Admiral Hyman George Rickover took the U.S. Navy into the atomic age with his persistence that the Navy build the first atomic-powered submarine.
He was born in Russian Poland in 1900 to Rachel, nee Unger, and Abraham Rickover, a tailor who brought his family to Chicago. After completing high school in 1918, Rickover received an appointment to the United States Naval Academy, where he was often confronted with anti-Semitism. He graduated in 1922 and was commissioned an ensign. Assigned to sea duty, he remained there for five years before being assigned to the Naval Academy to do graduate work in electrical engineering. He continued his studies at Columbia University where he received his M.S. degree in 1929.
Rickover’s various assignments included his first command post aboard the U.S.S. FINCH in the Philippines. When World War II started., he was placed in charge of the electrical section of the Bureau of Ships in Washington, D.C. in the first of many wartime appointments. He was decorated for his effectiveness in obtaining men and materials to produce electric power and equipment necessary for naval shipbuilding and maintenance.
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 in January and, in late June, was made a temporary captain.
In late 1944, he appealed for a transfer to an active command. He was sent to investigate inefficiencies at the naval supply depot at Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, then was appointed in July 1945 to command of a ship repair facility on Okinawa. Shortly thereafter, his command was destroyed by Typhoon Louise.
In 1946, he was assigned to Oak Ridge, the site of the development of the atomic bomb. Rickover visited other nuclear research centers and he became convinced ships could be powered by nuclear energy. Almost alone in his belief, he finally convinced the Navy to begin to develop a nuclear submarine in 1947.
In February 1949, he was assigned to the Atomic Energy Commission’s Division of Reactor Development, and then assumed control of the Navy’s effort as Director of the Naval Reactors Branch. The reactors were built in Idaho; the submarine in Groton, Connecticut. Finally, in January 1954, the first atomic-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus, was launched. Later Rickover oversaw the development of the Shippingport Atomic Power Station, the first commercial pressurized water reactor nuclear power plant.
Despite his success, Rickover faced opposition due to his personality and outspokenness. After he had been twice passed over for promotion to admiral (the naval codes require retirement if promotion is twice denied), congressional leaders suspected that he was a victim of “foul play.” Following an investigation, he was named a rear admiral in 1953.
Rickover was promoted to vice admiral in 1958, the same year that he was awarded the first of two Congressional Gold Medals.
He made it a point to be aboard during the initial sea trial of almost every nuclear submarine completing its new-construction period and his stringent standards are largely credited with being responsible for the U.S. Navy’s continuing record of zero reactor accidents. He exercised tight control for 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 interviews were with recent college-graduates alone.
He served in a flag rank for nearly 30 years (1953 to 1982), ending his career as a four-star admiral. His total of 63 years of active duty service made Rickover the longest-serving naval officer, as well as the longest-serving member of the U.S armed forces in history.
He is often credited with being President Jimmy Carter’s mentor, but was a critic of President Ronald Reagan’s defense budget, which he considered to be too large and wasteful. In 1982, he was forced into retirement at age 82. When Rickover retired, he expressed regret about the role he played in nuclear proliferation and called for an international agreement to outlaw nuclear weapons and reactors because of the radiation dangers that they pose.
In 1980, Admiral Rickover was honored with the highest U.S. civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Rickover is one of four people who have been awarded two Congressional Gold Medals. He won dozens of other honors and honorary degrees.
The Los Angeles-class submarine USS Hyman G. Rickover (SSN-709) was named for him. It was commissioned two years before his death, one of the few Navy ships named after a living person.
He died on July 8, 1986, at the age of 86.
Sources: This is one of the 150 illustrated true stories of American heroism included in Jewish Heroes & Heroines of America : 150 True Stories of American Jewish Heroism, © 1996, written by Seymour “Sy” Brody of Delray Beach, Florida, illustrated by Art Seiden of Woodmere, New York, and published by Lifetime Books, Inc., Hollywood, FL;
“Hyman G. Rickover,” Wikipedia;
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