Riding Atomic Fire Beneath the Waves

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Hank Walker / Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

Aboard the USS Nautilus, Rear Admiral Hyman Rickover, left, and Wilkinson detail nuclear propulsion to visitors.

Retired vice admiral Eugene Wilkinson, the first commanding officer of the world’s first nuclear submarine, died last Thursday at age 94.

Amid the chilliest days of the Cold War, it’s hard to imagine the patriotic jolt when Wilkinson took command of the USS Nautilus at Groton, Conn., and uttered those historic words 58 years ago:

“Under way on nuclear power.”

United States Navy nuclear submarine USS Nautilus, 1954, cutaway, illustration

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The USS Nautilus

Wilkinson’s mentor, as for all U.S. Navy nuclear bubbleheads, was Admiral Hyman Rickover. Noted Wilkinson’s obituary in the New York Times:

In a 2001 biography of Admiral Rickover, Francis Duncan wrote that he chose Admiral Wilkinson, a commander at the time, to skipper the Nautilus because he was “intelligent, imaginative, and free from the deadly embrace of tradition” — a reference to his not having graduated from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

Godspeed, Captain Wilkinson.