“The Devil is in the details, but so is salvation.”
The most sincere, categorical way to know that you are really, really good at something is by counting how many times your contemporaries try to get you fired for no particular reason. With this in mind, Admiral Hyman Rickover was indeed very good at two things: being an electrical engineer and, possibly more vital to his trade, being a sailor. His no-nonsense commitment to getting the job done with the least amount of red tape, pomp and circumstance, and adherence to protocol made him one of the least-popular Navy men of his generation; it also made him the most prolific and influential.
Rickover did not invent the nuclear submarine, but he developed it. He took a loose scientific concept and, as an engineer, not a scientist, applied that concept in practice. He oversaw the design and production of the world’s first nuclear submarine, the Nautilus. In 1958, that ship was the first vessel to travel underneath the North Pole, barreling 1,830 miles over four days, from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Naval warfare has never been the same.
Over the course of his career, he won two Congressional Gold Medals, the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Service Medal, the Navy Commendation Medal, and was granted the title of Honorary Commander of the Military Division of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter, who had previously served under Adm. Rickover.
But before all of this, in 1906, Hyman Rickover was just a scared Jewish kid from Poland, fleeing a world of violence and hatred.
Chaim (later Americanized to Hyman) Godalia Rickover was born on January 27, 1900, in Makow, Poland; which was a territory of the Russian empire at that time. The rise of nationalism and the Russian Revolution of 1905 caused a great deal of unrest in that region, and many ethnic groups seized the chaos as an opportunity to settle scores. A series of anti-Semitic pogroms took place in Makow and throughout what is now called the Masovian province, killing over 3,000 Jews. The Rickovers survived, and soon after Hyman and his mother, Rachel, fled Poland; joining his father, Abraham, in New York City in 1906. They stayed there for two years before settling in Chicago. Abraham worked as a tailor, and young Hyman worked a number of odd jobs to make ends meet. At nine, he apprenticed for his machinist neighbor, earning three cents an hour.
Hyman graduated high school with honors, while also working for Western Union as a telegraph boy. One of his frequent customers was U.S. Congressman Adolph J. Sabath, himself a Jewish refugee, and the two developed a friendship and a bond over their shared stories and hardships. That relationship helped Hyman secure a spot in the U.S Naval Academy, where he focused his studies on electrical engineering.
Graduating the Academy in the top tier in 1922, Rickover was commissioned an ensign and served on the destroyer USS La Vellette and the the battleship USS Nevada. His hard work and frank smartness impressed his superiors, who promoted him to engineer officer in 1923; he was the youngest officer in his squadron. Rickover continued his education at Columbia University, where he met Ruth Masters, whom he married in 1931.
Back from Columbia, Hyman was assigned to (and later commanded) a few smaller fleet boats, which bolstered his fascination with submarines. He was promoted to Captain, and took command of the USS Finch in 1937, overseeing mine-sweeping operations in the Pacific. During World War II, Rickover served as Head of the Electrical Section in the Bureau of Ships. After the war, when the power of atomic energy was witnessed by all, he became a key component of the atomic submarine project at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (the home of the Manhattan Project) in 1946. It was there he and his colleagues developed a method to power submarines using nuclear energy, eliminating the need for the ships to recharge their batteries and give up their positions in the deep.
Captain Rickover’s enthusiasm for nuclear-powered propulsion wasn’t immediately matched by the people in charge. He adamantly disagreed with opponents of his design, which led to his reassignment to the newly-created Atomic Energy Commission, where his superiors hoped to bury him in bureaucratic channels and paperwork. In order to drive the idea home that he was not particularly wanted, they relocated his office to a renovated women’s restroom.
“If you are going to sin, sin against God, not the bureaucracy. God will forgive you but the bureaucracy won’t.”
Never a patient man, Rickover could not stand the inefficient process that halted the progress of his new mission. In an epic example of circumvention, he persuaded an Admiral to give Rickover an additional assignment as the head of the Nuclear Power Division of the Bureau of Ships. He then used his authority in the Atomic Energy Commission to place himself as head of a sub-division, called the Naval Reactors Branch. Using the ‘two hat’ method, Captain Rickover would write himself a letter or formal request from one of his positions, and then approve it from the other; completely cutting out the middle man. Thus, if he sought approval for a particular piece of research equipment, it was as easy as writing himself a formal note, and following it up with a signed check. This infuriated his opponents, who could do nothing but watch as Rickover got exactly what he wanted, and the nuclear submarine was born. Rickover was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1953, despite the Navy’s best efforts to force him into retirement. He gained the rank of Vice Admiral in 1958, and Admiral in 1973.
Adm. Rickover was a force to be reckoned with in the years that followed. He was the driving force for the establishment of the nation’s first large-scale, all-civilian atomic power plant, located in Shippingport, Pennsylvania. He was candid and biting in his responses to critics of the nuclear submarine. He breached protocol regularly, constantly working to improve the Navy’s efficiency and method of production. When an opponent of higher rank would visit his office, Rickover would use a saw to shorten the legs of his guests’ office chairs, throwing them off guard the minute they sat down.
“I believe it is the duty of each of us to act as if the fate of the world depended on him. Admittedly, one man by himself cannot do the job. However, one man can make a difference…We must live for the future of the human race, and not for our own comfort or success.”
Rickover harbored (heh, see what I did there?) a legendary hatred of stupidity, and had no tolerance for people whose lack of ability got in his way. He demanded the very best in people, and accepted nothing less. He held his colleagues and officers to the most meticulously-high standards, and rewarded them mightily when they were successful. This attitude is the subject of countless Sea Stories, many of which can be found online or in transcripts. Once, while interviewing a potential commanding officer, Rickover asked him to “do something to make me mad.” The officer then knocked every item off of the Admiral’s desk, breaking a valuable miniature submarine model in the process. Rickover was livid, but impressed. The officer got the job, and command of a nuclear submarine. His first order as commander was to clean up the mess he had made in the Admiral’s office.
When his subordinates gave him a bad report, Rickover would lock them in a broom closet. Much to the chagrin of his colleagues, he would arrive to Congressional Armed Services Committee hearings in civilian clothes; he loathed the decorum of the military and considered it unnecessary. When asked a question that was not to his standards in committee or by the press, he would simply say, “that was a stupid question,” and refuse to answer. Later in his career, he became an advocate for reforms in education policy and changes in military management techniques. He gave lectures on management structure, work ethic, and motivation. He wrote philosophical essays on these topics, and many more.
“My job wasn’t to work within the system. My job was to get things done, and make this country strong.”
At age 82, after serving his adopted country for 63 years (still the longest career in Naval history), Admiral Rickover reluctantly retired amidst an attempt to force him out. In his final remarks to Congress, he noted that he was proud of his accomplishments, though he was ashamed that his developments were used as instruments of war; instead, he said, he hoped a strong military could be used to promote peace. “That’s why I am such a great exponent of stopping this whole nonsense of war,” he said.
Even in retirement, stormy seas seemed to follow him; he was a man ill-equipped for calmness. In 1984, Rickover was accused of accepting gifts throughout his career from General Dynamics, a submarine builder and large military contractor. Rickover brushed the accusations off, citing that he had given most of the gifts away, and that he “could have made a fortune in the private sector.”
Hyman Rickover died on July 8, 1986. He was 86 years old. He had one son, Robert, with his first wife Ruth, who died in 1972. In 1974, he Married Eleanore Ann Bednowicz. His legacy lives on through the submarine USS Hyman G. Rickover (SSN 709), and Rickover Hall at the U.S. Naval Academy. He is buried in Arlington Cemetery.
President Jimmy Carter once said of Rickover, “There were a few times, yeah, that I hated him — because he demanded more from me than I thought I could deliver.”
PBS News. Rickover: The Birth of Nuclear Power.
Lieutenant Commander Christopher Nelson. The God of Submarines.
Michael Sullivan, Military.com. Admiral Hyman G. Rickover: Taking the Atom Under the Sea
C.M. Meyer. The long shadow of Admiral Hyman Rickover.
Doug Nordman, The Military Guide. Sea Story: The Admiral Rickover Interview.
Hyman Rickover. Doing a Job.
The New York Times. Rickover, Father of Nuclear Navy, Dies at 86.
Hyman Rickover’s WikiQuote