A Morning with Rickover

By Alan Lawver, Captain

In early January 1982, we were on initial post construction sea trials out of Newport News shipyard in Virginia. I was the commissioning Executive Officer (XO) on new construction USS ATLANTA (SSN 712). ADM Rickover was on board to observe the three-day engineering trials, just as he had been for every other new construction submarine during his tour as head of Naval Reactors.

The Admiral had taken over my state room just forward of the control room. Just as every other crew had done before us, we prepared for his visit. We went through “Rickover check list” to be sure we had everything he might ask for when he came on board. The list was extensive. It appeared likely that each crew that went to sea with the Admiral probably added something new to the ever-growing list. For example, the list included green grapes, a shaving kit, an officer’s khaki uniform, 500+ letters to members of Congress to be signed by him and mailed immediately upon return to port, and New York Times and Washington Post newspapers. The shipyard had darkened the XO’s stateroom, no small feat, since there was no overhead on the 688 class submarines and provided a triangular pillow that made reading in bed easier.

As the XO, I oversaw the testing to take place over those carefully orchestrated three days. I was in the control room early the first morning at sea looking at the schedule with the Officer of the Deck. Suddenly the sound powered phone rang; the Admiral was on the line and asked to see the XO. I walked forward to my stateroom, knocked, and opened the door. The Admiral was in his skivvies, face lathered up with shaving cream, with a safety razor in one hand and a pack of safety blades in the other.

In a gruff morning voice, he growled at me and said, “I don’t know how to get the blades into this razor.” He looked up at me expectedly.

Now, I had used an electric shaver ever since my first set of whiskers needed cutting. I did so because my dad had always used one. I could not remember ever having even held a safety razor and blade ejector at the same time, let alone load the blade into a razor. My face must have gone white as I considered my dilemma. Here I was with the submarine force’s chief engineer and me, a newly promoted CDR, hoping someday soon to take command. I knew his reputation and fully expected at the least a dressing down or at worse relegated to a stateroom for the duration of the trials if I could not solve this apparently simple engineering task. I saw my career fade before my eyes.

I took the empty razor and the blade pack from him. I looked carefully at the two instruments and was able to see the connection between the two. I placed the blade pack up against the razor and slid the blade into it. I handed them both back to the Admiral and asked if he needed anything else. I turned around and left him to finish shaving.

The ATLANTA was the last submarine he rode during new construction engineering trials. His last Navy trials were the next week on USS CARL VINSON (CVN 70). Following these two trips, he was forced to retire, which he did on 31 January 1982. He died in 1986. I look back on that morning with pride, having spent three days with the old gentleman on his last official submarine ride. At the same time, there are not too many officers in the fleet who can say they met the Admiral in his skivvies and helped him shave before certifying another naval nuclear reactor.