By Captain William R. Anderson

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched into space Sputnik 1, the first satellite to orbit Earth. Meanwhile, the United States’ space program was languishing behind, and it appeared to the world that the Soviets were gaining a technological advantage over the West. Around the world, free countries were beginning to question the long-term value of being aligned with the U.S. in what was becoming an increasingly heated Cold War.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower was determined to demonstrate to the world that the United States was just as capable of great technological feats as the Soviets. In response to Sputnik, he ordered a top-secret mission in which the USS Nautilus – the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine – to travel underneath the Arctic ice cap to go where no man had gone before: the North Pole.

Commanding that mission was William R. Anderson, the second skipper of the Nautilus. Anderson graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1942, and was a decorated veteran of World War II, earning the Bronze Star and participating in eleven combat patrols. He was personally selected by Admiral Hyman Rickover as commander of the Nautilus, a position he held from 1957-1959. Captain Anderson would go on to serve as a four-term congressman from Tennessee.

Following their trek to the North Pole, the crew of the Nautilus gained international fame, and its commander was hailed as a hero in the United States. Just prior to his death in 2007, Captain Anderson completed work on The Ice Diaries, which chronicles the voyage of the Nautilus. In this issue, we are proud to share a part of the epic story of Captain Anderson and the crew of the Nautilus.

Friday, August 1, 1958

We continued to feel our way back southeast toward Point Barrow, the northernmost part of Alaska, still skirting the boundary of the ice pack. Hopefully we would soon run across the deeper water we sought that would allow us to speed northward once again. The sea remained calm, but intermittent patches of dense fog visited us, making visibility very poor. Sometimes we maintained just enough speed to be able to steer the submarine safely. When the fog allowed, we could easily see the pack boundary to our left. Medium-sized blocks of ice were adrift from the floes, and we had to avoid those at all costs. That sometimes took us farther south than we really wanted to go.

It was interesting to note that some of our systems had taken a great leap forward in development – nuclear power, for example. Other systems had lagged, and they would have to be further developed before comfortable penetration of the ice pack in shallow water would be feasible. I made notes and hoped that, even if we failed, the things we learned in our attempt could be applied to future missions to the Arctic.

Then just north of Point Franklin, Alaska, we found what we had been looking for – deep water.

We first established our position by very short radar sweeps. Then we headed northeastward. We had rounded the corner of the pack and were now headed directly toward the Barrow Sea Valley and what we hope was the true deepwater gateway to the western Arctic Basin. No one knew for sure, of course. We were still relying on soundings and reports that were suspect at best. But right now that was our best and only hope to proceed beneath the solid sea of ice that lay between the North Pole and us.