Fair winds and following seas.
Eugene P. Wilkinson, Who Steered First Nuclear Submarine, Dies at 94
Vice Adm. Eugene P. Wilkinson, who commanded the Nautilus — the United States Navy’s first nuclear-powered submarine and the first machine to harness atomic fission for propulsion rather than weaponry — died on Thursday in Del Mar, Calif. He was 94.
His family confirmed the death.
As commander of the 324-foot, lead-lined, dirigible-shaped submarine, Admiral Wilkinson made headlines worldwide when he steered the Nautilus, propelled by its onboard reactor, out of a shipyard in Groton, Conn., into Long Island Sound on Jan. 17, 1955, and uttered his first radio message: “Under way on nuclear power.”
The vessel represented a historic technological achievement; a personal triumph for Admiral Wilkinson’s mentor, Adm. Hyman G. Rickover, the founding father of the nuclear Navy; and a resounding if double-edged statement about war and peace and the future uses of nuclear power.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower saw in the Nautilus the commercial potential of nuclear power, a theme of his “Atoms for Peace” initiative in the years before the first commercial nuclear power plant was built in the United States, based on technology pioneered by the Nautilus.
Military analysts greeted the submarine as the vanguard of a new age in warfare, a machine previously unimagined except in the fiction of Jules Verne (whose novels “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and “The Mysterious Island” featured a submarine called the Nautilus).
Faster and more agile than any submarine before, it was able to cruise almost indefinitely without refueling. (The half-joking rumor among the crew was that they would surface every four years to re-enlist.) It became the prototype for the Navy’s perpetually prowling fleet of strategic nuclear missile subs.
Admiral Wilkinson’s career straddled the commercial and military realms of nuclear power. He went on to command the Navy’s first nuclear-powered surface ship, the cruiser Long Beach, from 1959 to 1963. At his retirement from the Navy in 1974, he was the vice admiral in command of all submarine warfare operations.
From 1980 to 1985 he ran the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, a nonprofit organization established by the nuclear power industry to improve safety standards in the aftermath of the Three Mile Island accident near Harrisburg, Pa.
Admiral Wilkinson recalled the Nautilus launching as the apex of a period of unqualified optimism about atomic energy. “If you were involved in nuclear,” he told The San Diego Tribune in a 1989 interview, “you were a white shining knight.”
Eugene Parks Wilkinson was born on Aug. 10, 1918, in Long Beach, Calif., and was orphaned shortly afterward, when his father, Dennis, died in a car accident and his mother, Daisy, succumbed to a sudden illness. He was raised by his grandparents Dennis and Lillian Wilkinson, who ran a small creamery.
Admiral Wilkinson, who was known as Dennis to family and friends, graduated from San Diego State College with a degree in physics and chemistry and was teaching chemistry there as a graduate student when World War II broke out. After he enlisted, the Navy sent him to an officer training program and assigned him to diesel-driven submarines. He received the Silver Star for valor in the Pacific.
Teaching at the Navy’s submarine school after the war, he was wavering between pursuing a Navy career and returning to his postgraduate studies when Admiral Rickover, the newly appointed head of the Navy’s nuclear power development agency, offered him a chance to do both.
With a corps of other handpicked officers, he was sent to study atomic physics and nuclear reactors at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. He later served as the representative of the Bureau of Ships at Atomic Energy Commission offices in the Pittsburgh area. He is survived by three sons, Dennis, Stephen and Rod; a daughter, Marian Casazza; and four grandchildren. His wife, Janice, died in 2000.
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. The two remained friends until Admiral Rickover’s death in 1986.
Crusty and temperamental, Admiral Rickover also had a mischievous sense of fun, which Admiral Wilkinson recalled in an article for The Saturday Evening Post in 1955. The Nautilus was on its maiden voyage, he wrote, when Admiral Rickover took a turn at the controls. After completing a scheduled test maneuver, he then ad-libbed orders for a nonsensical, if not dangerous, move: “Take her down and put her on the bottom,” he said. “All ahead full.”
“This left me in a rather embarrassing situation,” Admiral Wilkinson wrote, “since I had to countermand all the admiral’s orders immediately.”