare, they head south to Hawaii and wait for the ice to recede.

When they return to the area at the end of July, the ice pack has retreated northward. On August 1st they dive near Point Barrow, Alaska, and steer for the pole.

Navigating a ship in the Arctic presents unique problems. The needles on magnetic compasses start swinging erratically as they near the North Magnetic Pole, and gyrocompasses, which find true north using the Earth’s rotation, can lose their lock and “tumble” because the rate of the Earth’s spin changes nearer the poles.

But the Nautilus has a new device, an inertial navigation system. Based on steering instruments developed for rockets, it combines a number of inputs on ship speed, course changes and outside conditions to plot a ship’s position. It’s the old concept of “dead reckoning” taken to a new level.

At 2315 Eastern Daylight Savings Time (11:35 p.m.) on August 3, 1958, Commander Anderson announces to his crew: “For the United States and United States Navy—the North Pole.” The Nautilus has become the first ship to reach the Pole, either on the surface or underwater.

On August 5th the submarine surfaces in the Greenland Sea, between Spitzbergen and Greenland. They establish radio contact, and Anderson transmits a coded message: NAUTILUS 90 NORTH. (Ninety degrees north latitude being the location of the pole.) Two days later, the voyage ends when Nautilus docks at Iceland. She has traveled 1,830 miles underwater, and her scientific crew’s sonar measurements have vastly expanded mankind’s knowledge of the Arctic Ocean, including the depth of the sea at the pole-13,410 feet.

She has also proven travel from ocean to ocean through the Arctic is doable. In the future, it would become almost routine-at least for subs.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower decorates Anderson with the Legion of Merit. His crew members receive the first Presidential Unit Citation ever to be awarded in peacetime.

The Nautilus goes on to serve for over 25 years, steaming almost 500,000 miles, before being decommissioned on March 3, 1980. She is designated a National Historic Landmark in 1982, and in 1986 she goes on exhibit at the Submarine Force Museum in Groton, Connecticut.

The slideshow contains pictures taken by the navy and the Associated Press in 1958 and photos taken at the Submarine Museum in 2004 by the author.

The U.S. Navy released a short movie about the voyage, narrated by Edward R. Murrow. To view, click here.

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