Four Recollections of Admiral Rickover

By Edward S. Little, Captain, USN (Ret.)

Letters to Admiral Rickover

All Commanding Officers of nuclear- powered ships were required to write personal letters to the Admiral on a regular basis. The letters were required every three months, but if their ship was in a maintenance availability in a shipyard, the letters were to be written every two weeks. The purpose of the letter was to update the Admiral on the Commanding Officer’s personal assessment of any problems experienced in the nuclear propulsion systems and served a vital role in updating the Admiral on a variety of technical issues. The letter was also required to detail a full description of the nuclear training conducted during the period and the Commanding Officer’s evaluation of its effectiveness. While in a shipyard availability, the letter reported by the Commanding Officer served as a check on the approach and time-table of the shipyard’s work and any technical issues requiring his or his staff’s attention.

Due to the volume of the submission of these letters, one would normally think these letters were only for file — but that was not the case for these letters. The Admiral personally read every one of them and it was not unusual for the Commanding Officer to receive a personal phone call from the Admiral if he had questions or concerns. He was particularly interested in the amount and quality of the training reported. He would often question the Commanding Officer to determine if the training was successful and sufficiently rigorous. Due to the Admiral’s personal effort to directly interact with each Commanding Officer, each Commanding Officer had to be ready in an instant to respond to the Admiral’s call with a thorough understanding of the issues.

The Rickover Interview

All officer candidates for entry into Admiral Rickover’s nuclear propulsion program were required to be interviewed by him. It was through the interview process that candidates were selected to pursue a career in the navy’s nuclear power field. It was a unique and special moment. Engaging in an interview with a navy Admiral while only a very junior aspiring professional was daunting. All nuclear trained officers during this time had been through the process and had their owns stories. For many years these stories have been shared, and in most cases, expanded from the perspective of those interviewed. I had the experience of participating in the interview process for two years during my tour at Naval Reactors headquarters in Washington so I would like to provide my insight.

The interview process was developed over many years by the Admiral and his staff. Each candidate participated in at least three prior interviews with selected staff personnel before the final interview with the Admiral. The results of the prior interviews were provided to the Admiral before his interview. Each provided a recommendation for selection or non-selection. The Admiral’s interview was the final approval process. The Admiral’s interviews were observed by a staff member who took notes on the questions and answers during the interview. I was one of the staff who participated as an observer. The Admiral used a variety of techniques; however, most approaches placed the candidate in a situation which required a personal evaluation of their successes and failures. How the candidate described the approach to overcoming failures was a key factor the Admiral was assessing. In this way the Admiral was evaluating how the individual would deal with challenging situations like those they would face in operating a nuclear power plant. In several cases the Admiral was not satisfied with the initial response of the candidate and terminated the interview. Next, it was the staff observer’s assignment to discuss the interview with the candidate in a quiet location and to allow the candidate to reflect on how better to respond. Once the observer was convinced that the candidate understood the issues and had developed a better approach to answering the Admiral’s questions, the observer relayed these responses to the Admiral, and if the Admiral agreed, the interview was resumed.

Admiral Rickover’s Concerns for Officers Training

I was fortunate to have a two year tour at Naval Reactors (NR) headquarters in Washington from 1976-1977. My duties were varied but consisted primarily of performing oversight of officer nuclear training activities. One of my specific duties involved the disenrollment of students who failed the officer’s courses at the Nuclear Power School or at the land-based nuclear prototypes. As Admiral Rickover approved all officers assigned to the program, he personally approved the removal of students who failed. It was my job to receive the disenrollment request from the Commanding Officers of the Nuclear Power School or prototypes who were responsible to conduct the training. I next had to prepare a paper explaining the reason for the failure, and to obtain Admiral Rickover’s personal approval for disenrollment. My visits to the Admiral’s Office required extensive preparation to assure I could answer any questions he might raise. It was obvious to me on many occasions that the Admiral had a deep concern for the development of the officers he personal selected. His selection process was developed to assure that all candidates selected had the ability to succeed. In each of the disenrollment issues he was deeply affected. He would ask me to explain in detail the reasons for each candidate’s failure. I depended on the Commanding Officers of the Nuclear Power School or prototypes to provide the required detail. In many instances my explanations did not adequately answer his questions and required me to reach back to the Commanding Officers to get additional explanations and details. In all his reviews he wanted to make sure that there were no insufficiencies in the training program causing the failure. It was a true accomplishment that few failures occurred in the Admiral’s training programs.

Admiral Rickover and the Use of Computers at Nuclear Power School

I was fortunate to have a two-year tour at Naval Reactors (NR) headquarters in Washington from 1976-1977. One of my primary responsibilities was to provide liaison with the Officers Nuclear Power School. The course of study was an intensive 6-month period of instruction including a variety of technical subjects such as nuclear physics, thermodynamics, fluid dynamics, chemistry, and reactor principles. During my tour, the Commanding Officer of the Nuclear Power School requested my assistance to obtain the Admiral’s permission for students to use hand-held computers. At the time the only tool allowed for assistance in mathematic computations was a slide rule. My task was to convince the Admiral that using hand-held computers would be beneficial. This was not an easy task. In the beginning, the Admiral was totally against this option. It was obvious that a lot of detailed explanations and demonstrations would be required. The Admiral’s resistance was based on his concern that a computer could be programmed to do calculations automatically. This would prevent the student’s understanding of the principles involved. It took months of review and discussions with the Admiral before he gave his permission. It was necessary to demonstrate to him that there was absolutely no capability to use any pre-programming options in the computer we selected.