The Hidden Rickover

By John Lindstedt, Lieutenant, USNR (Ret.)

Hyman G. Rickover changed the world. He was a visionary who discerned what a revolutionary energy source nuclear power was, and how it would alter naval strategy, tactics, and the defense of America. Within twenty years from his introduction to nuclear fission at Oak Ridge, Tennessee in 1947, Rickover became the most influential figure in nuclear power. He constructed the first reactor to generate heat and placed it within a submarine hull, the USS Nautilus (SSN 571). This was followed by the completion of the Fleet Ballistic Missile (FBM) submarine fleet, the “41 for Freedom” in 1967, which was the most important defensive weapon platform of the United States. Rickover’s name is woven throughout the history of the safe development of this energy source from the atom.

Providing the world with a basic new energy source is an overwhelming technically difficult problem which was fraught with unimaginable difficulties. In the accomplishment of safely harnessing nuclear power, Rickover was praised not only as the world’s greatest engineer by President Carter, but was portrayed as an impatient, ruthless, and maddeningly tough-minded man. He could be irascible, mercurial, disparaging, demanding and insultingly rude. Unless one has been trained in the “Rickover System” of complete candor and frankness, deep respect for the facts, exhaustively searching for data when not obvious and drawing conclusions guided only by rigorous logic, one cannot appreciate the effort required and the deep admiration for its founder. The results of this system have resulted in the harnessing of the nuclear energy source which has been safe, reliable and accident-free for over 67 years. This has created an aura surrounding Hyman Rickover of near god-like qualities.

With this picture of the icon of nuclear power firmly implanted in my mind, I was invited to spend an evening with Mrs. Eleonore Rickover, the second wife and widow of the Admiral, at her home in Arlington Virginia on April 7,2017. I was able to arrange this because of my lecture series on the history of the US Submarine Force which includes a lecture exclusively on Admiral Rickover. Captain Len Wass, a former nuke and Kamehameha sailor (I sailed on Kamehameha about 3 years after Len) attended the Rickover lecture, enjoyed it, and connected me with Mrs. Rickover’s cousin Lew Parker. Lew provided the introduction, and the meeting was arranged.

Eleonore Rickover lives in a pleasant condominium in a quiet Arlington neighborhood overlooking the Pentagon. The tenor of the evening was established as I approach her door and it opened before my arrival. Out stepped a petite woman nicely dressed and with a warm countenance. Being a bit surprised, I greeted her with, “Good evening Mrs. Rickover, I am John Lindstedt.” She immediately smiled broadly and said, “Please call me Eleonore!” With that she invited me in, I thanked her for taking the time to see me and I told her briefly of my career in nuclear submarines and being nuclear trained. She was most gracious, showed me around her home which was tastefully furnished and displayed many mementos of her life with the Admiral. I was most struck by the framed and signed photographs of six presidents wishing the Rickovers well. Seldom does one see a signed presidential image, much less six of each succeeding chief executive! We chatted like old friends for several hours about her life with the Admiral, their likes and dislikes, how they met and their common hometown, Chicago. We then went to dinner at a local favorite restaurant of hers.

As dinner concluded, Eleonore asked if I would like to return to her home and continue our conversation. I immediately accepted her warm offer, thinking I must have captured her interest with some of my questions regarding the Admiral and their life together, but now I was in a quandary. Here I was speaking with this lovely lady who probably had the best insight into this man, her husband, historical figure, and icon, who had not only instituted major changes in his navy but also had a major influence on his nation’s structure and actions. I remember thinking to myself, “John, don’t miss this opportunity, come up with a searching question for her about Rickover."

When we returned to her apartment, she offered a beverage and we sat on a long green couch each on opposite ends. As the conversation resumed, the question I needed entered my mind. I knew much of the professional Rickover-the pugnacious attitude, the searching questions, his required interviews of prospective plant operators and his congressional and presidential connections, but I knew little of the personal side of the man who came home to this abode. So, as we sat, I asked, “Eleonore, there must have been many nights when the Admiral came home after a difficult day frustrated, angry and tired. What did he do to relax and rest?” “Yes," she answered, “he often returned weary and silent. I knew the day had been difficult, so I fed him, and when he finished with dinner, he selected his evening reading material and sat on this couch at his favorite location exactly where you are sitting." (My reaction was instinctive: I must get up and not take the Admiral's seat!) She continued, "He then motioned to me by patting the empty seat next to him to come and sit. When I had joined him, he held my hand and read to me often for several hours. This comforted him and it was our time together.”

I was astonished! Here was this paragon of the nuclear navy, feared by many, who by his strong will ushered in a new energy source that changed the world, but refreshed his soul by his caring love and affection for his soulmate. Thank you, Admiral Rickover, for allowing me to see your human side!