My Admiral Rickover Story

By John J. (JJ) Mackin, Captain, USN (Ret.)

My Admiral Rickover story probably differs from most. I was Executive Officer on USS Cincinnati (SSN 693) in November of 1980 home ported in Norfolk. We received tasking that we were to take out two special, unidentified VIPs from New London for an overnight underway. There was quite a bit of speculation as to who that might be, as it was right after Ronald Reagan won the Presidential election. One of the guests was rumored to be Admiral Rickover. Even the Commanding Officer, Commander Gil Wilkes, said he was not privy to whom the guests would be.

Underway from Norfolk, we arrived in New London late that November afternoon. The delegation arrived and an agent introduced himself to me as “Secret Service, Nixon delegation”. This was quite a surprise since Nixon had resigned the presidency some six years before in 1974 a result of the Watergate scandal. It turns out that Admiral Rickover had promised President Nixon a ride on one of “his” submarines in return for Nixon taking Rickover to China during his Presidency and he was now making good on that promise.

We soon got underway. As the Captain had to go to the bridge for the maneuvering watch, he instructed me to give Admiral Rickover and President Nixon a tour of the boat starting in the engineering spaces. It was known that Admiral Rickover did not like rig-for-red or rig-for-black as needed in the Control Room while on the surface underway after sunset. 

I started the tour and had not gotten but a few sentences out before Admiral Rickover really took over. He started by describing the valves at the Discharge Station as “works of art”, apparently appealing to a non-engineer. We made our way through the engineering spaces and then proceeded to tour the Torpedo Room. We were rapidly running out of spaces that were not rigged for red. Just in time the Commanding Officer came down from the bridge and we adjourned to the Wardroom. 

President Nixon and Admiral Rickover had dinner with us in the Wardroom. President Nixon regaled us with fascinating stories of his visit to China and his interactions with many world leaders. The Admiral was on his best political demeanor, constantly emphasizing the quality of the submarine force and the people, a side of him that most in the Navy seldom saw. He commented to Nixon that most of the time sailors really feared him. I remember one young junior officer piping up “Yes Sir”.  

As the transit to the dive point in New London is about 7 hours, we were still hours away from submerging the ship, President Nixon and Admiral Rickover took this opportunity to get some sleep. President Nixon took the Commanding Officer’s stateroom and Admiral Rickover took mine.

Upon reaching the dive point at about 2 AM, President Nixon and Admiral Rickover arose, and we submerged the ship. We proceeded to demonstrate the ships capabilities with “angles and dangles” and high-speed maneuvers. We let President Nixon and Admiral Rickover man the helm and planes stations, under close supervision of our normal watchstanders. 

After that demonstration, like what one would show other VIPs, was complete Admiral Rickover wanted to show President Nixon a reactor scram. We went back to the engineering spaces and executed a reactor scram for the former president. I remember Admiral Rickover commenting to Nixon that the Engineering Officer of the Watch did not know what was about to take place, but we had indeed told him beforehand. The ship’s Engineer Officer was on leave during this underway. 

Luckily, all went well with our evolutions and Rickover and Nixon went to get more sleep. Nixon indicated that he wanted to address the crew in the morning and take their questions. I must admit that I was a little bit nervous that the crew might ask some embarrassing questions about Watergate. My fears were unfounded. In the morning we sat President Nixon in the Crew’s Mess with a large American flag draped behind him and he regaled the crew with his stories and engaged with them quite well. The crew was on their best behavior and I think all remember this experience fondly. 

We arrived in New London in the morning and the entourage departed. This was certainly a memorable experience for all and an opportunity to see Admiral Rickover at his political best.