GROTON, Conn. (AP) – Former USS Nautilus crew members say it does not seem like 50 years have passed since they made their historic crossing of the North Pole under the ice cap, and that if the Navy would kindly give them another nuclear power plant, they could man their ship and head back out to sea.

“When you first join the Navy and look forward to 20 years and retirement, you say, ‘That’s forever.’ I put 28 in and it seems like it all happened just yesterday,” said Al Charette, a sonarman on board for the North Pole trip. “Every time we have a reunion, the crew thinks we should go out and get that ship underway. We’re ready. We’re still a crew.”

One more time

“We remember each little feature of rigging it for dive. We feel very confident we could do that again,” said Jack Kurrus, an engineman also on the trip. “Wouldn’t it be nice to go to sea one more time?”

Nautilus (SSN 571) left Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on July 23, 1958, under top-secret orders to conduct Operation Sunshine, the first crossing of the North Pole by a ship. About 10 months earlier, the Soviet Union had launched the first artificial satellite into space.

“We wanted to out-Sputnik the Russians,” Charette said.

The crew of 116 men reached the North Pole at 11:15 p.m. on Aug. 3, 1958. They received the Presidential Unit Citation, the first ever issued in peacetime.

Charette, Kurrus and another former crew member, Joe Degnan, were at the U.S. Navy Submarine Force Museum Friday for the unveiling of a new exhibit that commemorates the 50th anniversary of their voyage. The exhibit, which includes artifacts and previously unpublished color images, runs through March 2009.

Several attempts

The successful 1958 trip was not the Nautilus’ first attempt to cross from the Pacific to the Atlantic over the top of the world.

The crew was in the Arctic a year earlier to see how the submarine would operate under the ice. When the ship lost power to its gyrocompasses, Cmdr. William R. Anderson gave the order to turn back because there was no way to fix the ship’s position.

“We spent 72 hours trying to find our way out and that was really, really scary,” Kurrus said.

Undercover visit

Nautilus visited the Pacific in 1958, under the cover of teaching those in the Pacific Fleet about nuclear submarines. The submarine headed to the North Pole but encountered heavy ice and shallow water on the way. At one point, the 320-foot submarine had just a few feet of water over its sail and about 20 feet below the keel.

The crew returned to Pearl Harbor and waited a month for the ice to break up and melt before making another attempt to go to Portland, England, by way of the North Pole.

Kenneth Carr, who was then a lieutenant and later retired as a vice admiral, said it was “pretty routine on board” as they neared 90 degrees North on Aug. 3, 1958.

Carr said he asked the scientist on the trip, “how will we know we crossed the pole?” Dr. Waldo K. Lyon pointed to a machine with a green dot going around in a circle.

“He said the dot would stop and go in the other direction, and it did,” Carr said. “It wasn’t anything dramatic.”

Once the Nautilus surfaced, Anderson sent a message to the Navy: “Nautilus 90 North.”

“I’m not sure we really appreciated the depth of what had just happened, and I think it was a long time before any of us realized it,” Charette said. “All we knew was when we ended up in England, everyone and their brother wanted an autograph.”


Those on board nicknamed themselves PANOPOs, an acronym from the phrase from the Pacific to the Atlantic via the North Pole. A “Welcome Home PANOPOs” banner is one of the artifacts on display in the new exhibit. Sarah Martin, who works at the Naval Submarine Base, was the graphic designer for the exhibit.

Several events are planned at the museum leading up to the anniversary, including a book signing and lecture by Alfred McLaren about the USS Queenfish on July 12 and by Don Keith about the Nautilus on Aug. 2, and a ceremony on the Nautilus Aug. 3.

The Nautilus Alumni Association is planning a reunion Sept. 25-28 at the Groton Inn and Suites.

AP-ES-07-03-08 1118EDT

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