The USS Nautilus was the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine. While it was not the first submarine to be used by the United States Navy, the use of nuclear propulsion allowed her to be used underwater much longer than her diesel-electric counterparts. The Nautilus also broke many records during her early years after being commissioned.

The USS Nautilus comes from a long history of submarines being used by American military. The first American military submarine was built in 1776. The Turtle was a hand-powered, egg-shaped vehicle that only allowed for one occupant. The Turtle was the first underwater submarine capable of operation and movement independently of another vessel. Since the Turtle’s creation, there have been great strides made in the use and advancement of submarines.


The USS Nautilus was awarded her name and the right to be built by General Dynamics on August 2, 1951. She was sponsored by Mamie Eisenhower, wife of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who also served as a General in the United States Army. The Nautilus was commissioned three years later and was completed on April 22, 1955.


When the USS Nautilus was put to sea on January 17, 1955, crew members signaled the historic message, “Underway on nuclear power.” Her main purpose from 1955 to 1957 was to investigate increases in speeds and endurance of submarines when submerged and the effects on operating capabilities. On February 4, 1957, the Nautilus logged her 60,000th nautical mile. This matched the endurance described in the novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in which author Jules Verne writes about the fictional submarine of the same name.

According to the Department of the Navy, only 6% of all Navy personnel serve in submarines. In order to become a submariner, you must complete certain tasks:

  • Volunteer to be on a submarine,
  • Pass the necessary prerequisite tests,
  • Prove your ability to serve under environmental conditions,
  • Complete advanced training on your specialty while in the submarine and other topics, including damage control.

Submariners need to be able to work in secretive and stealthy conditions while being versatile and having a team mentality. The screening process for submariners typically takes a year, after which you “earn your dolphins” and are allowed to wear the Submarine Warfare Insignia.


Some famous submariners from World War II include Rear Admiral Richard “Dick” O’Kane, a Medal of Honor recipient who was credited with sinking 24 Japanese ships before being taken as a Prisoner of War; Captain Slade D. Cutter, a four-time Navy Cross recipient who sunk 19 ships during World War II and went on to judge boxing at the 1948 London Olympics; and Lieutenant Commander Dudley W. Morton was was credited with 19 ships sunk during World War II and was awarded the Navy Cross three times, and one posthumously.


The USS Nautilus was decommissioned on March 3, 1980 at Mare Island off the coast of California. On May 20, 1982, the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine was designated a National Historical Landmark. Currently, 250,000 visitors are able to see the submarine as a submarine museum in Groton, Connecticut. This submarine helped pave the way for underwater military vehicles and was commemorated for the work the crew completed.

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