Recollection from Margaret Lurie
By Margaret Lurie
I am Hyman Rickover’s niece. My mother was his younger sister. He was a major part of my life when I was growing up.
After my grandfather died, my grandmother came to live with me and my family in Chicago. Uncle Hyman was very attached to his mother and to his sister.
Whenever he would fly out to San Diego (Mare Island), he would spend the night with us. We would pick him up at Midway Airport and bring him to our home on the north side of Chicago. He was particularly fond of my grandmother’s poppy seed cookies and she would fill old coffee cans with them for him to take on his travels.
He would talk about his experiences in the Navy and interrogate my brother and me about our progress in school. So I know what it was like to be interviewed by him.
Uncle Hyman went to Annapolis after an appointment by Congressman Sabbath from the West side of Chicago. He was aware that the education was free; that was very important because my grandfather was a tailor and couldn’t pay for a college education.
After graduate work in electrical engineering at Columbia University and working at Oak Ridge, he began to believe that the future of the Navy and our country’s defense was in nuclear power.
There was much resistance to this by the Navy brass. They liked things the way they were and didn’t have much faith in this brash and Jewish captain.
Somehow, he was able to convince them to let him build the Nautilus, the first nuclear sub. But in order to do this, he had to put together an exceptional team of engineers, mechanics and a crew. It was a monumental undertaking, especially with the lack of support from the brass.
I always believed that my uncle was not only a brilliant engineer, but also a world-class manager. To have assembled a team that produced the first atomic sub and especially against the resistance of the Navy brass, was an amazing achievement.
So the reports of his difficult interviewing style can be explained by his determination to get the best possible group of men. He knew that taking a submarine under the North Pole on atomic power was untested and that the lives of the crew and the future of the Navy were in his hands.
After the miraculous maiden voyage of the Nautilus under the Pole, there was jubilation and lots of press. There was a ticker tape parade and unbelievably, my uncle and aunt were not invited, clearly due to anti-Semitism and to the Navy brass’ discomfort with him.
My father was a lawyer and Uncle Hyman appealed to him. My father contacted our congressman, Sidney Yates, who was a freshman congressman. Yates made a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives and there was much anger at this snub. When President Eisenhower heard what had happened, he invited my uncle and aunt to the White House.
In spite of all the talk about his being so difficult to deal with, he was the ultimate politician. He realized early on that he needed to have support other than from the Navy. He found it in the biggest names in the Senate – Strom Thurmond, Mike Mansfield, and members of the Armed Services Committee, as well the various presidents under whom he served. Jimmy Carter was one of his captains and always considered my uncle a mentor. The Navy regularly tried to fire him and refused to promote him, but the senators and presidents always stepped in and overruled them.
It wasn’t until later in his life that the Navy realized that a nuclear Navy was the right direction for our country’s defense. Private industry, such as Westinghouse and General Dynamics tried to woo him away to work for them, but he had no interest. He was the ultimate patriot. He said that this country had given his family a haven from anti-Semitism in Poland and then a free education and he owed everything to it.
Ever the politician, when we asked why the names of the submarines were changed from fish to cities, he replied that fish don’t vote.
It should be noted that his second wife, Eleonore Rickover, a former Navy nurse, devoted herself to an organization that served the families of the crews. She helped them handle the stress of having their husbands gone for such a long time on the submarines.
Amazingly, my uncle worked until he was 82, having the longest military career of any American in history.