Henry Nardone, of Westerly, the project manager during Nautilus construction, points to a photo of President Harry S Truman 60 years ago at EB, which marked the occasion Thursday.
GROTON — Henry Nardone was on the deck of the USS Nautilus when it slid down the ways into the Thames River on Jan. 21, 1954.
Nardone, then 32, rested his foot on a cleat so he could distinguish himself from among the others who lined the deck in photos for years to come. Mamie Eisenhower, the wife of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, christened the ship with the traditional bottle of champagne as it moved into the water.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Nardone, a lifelong Westerly resident. “I was up on the bow. There’s a very famous picture of the launching of the submarine, it’s been in hundreds of books and magazines. I can pick myself out. I’ve done it 1,000 times.”
A year and a half earlier, Eisenhower’s predecessor Harry S Truman, had chalked his initials onto the ship’s backbone during a keel laying ceremony. A welder traced over the letters, and the dignitary’s mark — a Navy tradition — was permanently fixed to the vessel, where it remains today.
SSN-571, the nation’s first nuclear-powered submarine, would spend more than two decades at sea, and laid the foundation for today’s modern naval fleet.
On Thursday, Electric Boat honored the 60th anniversary of the keel laying and recognized those who helped build and modernize the ship during its storied career.
Nardone, now 90, was joined by 96-year-old Paul Tranchida of Groton, a foundry worker who made valves and cast the Nautilus’ torpedo-tube doors; and 83-year-old J.J. Kelly of East Lyme, who oversaw engineering and inspections during the ship’s overhaul at Electric Boat in the 1970s.
The Nautilus, which carries the name of the submarine in Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” was built in less than four year under the watch of Admiral Hyman Rickover, who is considered to be the “Father of the Nuclear Navy.”
It was decommissioned in March 1980, and is now a museum at the Submarine Force Library & Museum just a few miles up the Thames River in Groton from where she was launched at EB.
“We’re here today to mark the anniversary of an event that revolutionized naval warfare and proved pivotal to the future of Electric Boat and the U.S. Navy,” Electric Boat President Kevin Poitras said during a ceremony in the bay where Nautilus was launched.
“With Admiral Rickover’s guiding force, Electric Boat produced the first vessel to embody the essential elements of U.S. Navy nuclear submarines: stealth and virtual unlimited endurance,” he added.
Lt. Commander Robert Sawyer, the naval officer-in-charge at the Nautilus museum, said the ship earned its place as a trailblazer early on.
“During her 25 years of operation, Nautilus proved her value and earned her place in history alongside the ironclad Monitor, the first flight at Kitty Hawk and the aircraft carrier Langley,” he said.
“She shattered submerged speed and endurance records: In the 84 hours of her [first test] cruise, she traveled submerged 1,300 miles to San Juan, Puerto Rico, averaging about 16 knots,” Sawyer noted. “In that journey she traveled continuously submerged 10 times farther than any previous submarine, and 84 times longer than any submarine had done at high submerged speed.”
In 1958, the Nautilus reached the North Pole “in a daring adventure that captured headlines and gave the United States the strategic advantage of an entire ocean at the very top of the world,” Sawyer added.
Nardone, who served on a minesweeper during World War II and later worked in shipyards before coming to Groton, said the Nautilus and its Cold War successors out-shined the Soviet Union’s underwater fleet.
“They [Soviet subs] concentrated on depth and speed, but took on the burden of noise — a very big handicap for them,” he said. “As far as we were concerned, we had a tremendous advantage in that area. Quietness is criterion for detection. If you’re quiet, you can’t be detected; if you’re noisy, you can be heard all over the world.”
Today, Electric Boat is building two Virginia-class submarines per year for the Navy, and the defense contractor is poised to start construction of an Ohio-class replacement submarine in 2020.
“This 12-ship class will remain in service until at least 2080,” Poitras said. “… For the last 60 years, the common thread running through Electric Boat’s progression of submarine innovations has been USS Nautilus.”