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Hyman G. Rickover¬†(January 27, 1900‚ÄďJuly 8, 1986)


‚ú™ Hyman G. Rickover¬†(born Chaim Gdala Rykower) was an¬†Admiral¬†in the¬†United States Navy. He directed the original development of naval nuclear propulsion and controlled its operations for three decades as director of the U.S.¬†Naval Reactors Office. In addition, he oversaw the development of the¬†Shippingport Atomic Power Station, the world’s first commercial¬†pressurized water reactor¬†used for generating electricity. Rickover is also one of only four people who have been awarded two Congressional Gold Medals.

Rickover is known as the “Father of the Nuclear Navy,” and his influence on the Navy and its warships was of such scope that he “may well go down in history as one of the Navy’s most important officers.” He served in a flag rank for nearly 30 years (1953 to 1982), ending his career as a four-star admiral. His years of service exceeded that of each of the U.S. Navy’s five-star fleet admirals: Leahy,¬†King,¬†Nimitz¬†and¬†Halsey. All of whom served on¬†active duty for life¬†after their appointments. Rickover’s total of 63 years of active duty service makes him the longest-serving naval officer, as well as the longest-serving member of the U.S Armed Forces in history.

Having become a Naval¬†engineering duty officer¬†(EDO) in 1937 after serving as both a surface ship and¬†submarine-qualified¬†unrestricted line officer, his substantial legacy of technical achievements includes the United States Navy’s continuing record of zero reactor accidents.

Rickover was born Chaim Gdala Rykower to Abraham and Rachel/Ruchla Lea (nee Unger) Rykower, a Polish Jewish family from¬†Mak√≥w Mazowiecki¬†in¬†Vistula Land. His parents changed his name to “Hyman” which is derived from¬†Chayyim, meaning “life.” He did not use his middle name Godalia (a form of¬†Gedaliah), but he substituted “George” when at the Naval Academy.

When he was a child still living in Russian-occupied Poland, Rickover was not allowed to attend public schools because of his Jewish faith.

Following his formal education in the United States, Rickover developed a decades-long and outspoken interest in the educational standards of the US as being a national security issue, particularly as compared during the Cold War era to Soviet Russia.

Rickover made passage to New York City with his mother and sister in March 1906, fleeing anti-Semitic Russian¬†pogroms¬†during the¬†Revolution of 1905. They joined Abraham, who had made earlier trips there beginning in 1897 to become established.¬†Rickover’s family lived initially on the¬†East Side of Manhattan¬†but moved two years later to¬†North Lawndale, Chicago, which was a heavily Jewish neighborhood at the time, where Rickover’s father continued to work as a tailor. Rickover took his first paid job at age nine, earning three cents an hour for holding a light while his neighbor operated a machine. Later, he delivered groceries. He graduated from grammar school at the age of 14.

Rickover attended John Marshall Metropolitan High School in Chicago and graduated with honors in 1918. He then held a full-time job as a telegraph boy delivering Western Union telegrams, through which he became acquainted with Congressman Adolph J. Sabath, a Czech Jewish immigrant. Sabath nominated Rickover for appointment to the United States Naval Academy. Rickover was only a third alternate for appointment, but he passed the entrance exam and was accepted.

Rickover’s naval career began in 1918 at the Naval Academy. At this time, attending military academies was considered active duty service, due in part to¬†World War I.On June 2, 1922, Rickover graduated 107th out of 540 midshipmen and was commissioned as an¬†ensign. He joined the crew of the¬†destroyer La Vallette¬†on September 5, 1922. Rickover impressed his commanding officer with his hard work and efficiency, and was made engineer officer on June 21, 1923, becoming the youngest such officer in the¬†squadron.

Rickover next served on board the battleship Nevada before earning a Master of Science degree in electrical engineering from Columbia University in 1930 by way of a year at the Naval Postgraduate School and further coursework at Columbia. At the latter institution, he met Ruth D. Masters, a graduate student in international law, whom he married in 1931 after she returned from her doctoral studies at the Sorbonne in Paris. Shortly after marrying, Rickover wrote to his parents of his decision to become an Episcopalian, and remained so for the remainder of his life.

Rickover had a high regard for the quality of the education he received at Columbia, as demonstrated in this excerpt from a speech he gave at the university some 52 later years after attending:

Columbia was the first institution that encouraged me to think rather than memorize. My teachers were notable in that many had gained practical engineering experience outside the university and were able to share their experience with their students. I am grateful, among others, to Professors Morecroft, Hehre, and Arendt. Much of what I have subsequently learned and accomplished in engineering is based on the solid foundation of principles I learned from them.

Rickover preferred life & service on smaller ships. He also knew that young officers in the submarine service were advancing quickly, so he went to Washington and volunteered for submarine duty. His application was turned down due to his age, at that time 29 years. Fortunately for Rickover, he encountered his former commanding officer from Nevada while leaving the building, who interceded successfully on his behalf. From 1929 to 1933, Rickover qualified for submarine duty and command aboard the submarines S-9 and S-48.

In 1933, while at the Office of the Inspector of Naval Material in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Rickover translated¬†Das Unterseeboot¬†(The Submarine) by¬†World War I¬†German Imperial Navy¬†Admiral¬†Hermann Bauer into English. Rickover’s translation became a basic text for the U.S. submarine service.

On 17 July 1937, he reported for duty aboard the minesweeper Finch at Quingdao, China, to assume what would be his only ship command with additional duty as Commander, Mine Division Three, Asiatic Fleet. On September 25, Rickover was promoted to lieutenant commander, retroactive to July 1. In October, his designation as an engineering duty officer became effective, and he was relieved of his three-month command of Finch in Shanghai on October 5, 1937.

Rickover was next assigned to the Cavite Navy Yard in the Philippines, and was transferred shortly thereafter to the Bureau of Engineering in Washington, D.C. Once there, he took up his duties as assistant chief of the Electrical Section of the Bureau of Engineering on August 15, 1939.

On April 10, 1942, after America’s entry into¬†World War II, Rickover flew to¬†Pearl Harbor¬†to organize repairs to the electrical power plant of¬†USS¬†California.¬†Rickover had been promoted to the rank of¬†commander¬†on January 1, 1942, and in late June of that year was made a temporary¬†captain.

In July 1945, he was appointed to command of a ship repair facility on Okinawa. Shortly thereafter, his command was destroyed by Typhoon Louise, and he subsequently spent his time helping to teach school to Okinawan children.

Later in the war, his service as head of the Electrical Section in the Bureau of Ships earned him a Legion of Merit and gave him experience in directing large development programs, choosing talented technical people and working closely with private industry. Time magazine featured him on the cover of its January 11, 1954 issue. The featured article described his wartime service:

Sharp-tongued Hyman Rickover spurred his men to exhaustion, ripped through red tape, drove contractors into rages. He went on making enemies, but by the end of the war he had won the rank of captain. He had also won a reputation as a man who gets things done.

In December 1945, Rickover was appointed¬†Inspector General¬†of the¬†19th Fleet¬†on the west coast, and was assigned to work with¬†General Electric¬†at¬†Schenectady,¬†New York, to develop a nuclear propulsion plant for destroyers. In 1946, an initiative was begun at the¬†Manhattan Project’s Clinton Laboratory (now the¬†Oak Ridge National Laboratory) to develop a nuclear electric generating plant.¬†Rickover applied and was sent to Oak Ridge.

Rickover became an early advocate of the idea of¬†nuclear marine propulsion; and was the driving force for shifting the Navy’s initial focus from that propulsion application on destroyers to submarines. However, Rickover’s vision was not initially shared by his immediate superiors: he was soon recalled from Oak Ridge and assigned “advisory duties” with an office in an abandoned ladies’ room in the Navy Building.

He subsequently went around several layers of superior officers, and in 1947 went directly to the Chief of Naval Operations,¬†Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, also a former submariner. Nimitz immediately grasped the potential of nuclear propulsion in submarines and recommended the project to the Secretary of the Navy,¬†John L. Sullivan. Sullivan’s endorsement to build the world’s first nuclear-powered vessel,¬†USS¬†Nautilus, later caused Rickover to state that Sullivan was “the true father of the Nuclear Navy.”

In February 1949 Rickover was assigned to the¬†Atomic Energy Commission’s Division of Reactor Development to assume control of the Navy’s effort within the AEC as Director of the¬†Naval Reactors¬†Branch.¬†This twin role enabled him to lead the effort to develop¬†Nautilus.

While his team and industry were completing construction of the Nautilus, Rickover was promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral in 1953. Regardless of the challenges he faced in developing and operating brand-new technology, Rickover and his team did not disappoint. Their result was a highly reliable nuclear reactor in a form-factor that would easily fit inside a submarine hull with no more than a 28-foot beam.This prototype became known as the S1W reactor. Nautilus was launched and commissioned with this reactor in 1954.

Later, Rickover oversaw the development of the Shippingport Atomic Power Station, the first commercial pressurized water reactor nuclear power plant.

Rickover was promoted to¬†Vice Admiral¬†in 1958, the same year that he was awarded the first of two¬†Congressional Gold Medals.¬†He exercised tight control for the next three decades over the ships, technology and personnel of the nuclear Navy, interviewing and approving or denying every prospective officer being considered for a nuclear ship. Over the course of Rickover’s career, these personal interviews numbered in the tens of thousands; over 14,000 of the interviews were with recent college-graduates alone.

The interviewees ranged from midshipmen and newly commissioned ensigns destined for duty aboard nuclear-powered submarines and surface combatants, to very senior combat-experienced Naval Aviator captains who sought command of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.

In 1973, Rickover was promoted to the rank of Four Star Admiral. This was only the second time (after Samuel Murray Robinson) in the history of the U.S. Navy that an officer with a career path other than an operational line officer achieved that rank.

Historian Francis Duncan, who for over eight years was granted generous access to diverse numbers and levels of witnesses‚ÄĒincluding U.S. presidents‚ÄĒas well as Rickover himself,¬†came to the conclusion that the man was best understood with respect to a guiding principle that Rickover invoked foremost for both himself and those who served in the U.S. Navy’s nuclear propulsion program: “exercise of the concept of responsibility.”¬†This is further evidenced by Rickover listing responsibility as his first¬†principle¬†in his final-years paper and speech,¬†Thoughts on Man’s Purpose in Life.

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Rickover’s stringent standards are largely credited with being responsible for the U.S. Navy’s continuing record of zero reactor accidents (defined as the uncontrolled release of fission products to the environment resulting from damage to a reactor core).¬†He made it a point to be aboard during the initial sea trial of almost every nuclear submarine after completing its construction phase.

Given Rickover’s single-minded focus on naval nuclear propulsion, design, and operations, it came as a surprise to many¬†in 1982, near the end of his career, when he testified before the U.S. Congress that were it up to him what to do with nuclear powered ships, he “would sink them all.” At a congressional hearing Rickover testified:

I do not believe that nuclear power is worth it if it creates radiation. Then you might ask me why do I have nuclear powered ships. That is a necessary evil. I would sink them all. I am not proud of the part I played in it. I did it because it was necessary for the safety of this country. That’s why I am such a great exponent of stopping this whole nonsense of war. Unfortunately limits‚ÄĒattempts to limit war have always failed. The lesson of history is when a war starts every nation will ultimately use whatever weapon it has available. … Every time you produce radiation, you produce something that has a certain half-life, in some cases for billions of years. … It is important that we control these forces and try to eliminate them.

Rickover believed national standards of education in the United States were unacceptably low. His first book entitled¬†Education and Freedom¬†(1959), centered on education was a collection of essays calling for improved standards, particularly in math and science. In it, he stated that “education is the most important problem facing the United States today” and “only the massive upgrading of the scholastic standards of our schools will guarantee the future prosperity and freedom of the Republic.”

Recognizing that “nurturing careers of excellence and leadership in science and technology in young scholars is an essential investment in the United States national and global future,” Rickover founded the¬†Center for Excellence in Education¬†following his retirement in 1983

By the late 1970s, Rickover’s position in the Navy seemed stronger than it had ever been. Over many years, powerful friends on both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees ensured that he remained on active duty long after most other admirals had retired from their second careers.

On January 31, 1982, five weeks after his 82nd birthday, Rickover was forced to retire from the Navy after 63 years of service under 13 consecutive presidents (Woodrow Wilson through Ronald Reagan). According to Rickover, he first learned of his firing when his wife told him she heard about it on the radio.

Rickover has been called “the most famous and controversial admiral of his era.” He was hyperactive, blunt, confrontational, insulting and a workaholic, always demanding of others without regard for rank or position.¬†Moreover, he had “little tolerance for mediocrity, none for stupidity.”¬†Even while a captain, Rickover did not conceal his opinions, and many of the officers whom he regarded as unintelligent eventually rose to be admirals and were assigned to the Pentagon.

Rickover’s military authority and congressional mandate may have been absolute in regard to the U.S. fleet’s reactor operations, but his controlling personality was frequently the subject of internal Navy controversy.

On July 4, 1985, Admiral Rickover suffered what was described as a “serious” stroke, and was admitted to Bethesda Naval Hospital, thereafter dealing with partial paralysis in his right arm.

He died at his home in Arlington, Virginia, on July 8, 1986, at the age of 86 and was buried on July 11 in a small, private ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in Section 5 with his two wives.

The Los Angeles-class submarine USS Hyman G. Rickover (SSN-709) was named for him. She was commissioned two years before his death; and was at that time since 1900, only one of two Navy ships to be named after a living person (there have been 16 more since). 

In his honor, the US Navy announced a¬†Virginia-class submarine¬†named¬†USS¬†Hyman G. Rickover¬†(SSN-795)¬†in 2015.¬†The submarine’s christening took place on July 31, 2021.‚ú™

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