Remember Triton: America’s Pioneer Nuke Sub
Steve Weintz recounts the odd — and historic —nuclear-powered Navy submarine USS Triton
In 1960, the Eisenhower era was ending and Ike sought valedictory measures to cap his substantial presidency. To a summit in Geneva with Nikita Khrushchev, a definitive arms-control agreement and progress in responding to Sputnik, the White House added a naval adventure worthy of Captain Cook.
The submerged circumnavigation of the world by the USS Triton stands as one of the great sea stories of all time, and was widely publicized in part due to the participation of the National Geographic Society. Triton made history not only with her maiden voyage — the submerged circumnavigation was her shakedown cruise — but with her design.
Triton was the largest submarine ever built when she was launched in 1959 — larger even than Japan’s Sen-Toku submarine aircraft carriers. Like each of the first eight American nuclear subs, she was a one-off: Nautilus proved nuclear propulsion and Halibut was the first nuclear missile sub and later, the first nuke special-ops sub. Triton was designed for a very special mission: fleet radar picket.
The radar picket role was a response to the new age of carrier-based naval warfare, where fleets without long-distance aircraft detection were doomed. Destroyers and other fast surface ships had filled this role in World War II and Korea, but were seen as increasingly vulnerable to air attack. Submarines were tried as survivable radar pickets, and several very large diesel subs were built for the role. Radar effectiveness depended on electrical power, however, and any fleet sub would now need to keep up with the fast new super-carriers of the Forrestal class. Only nuclear power seemed to fit the bill.
Triton had two S4G nuclear reactors to drive her twin screws, the only U.S. Navy sub to ever have such a powerplant. She was so large her hull accommodated three decks, one of them a fully-equipped Combat Information Center, as well as crew berthing with 96 bunks and two separate chief petty officers’ quarters.
Her 22 ballast tanks gave Triton unusually large reserve buoyancy, which along with her old-fashioned knife prow and bulbous bow gave her extraordinarily good sea-keeping qualities and a wicked-fast surface speed. Designed for 35,000 shaft horsepower, Triton‘s engines pumped out 45,000 horsepower in sea trials, and her skipper on the circumnavigation asserted that she was capable of 60,000. With that much power, Triton could keep up with anything in the fleet, at a speed of well over 30 knots surfaced or submerged.
There was also plenty of power available for her primary mission. The SPS-26 radar had a range of 75 miles and it was capable of tracking aircraft up to an altitude of 75,000 feet. The huge radar was stowed within Triton‘s massive sail, which was so large it was cut off while the sub was under construction, and reattached like Frankenstein’s head just before launch. That sail contained the last conning tower installed in an American submarine, another oddity. It also housed a periscopic sextant for submerged navigation, an instrument that got put to use on the boat’s first cruise.
The officer assigned to take Triton out on her record-setting voyage was Edward L. Beach, Jr., a highly-decorated Californian with a successful publishing career. His novel Run Silent, Run Deep had been made into a Hollywood hit starring Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster. Beach was a model submarine skipper and a creative intellectual, but his career intersects curiously with Triton‘s unique features. From 1953 to 1957, Beach had been Eisenhower’s naval aide, and in charge of a unique Cold War mission.
“Since the Secret Service in 1953 did not deem helicopter travel as safe, evacuating the president on short notice was planned by Beach via the Potomac River, several PT boats and a high-speed race down river to meet up with a waiting Navy ship.” Triton was designed during this time, and even before her launch there were plans afoot to adapt her for other missions, including those of command ship (SSCN) and underwater rescue tug.
The most promising was the equivalent of Air Force One: modifying Triton to become a submerged Presidential command center, a “Navy One.” Speculation about this role has hovered around the sub ever since, but there is as yet no evidence the plan was ever implemented.
Some cognizance of Triton‘s geopolitical potential must have informed the top-secret decision to make Triton‘s maiden voyage an epic historical feat. Beach was given secret orders for Operation Sandblast on February 4, 1960 and Triton was underway submerged on February 15. Eighty-four days later, after retracing Magellan’s 1521 circumnavigation, Triton resurfaced to worldwide acclaim and the thoughtful consideration of naval officers everywhere. U.S. Navy subs could now go anywhere, anytime, for as long as they liked.
The National Geographic Society, which had scientific personnel and journalists aboard, celebrated the achievement in print and film, and boat and crew received the Presidential Unit Citation from Ike himself.
The smoking light was kept out for a large part of the voyage, to avoid fouling the air filters. Needless to say, this was hard duty for mid-century sailors, and after it was determined that the boat’s systems were able to handle the load, Beach announced that smoking was permitted by walking the companionways with a lit cigar and saying, “Don’t you wish you could do this?”
Unfortunately for the 34th president, not all his military assets were free to go where they liked. Triton‘s triumphant return was overshadowed by the shooting-down of a CIA U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union, an incident which scuttled the summit and the arms pact Ike had hoped for. The great voyage was celebrated, but the Triton was not. Displaced from her radar-picket mission by the introduction of carrier-based early-warning aircraft, the huge sub tried valiantly to serve in an attack role, but her size and peculiarities worked against her.
Ironically, it may have been the very carriers she was designed to defend that ultimately sank her. The scheduled and prepped-for 1967 refueling of her reactors was canceled in part by the costs of dealing with the disastrous fires aboard USS Forrestal. She added a sad first to her list of such distinctions: Triton was the first U.S. nuclear submarine to be deactivated and she lingered for 30 years before being scrapped in 2009.
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