1966 

A Rickover Tale

LCDR Frank Smith '66, USNR (Ret.)

Here is a true Rickover tale, witnessed first-hand by this former naval officer.

In the spring of 1975 the USS Nimitz, CVN 68 was about to undergo builder's sea trials off Norfolk, VA. I was a once-passed over LT and serving on the commissioning crew (plank-owners) as the ship's Assistant Air Traffic Control Officer. With no airwing embarked and no flight ops scheduled, we Asst CATC officers tended to get aide jobs (horse holders) whenever Admirals came aboard. For all nuclear ships during their first time at sea, Admiral Rickover came aboard to personally witness and supervise. Our skipper, Captain Bryan W. Compton USNA 51, was the CO hand-picked by Rickover. FYI: Captain Compton was an A-4 pilot who led the early strikes over Hanoi in 67. Senator John McCain referred to Compton in his first book as "the bravest man I ever knew".

Anyway, we were underway with no airwing embarked and I was assigned to assist Admiral Fred Michaelis, a four-star who was Chief of Naval Material at that time. Michaelis was the senior officer afloat and at one time in his illustrious career, had also been hand-picked by Rickover to command Enterprise. (Michaelis was an ace in WWII flying Hellcats). Since I had met Michaelis when he spoke at the Naval War College in 1972, I was assigned to him. We had actually played tennis together.

So there we were at sea about 100 miles east of Norfolk in W-151 Op area doing all the specified maneuvers to test the ship's systems. You have probably seen the photos of Nimitz heeled over at 35 knots (no aircraft on the flight or hangar decks so no worries about losing one overboard). We attained flank speed just before sunset. Compton was on the bridge and I was standing with my thumb up my ass waiting on Michaelis who was on the flag bridge. At flank speed the Doppler measured 35.5 kts and the ship's reactors were still idling along. But we were at maximum revolutions on the propeller shafts and generating 280,000 shaft horsepower as measured on the longest propelled shafts (which have the greatest amount of torque, obviously).

Compton called Michaelis on the squawk box and asked if he could exceed maximum shaft horsepower by 10%. That would put us at approximately 308,000 SHP. This was a decision for the Chief of Naval Material...in case anything broke, I suppose.

Michaelis, who had the authority to give the go-ahead, demurred and told me to run down to the Admiral's in-port cabin, occupied by Rickover and ask "The Admiral" for approval. So, I chopped down eleven decks and knocked on Rickover's door - somewhat out of breath and scared out of my wits due to his reputation for treating JOs as fodder. Hearing "Come" from the other side of the bulkhead, I entered his lair to find a scrawny old man in his boxer shorts and wife-beater t-shirt doing pushups. He snarled something about what did I want. Recalling my years at USNA and another tour as Protocol Officer at the War College, I stated that Captain Compton extended his compliments and requested to exceed max SHP by 10%. Rickover never stopped doing pushups. He asked "what does Fred say?" to which I sputtered that Admiral Michaelis also extended his compliments and sent an affirmative recommendation accompanying Compton's request. Rickover paused in his exercises, looked at me like I was a small piece of whale dung that had drifted into his cabin, and said "Good. Do it!".

So I chopped back up eleven decks and completely out of breath, delivered my message to Admiral Michaelis, who told me to run up one more deck and deliver that same message to Captain Compton.

A short time later, Nimitz peaked at 38.5 kts on the Doppler when the Chief Engineer advised Captain Compton that the shafts were beginning to show signs of severe stress. (Unverified rumor was that the shaft was torqued one entire revolution from gearbox to propeller - a distance of over 200 feet - if memory serves.)

At that point, Captain Compton ordered "All engines back, emergency stop". The Bos'n sounded his whistle, the Quartermaster advised all hands to brace for collision and we stuffed it into reverse. 

Three Nautical miles later, amidst total bedlam including broken pipes, valves, cups, dishes and a few arms, Nimitz sat dead still in calm waters while most of us land-lubbber pilots stood shaking in wonder at this incredible piece of American engineering and the men that made up the Nuclear Navy.

Epilogue

Admiral Hyman Rickover died in 1986. He has been consistently heralded as "the Founder of the Nuclear Navy", a title he richly deserves. His personal courage and conviction over, around and occasionally through obstacles thrown in his path would have deterred a lesser man. Admiral Rickover is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Admiral Fred Michaelis, USNA Class of 1940, holder of the Navy Cross for gallantry in aerial combat, died in 1986. He was a very short man who fit comfortably into a Hellcat but almost never talked about his combat experiences except for one occasion at which I was fortunate to be present when he and Admiral Isaac Kidd (USNA Class of 1941 - accelerated graduation - it was his father who perished on USS Arizona on that Day of Infamy) sat together in the Flag Cabin aboard Nimitz and reminisced about their time early in WWII. I only wish I had recorded those stories. That conversation would make another wonderful story about the young men that carried the load in WWII. Admiral Michaelis is also buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Admiral Bryan Compton, USNA Class of 1951, also holds the Navy Cross and six Distinguished Flying Crosses among a plethora of ribbons and medals for valor. He is a "balls to the wall" "hard charger" in every sense of those phrases; certainly worthy of McCain's praise. And an extraordinary shipmate, even to an unworthy O-3. If I had ever been ordered to go into a shooting war or a bar full of “hells angels”, I would have felt very comfortable with Bryan Compton in the van.

 

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