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USS Nautilus Crew Members Reflect on Launching Anniversary of the Navy’s First Nuclear Powered Submarine

Lt. Cmdr. Jennifer Cragg, Commander, Submarine Group 2 Public Affairs

GROTON, Conn. (NNS) — Former crew members of the Historic Ship USS Nautilus (SSN-571) offered their reflections of serving aboard the U.S. Navy’s first nuclear-powered submarine in advance of the 58th anniversary of its launching Jan. 21.

Former submariner Al Charette served aboard Nautilus in 1957 as a first class sonarman.

“Not only the first nuclear powered submarine in the Navy, it was the world’s first nuclear-powered vessel. It was also the world’s first ship to reach the North Pole,” said Charette. “A lot of earlier exploration ships attempted it, but didn’t achieve the North Pole. A lot of people visited the North Pole, some by plane, by dog sled, but our submarine will be remembered as the first ship in history to reach the North Pole.”

Charette said he still possesses the 1978 National Geographic Magazine detailing the submarine’s arrival at the North Pole. Nautilus is mentioned as one of the first to pioneer a route across the top of the world as it passed under the North Pole in 1958.

Charette also praised the Submarine Force Museum for their maintenance and upkeep of their former submarine since its arrival at the museum.

“When I go down to that ship, any day, it is in such good condition, you wonder why it couldn’t get underway this afternoon,” said Charette. “I think the condition of the submarine is amazing after all of these years.”

Nautilus was decommissioned from the U.S. Navy in 1980 and towed to Groton, Conn. in 1985 to become part of the Submarine Force Museum. The museum opened the submarine for tours to the public in April 1986.
“For most people who visit the Submarine Force Museum, this will be the only time they ever go onboard a Navy vessel,” said Lt. Cmdr. Robert Sawyer, officer-in-charge, Historic Ship Nautilus. “The Nautilus crew works very hard to preserve the submarine and ensure it is available for generations to come. The crew also provides a chance for the public to talk to Sailors about their experiences in the Navy.”

Nautilus is the only nuclear-powered submarine currently on public display.

William Engdall, a former Nautilus commissioning crew member served on board from 1953 to 1956.
“I served on board Nautilus with an exceptional crew of officers and enlisted men who were as concerned with their shipmates’ careers as they were their own, and the camaraderie they displayed, directly influenced my decision to make the Navy a career,” said Engdall. “The Nautilus was nothing like the two diesel boats that I had previously served aboard. The boat was unique, and a true fighting machine.”
Engdall added that the Nautilus had all the creature comforts the crew needed.

“We had a washing machine, a crews’ mess that was transformed into a movie theater, a coin-operated Coke machine, a juke box, private fiberglass bunks with individual ventilation and bunk lights,” said Engdall.
Engdall also drew cartoons and documented life aboard Nautilus. So, when the Walt Disney Studios sent the submarine their concept of what the ship’s patch should look like, it was also the version of the craft depicted in the movie, “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.”

“The crew thought that a different version would be more appropriate and asked me to provide a drawing representing the actual USS Nautilus. The drawing was sent to Walt Disney Studios and they embellished my drawing, and it is now recognized as the official ship’s patch,” said Engdall.

Engdall is extremely proud to have served on board USS Nautilus and enjoys taking friends through the boat.

“The Nautilus will always have a place in my heart,” said Engdall.

Historic Ship Nautilus and the Submarine Force Museum, Groton, Connecticut, March 20

The museum is located adjacent to the Naval Submarine Base New London on the Thames River in Groton, Connecticut.

It is the only submarine museum operated by the United States Navy, and is the primary repository for artifacts, documents and photographs relating to the U.S. Submarine Force. The array of material on display is staggering and since 1985, the world’s first nuclear power vessel, the USS Nautilus has been a permanent exhibit.

The museum was originally established as “The Submarine Library” by Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics Corporation in 1955, and in 1964, the entire collection was donated to the Navy and relocated to the Naval Submarine Base, New London with the name “Submarine Force Library and Museum” being adopted in 1969.

The museum’s collections include more than 33,000 artifacts, 20,000 significant documents and 30,000 photographs. The displays change frequently providing ample new material and exhibits for return visitors.

The library is a world-renowned collection on the history of U.S. submarines and is open to anyone looking for information on submarines or submarine history.

Some of the many highlights include four miniature submarines that are located along the Front Walk, the Main Hall with its revolving exhibits, and two theaters each showing continuous programs. A full size replica of Bushnell’s turtle (the first submarine) is also on display. The Medal of Honor gallery, which honors the eight submariners that have been awarded the Medal of Honor, is a testament to the bravery, skill and dedication of those that serve in the Submarine Force.

The USS Nautilus was launched by Mrs. Dwight D. Eisenhower on January 21, 1954, and the nuclear powered submarine became the first vessel to traverse the North Pole in 1958. With a compliment of approximately 100 men, the USS Nautilus served her country for over 25 years before being decommissioned in 1980. In recognition of her unique place in maritime history, she was designated a National Historic Landmark in May 1982. Following an extensive conversion, the USS Nautilus was opened to the public at the museum in April 1986.

Handsets are provided as you enter the vessel, which provide an audio commentary as you tour the submarine. It is particularly interesting to see just how tight the facilities are aboard ship, and how the designers utilized every square inch. All members of the crew shared quarters with the sole exception of the Commanding Officer.

Although handicap access facilities are provided throughout the museum, the configuration of the USS Nautilus limits access and care must be taken onboard.

The onsite gift shop offers an array of merchandise from books and clothing to key chains.

Membership to the museum is available for purchase and helps support this unique facility. Members receive regular newsletters, invitations to special events at a 10% discount at both the onsite gift shop and the online and mail order store.

Membership can be purchased at the online store or at the gift shop.

Admission to the museum is free but donations are of course welcome. Further information can be found at the museum’s website.


One Crystal Lake Road, Groton, Connecticut 06340

(800) 343 0079

Opening Hours:

May 1 – Oct 31:

Tue: Closed

Wed – Mon: 9AM – 5PM

Nov 1 – Apr 30:

Tue: Closed

Wed – Mon 9AM – 4PM

Click here to read an article about the USS Nautilus and the Nuclear Navy