Sunday, July 24, 2022

Game-changing Maritime Inventions


Rockport History Book Club

Game-changing Maritime Inventions

History Book Club

Wednesday, July 27, 2022


                                                Admiral Hyman Rickover inspecting USS Nautilus

Wednesday, July 27, 2022. Game changing maritime inventions. Read about the days of ships propelled by sail, oars, coal or oil, paddle wheelers, steam engines, or warships like dreadnought, submarines, aircraft carriers, or torpedoes, propellers, chronometers, sextants, etc. [Proposed by Janos Posfai]

James E. Bradford, Editor, America, Sea Power and the World, Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.; 2016.

Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1960.

            I’ve been involved with maritime inventions ever since I arrived at the Naval Academy as a 19-year-old in an ill-fitting light blue suit. I arrived in 1953, and at that time the U.S. Navy was starting to build a massive nuclear submarine force.

            Captain Hyman Rickover was an irritable, ornery engineering duty officer who was behind the creation of our nuclear navy.  He single-handedly pushed and shoved and agitated the admirals of the Navy and members of Congress to develop nuclear power plants for submarines. He had loads of opposition—the very idea of squeezing fissionable material into a core that would heat water used to drive turbines to propel a submarine scared the daylights out of most senior officers in the Navy.

            However, senior officers had looked askance at ships substituting steam power for sails. They doubted the effectiveness of heavily armored battleships. Except for naval aviators, they looked at aircraft carriers as sitting ducks for enemy guns. The senior leadership of the Navy most often was too “dug in” to status quo, so they rejected new ideas.

            The Navy experimented with submarine power plants using liquid sodium, as well as water. Water won out.  Rickover pushed and soon USS Nautilus became a reality.  Men who had served on submarines all during World War II had great misgivings about nuclear-powered submarines, even after some of them took command of the first nuclear submarines. 

            Rickover was a perfectionist.  Not a team player. He was brilliant, and he eventually got his way.  Senior officers in the Navy disliked and distrusted him, and his ability to work the Congress to obtain the money for each step toward a nuclear Navy.

            I was serving on my first submarine, a World War II submarine in New London, CT, when I was ordered to Washington to see the “Kindly Old Gentleman” as we jokingly called Rickover.

            I got the standard treatment: sitting in a small room full of books, waiting my turn to see the Admiral. The Navy had, with pressure from his supporters in Congress, promoted Rickover. Finally, I went into his office and sat in a chair with the front legs shortened, so you felt like you would slide out of the chair.  All part of the “treatment”. 

            He noted my academy academic record and observed that math and science were not my best subjects.  He kicked me out, and ordered me to go back to my submarine and study, and if I was up to it, come back to see him in a year. I tried reading nuclear physics text books in my spare time, but for a young officer aboard a submarine, there wasn’t any spare time. 

            A year later I received orders for training to go aboard a Polaris submarine as weapons officer. This meant I would focus on handling 16 missiles with thermonuclear warheads, and other officers would worry about Rickover and the power plant.

            The idea of putting intercontinental ballistic missiles aboard a submarine was not an easy idea for the Navy, or Congress, to handle.  The idea of a missile in a nuclear submarine accidentally exploding conjured the image of a catastrophic nuclear event, with both power plant and weapon.

President Eisenhower wrestled with this first, as we faced the Soviet Union, which was rapidly building a missile force capable of demolishing many American cities. By the time John F. Kennedy relived him, the first Polaris submarines were built and about to go on patrol.

In 1962 I had spent the Cuban Missile Crisis as a submariner on a battle staff set up in Argentia, Newfoundland.  We were flying antisubmarine warfare planes from there, Iceland and the UK, and coordinating with American submarines patrolling all down the Atlantic, to oppose the Red Fleet surface warships and submarines that we expected would  burst out of Soviet far northern bases and head to Cuba.

USS Ethan Allen (SSBN608)

             A year later I was on my first patrol, in charge of the weapons department aboard USS Ethan Allen, Gold Crew.  The Blue crew brought the ship in, and then our crew spent nearly a month in port in Holy Loch, Scotland, getting ready for the next patrol. Then we went out for a couple of days of sea trials near Northern Island.  Finally, we sailed, submerged all the way, to the Mediterranean, and headed east near the coast of Lebanon and Israel.

            As we were en route to our patrol area we were busy with all the tests on our weapons, and standing watches.  In spare moments I read Herman Kahn’s On Thermonuclear War, which was his idea of the concept of “MAD” or mutually assured destruction. Years later, serving as Naval Attaché in the USSR, I learned that Soviet naval officers had been reading Kahn’s book, as well.

            Now we were carrying missiles as close as we could get in the Mediterranean, aimed at Soviet targets.  Part of the Cuban agreement between Kennedy and Khrushchev had been to give up our Jupiter missiles in Turkey.  We were covering those targets in the USSR.

            On Thermonuclear War gave us all something serious to think about. We believed that if we had to shoot those missiles, we’d wipe out major Soviet cities.  And the Soviets would wipe out some of ours.

            I’m happy to report, as you well know, that we didn’t use those weapons. Yet.

--Sam Coulbourn





Wednesday, August 31, 2022.   How Should We Deal with China?  Let's dig into the history of China and try to learn how the United States should approach China, in terms of human rights, trade policy, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Global Warming, Nuclear Weapon Proliferation, autonomous weapons, public health, and much more.  We are tremendously interdependent: should we continue to view China as an Opponent? [Proposed by Walt Frederick]

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg

Wednesday, September 28, 2022. Trials of historical significance. Read about the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials (1945-46), or the Trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (1951), Burning of the Reichstag trial (1933), or the Trial of Galileo Galilei (1633), Martin Luther and the Diet of Worms, (1521) (not what it sounds like), the Trial and Death of Socrates by Plato (399 BC), or many more. [Proposed by Janos Posfai]

Salem Witch Trials

Wednesday, October 26, 2022. Religion and Politics in America. Religious impact in American political events. E.g.: Influence of fundamentalist and Catholic churches on Supreme Court decisions, Puritan Exceptionalism, justification of slavery through the Bible, Abolition Movement, treatment of Native American Christianization movement, Justification of Imperialism’s Christianization mission, Father Coughlin vs. Franklin Roosevelt, Cotton Mather and the Salem Witch Trials. [Suggested by William Tobin]

Gandhi and Indian Independence

Wednesday, November 30, 2022:  India from British Colony to Major World Actor.

Read about how, after World War II ended Mahatma Gandhi led the fight for India’s independence; then came separation of Hindu India and Muslim East and West Pakistan; then East Pakistan became Bangladesh and India and Pakistan went to war. Read about how America’s presidents looked down their noses at India as it became an ally of the USSR; development of nuclear weapons; now read about relations with China, and India’s growing influence in the world, including the U.S. [Suggested by Craig Corvo]





Wednesday, January 25, 2023: What will it take to have peace between Palestinians and Israelis?  It started as “The Land of Milk and Honey” 6000 years ago. Then there were the crusades. Centuries of mistreatment and exclusion of the Jews; the pogroms; the Holocaust which killed six million Jews in World War II; There was the United Nations General Assembly partitioning of November 1947; The creation of Israel, in 1948; The Six-day War of 1967 which resulted in huge loss of territory by the Arabs; And there were the meetings at Camp David hosted by President Carter with Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin; The Palestinians have steadfastly opposed any plan that gives them land, including part of Jerusalem, most of the West Bank, etc., as long as the Jews are still around.  What will it take?  Read any book on this subject. [Suggested by Craig Corvo and William Tobin.]