Three Recollections of Meetings with Admiral Rickover
By Jim Petersen, Captain, USNR (Ret.), USNA 1976, PhD
I met with Admiral Rickover personally, three times when I was a young officer. Here are summaries of the three times although the stories are much longer for the personal meetings and I offer summaries to allow for others to tell their stories.
1. My first meeting was as a Midshipman at the US Naval Academy. I was not sure what I was going to do for Service Selection although I was encouraged to go submarines by the 6th Battalion Officer, Captain Roy Wight USN, who befriended me at USNA and served in submarines. A bad experience on a conventional destroyer cruise ensured that I would either go nuclear surface or submarines. Unfortunately, my major of Analytical Management was one of the least popular for Admiral Rickover. I was not aware of this until my midshipman interview but suspected that I may have a difficult time. My interview started out somewhat comical for the Admiral but terrifying for me since it appears that he had the wrong file in front of him and referred to me as Midshipman Moe (Gary Moe was a classmate of mine). After he found my file, Admiral Rickover then launched on the meaning of my last name when told that I was Midshipman Petersen. I did not do well here since he wanted to know who Peter was and I thought he meant my ancestor Peter, not the biblical Saint Peter. It went downhill from there as he discussed my class standings that weren’t too bad, and he introduced me to at least two of his administrative office workers both of whom were young females. I also had to convince the officer who escorted me to the interview to let me aboard his submarine. Needless to say, I did not do well there either. I look back and realize that I was part of Admiral Rickover’s amusement for the day with him smiling at times, something he was not known for. When asked to describe the qualities of a leader, I did equally bad and caused him to leave his chair when I said a leader must have charisma. That topped off the interview with many people joining in during his amusing reactions to the word charisma and terrifying for me. I was sent on my way knowing that he would never take me into the program. I didn’t even go to see if I was on the list of midshipmen accepted into the nuclear power program but my classmates informed me that he did take me. Very surprising given the interview that I had.
2. The second time was when I was a junior officer of the watch on new construction Alpha sea trials. I was a baby Nuke on USS Indianapolis (SSN 697) and selected by the Commanding Officer, Commander (at the time and eventually Captain) Harry Salmon to stand maneuvering watch. Admiral Rickover did the obligatory scram of the reactor and my team and I recovered nicely. I do not remember what he said while standing next to me but he seemed pleased by our performance.
3. Believe it or not, I had a third encounter with Admiral Rickover after taking my engineer’s exam, going through 3 one-hour interviews and anticipating the results with twelve other officers who took the exam. It was dramatic for me since I was asked to leave my contemporaries prior to the results being announced. I certainly thought I failed the exam but did not know why since I was quite confident of my abilities given that I was on a new submarine and made it through every qualification I needed to get my submarine dolphins. Imagine my surprise as the person who escorted me out of the room (I later learned he was a Navy Captain) told me that Admiral Rickover wanted to talk to me. My heart sank because, not only did I fail, but Admiral Rickover was going to personally kick me out of the nuclear reactor program which was the case for those who violated reactor safety in discussions during the exam process. When I arrived in his office, there was one other person sitting in a chair against the wall and I only saw him out of my periphery. Admiral Rickover interrogated me about my grades and class standing at USNA. I really did well in my last school years, so I was a bit confused. He then congratulated me for being first in my class senior year. I again was confused since I did not graduate first and did not see the overall grades by each academic year which is likely to which he was referring. He then asked about Saint Peter and the discussion we had during the first interview. I was now thoroughly confused since I was not expecting this conversation. After telling me I ‘aced’ the Engineer’s Exam and taking credit for all my successes, he dismissed me and I started to leave. I was asked to return to his office as I was leaving. As I returned, he asked me if I still had charisma?! I told him; I did. No one believed that this happened, but I found out the next day why from a classmate and fellow submariner who told me who the person in Admiral Rickover’s office was. The reason was that following my interview Admiral Rickover brought this person that afternoon to tour my friend’s submarine which was anchored near USNA. It all made sense as to why Admiral Rickover was so nice to me even though he was not known to treat any junior officer or midshipman well…the person…Ex-President Richard Nixon! I wish I could have taken my eyes off Admiral Rickover long enough to see the President but I was too afraid of what my fate was in the Nuclear Power Program!