Whose name first comes to mind if asked to name a famous Jewish military figure: Gen. Moshe Dayan, or maybe Gen. Wesley Clark (who, I didn’t know was Jewish until I started writing this article)? Until about a year ago, when I was asked to be the Vice-Chair of the Hyman G Rickover Commissioning Committee, I was not familiar with Admiral Hyman G Rickover, known as the “Father of the Nuclear Navy”. ADM Rickover was born in Poland in 1900 and his family left Poland in 1906 due to Jewish persecution. The Rickover family made their way to Chicago and Hyman grew up in the North Lawndale neighborhood, attending Chicago Public Schools. In 1918, Rickover was admitted to the Naval Academy, graduating 1922. So, how did this young naval officer, who graduated 107th out of a graduating class of 540 midshipmen become one of the most influential and powerful officers in the history of the US Navy and the longest serving military officer of any branch of the military, serving 63 years of active-duty service to our country?
While Rickover had a number of different postings prior to and during WWII, his education and distinction as an engineer and a manager gave him experience in managing and leading large scale development projects. It was his experience at the Bureau of Engineering where he learned to choose only the best for a given task, manage enormous projects and work closely with private industry. Time Magazine, which featured ADM Rickover on its January 11, 1954 cover, said “Sharp-tongued Hyman Rickover spurred his men to exhaustion, ripped through red tape, drove contractors into rages. He went on making enemies, but by the end of the war he had won the rank of captain. He had also won a reputation as a man who gets things done.”
Shortly after WWII, Rickover realized the potential of nuclear power for ship propulsion, especially for submarines. Prior to the development of nuclear propulsion, submarines, when underwater, ran on batteries that had to be recharged, generally overnight, and were slow when submerged. As Rickover progressed through a series of positions within the Bureau of Ships, his hand-picked team developed a nuclear reactor that would fit within a submarine’s hull, and which was safe for the crew to operate without fear of radiation exposure. During this time, Rickover was pushing and pulling Navy brass that believed that it was not possible to safely harness the atom in a reactor that could power a ship, and many simply detested Rickover because he cut through red tape by going over the heads of superiors that stood in his way, his unrelenting drive for perfection in everything he and his people did and being constantly on the backs of government contractors to deliver material and services as promised.
The result of Rickover’s efforts was the development and commissioning of the USS Nautilus, the first nuclear powered submarine. Rickover drove his team, from the time construction of the boat was authorized in 1951, the start of construction in 1952 and its commissioning and launch in January 1954, which was a remarkable achievement developing engineering technology and techniques that previously did not exist. To put this into today’s perspective, it takes approximately 7 years to build the newest Virginia Class submarine. The development of the USS Nautilus fundamentally changed forever the US Navy and our ability to use sea-power to further our nation’s objectives.
Go back in time and give some thought to being Jewish at the Naval Academy from 1918–1922 and being a Jew in the Navy from 1922 and throughout Rickover’s career. Some have argued that Rickover, who was turned down for promotion to Admiral multiple times by the promotion board, was passed over due to his being Jewish. Others point out that he was passed over because “in his career Admiral Rickover generated controversy on all sides. He attacked Naval bureaucracy, ignored red tape, lacerated those he considered stupid, bullied subordinates and assailed the country's educational system.” New York Times, July 9, 1986. Regardless, what Rickover and his team accomplished changed the world with respect to the propulsion of submarines and aircraft carriers. Also, due to Rickover’s maniacal adherence to perfection in the construction, training and maintenance of nuclear-powered ships, there has never been an accident involving the release of radiation on any nuclear-powered United States Navy ship. ADM Rickover also interviewed and selected every officer that served in the nuclear propulsion program.
If you want more information about the life and accomplishments of ADM Rickover, I recommend “Admiral Hyman Rickover: Engineer of Power” by Marc Wortman, part of the Yale University Press Jewish Lives series. Also, check out the Hyman G Rickover Commissioning Committee’s web site at www.ussrickover.org, which provides information about ADM Rickover and one of the newest Virginia Class submarines, the USS Hyman G Rickover (SSN 795). There is an interesting and informative video and under “Rickover Recollections”, there are stories by people that worked directly for ADM Rickover, many of which are extremely interesting, including his infamous “interview chair”. The boat is currently expected to be commissioned in the summer of 2023. The event is open to the public and will be held in Groton, CT. Check the above website for information and for when a date is determined if you are interested in attending.
Final comments – When Rickover married in 1931, he wrote his parents that he had “become Episcopalian”. However, historians have noted that there is no record that he actually converted. The first time he ate non-kosher food was after being admitted to the Naval Academy. In any event, it was unlikely that, as an adult, he was a practicing Jew. You may not have wanted to work for ADM Rickover, but he certainly was the right man, in the right place, in the history of the United States Navy.