We’ve all heard stories, some more believable than others, about Admiral Rickover’s nuclear power interviews. Most guys who had the experience of meeting the Kindly Old Gentleman (KOG) never forgot what it was like, myself included. Here’s my tale. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
It was early November 1974, and we were deep into our seventh semester. Several groups of midshipmen had already gone to the NAVSEA-08 (Naval Reactors) office in Crystal City. We went alphabetically, and on my day, I joined the G’s, H’s, and I’s for an early morning breakfast served especially for us in the Chesapeake & Patuxent room, that small, somewhat formal dining place in the 4th wing basement. After nervously not eating well or much, we collected not one but two box lunches and headed for the bus in the sixth wing parking lot. A long day was expected by all hands.
Personally, I recall looking forward to it all, as if it were going to be a holiday. There would be a big fancy breakfast, a couple of box lunches, and I’d miss a whole lot of restriction musters. [Note: at the time I was on restriction for “operating a motor vehicle before the Army-Navy game, within seven miles of the Chapel dome,” which was a four-thousand series offense, the worst possible according to the midshipman conduct manual. I’d been mustering with the bad-actors club every hour on the quarter hour at the main office for nearly two months. This is important to remember for later in the story.] I wasn’t really worried about getting accepted. Mechanical engineering major, single-digit class standing, taking all the nuclear courses offered. I figured it would be a fun time and wanted to meet Hyman George Rickover up close. I’d seen him from a crowd a few months earlier, in March, when he dedicated the engineering building named for him and joined us for noon meal in the mess hall. I remember walking up to the head table near the anchor and orbiting the Admiral a couple times, just to look at him. He was infamous in nuclear circles, and rumor had it he’d been ordered to appear at the ceremony and wear his uniform. Later I learned it was the only time he ever appeared in public wearing service dress blues as a full Admiral.
Upon arrival at the Naval Reactors building in Crystal City we were herded into a ground floor room furnished with chairs, no desks. We knew already from the those who had preceded us that the process included two, three, or possibly more oral examinations by staff engineers before seeing the Admiral himself. The person would come to our waiting room, call out a name, and lead the victim up the stairway. Because Rickover never used the elevator, nobody else in the building did, either. Some guys (let’s call them gouge hounds) started to record which engineers came to the room and note which midshipman left with him, just for future reference.
So there we sat, studying notes, dozing, debriefing classmates, reading dime novels, and eating box lunches. All day. My technical interviews began with the two of us silently climbing three flights of steps to a tiny, windowless office, with a large chalkboard covering one entire wall. It was filled with numbers, letters, and symbols and looked like it hadn’t been erased in years. The man looked like he had just eaten a lemon. Questions began with the standard ‘derive the equation for this and for that’, and I asked for some paper to write on. This gave me time to think while he located a Mk-1/Mod-0 government pad and a pencil. I used my own pen and wrote out the derivations, every step. Then he told me to explain how entropy factors into the second law of thermodynamics. I ‘knew’ this was coming, so I took a long time answering it, and honestly believe he drifted off during my response. He jotted down some notes, slipped the paper into a folder and took me back down to the holding pen. The process repeated about an hour later, after lunch. The second guy asked me to explain how Control Rod Drive Mechanisms work when all vital loads are dropped. What’s drive mechanism? What are vital loads? Dropped where? Who knows? After a couple basic questions about electricity and magnetism there came more notes in the folder, and another escorted stairwell descent. I thought things were going fairly well when the third interviewer asked me what I wanted to know. I asked him a question about submarines, and he talked for twenty-five minutes.
Eventually guys started getting called to see the man himself, Admiral Hyman George Rickover, Class of 1922. We were instructed to enter his office quickly when called, take a seat in the chair directly in front of his desk, and give short, honest answers to all his questions while looking him directly in the eye. Above all, be respectful, regardless of what happens. Just to make sure, there would be another person in the room, a senior naval officer in civilian clothes, to take notes and witness whatever happened. Since I knew the front legs of the chair had been sawed off to shorten them, the uneven chair didn’t bother me. As I sat down, I looked across the large desk, piled high with messy piles of papers, and nearly panicked: there was nobody on the other side! Suddenly a very frail looking, little old man with white hair poked his head out from behind a stack and barked his first question.
Admiral Rickover: Midshipman, what’s going to happen to your class standing?
Midn Harper, concisely, respectfully, with eyes locked on Rickover: It’ll go down, Admiral.
R: What? Why is it going to go down?
H: Because I have already earned a “D” in conduct this semester, Admiral.
R: I don’t give a shit about your conduct grade. What about your academic standing?
H: It will stay the same or go up, depending on how the others do, Admiral.
R: What others?
H: The ones above me.
I was pretty happy with this response because it came out fast and sounded confident. Also, it took the KOG a moment to conclude that I expected to get a 4.0 and move up in academic class rank if any of the guys above me did not achieve the same.
R: After a very brief pause, OK, why do you have a D in conduct?
H: I then began to explain about that fateful Friday night, the 13th of September, driving my classmate back to school in his car because he was late for taps and I had three-striper liberty but he didn’t, about some other classmates who had hopped onto the luggage rack, about getting thrown in jail after being arrested, and he stopped me and asked:
R: What do you think of all that?
H: I think it’s silly, Admiral.
R: So do I. That place is full of fools. It’s the Disneyland of the East. I’ll bet there are lots of midshipmen who get caught with cars, aren’t there?
H: Yes, sir. I am currently restricting with a dozen or so.
R: Tell me about them. I want to hear what they did and how they were caught.
H: So, I proceeded to elaborate the particulars for some of the standard ‘over-the-wall’ cases, people who had been convicted of car violations when they were thousands of miles away on cruise (cars parked in town), and some crazy stuff involving a notorious classmate and the Commandant’s daughter . . . I could tell he was taking it all in, even ordering the room monitor to ‘get this all down’. Eventually he cut me off and asked me (honestly, I cannot make this up):
R: If you were out in town and saw the Commandant being mugged in an alleyway, what would you do?
H: I’d laugh, Admiral.
Commandant D.K. ‘Deke’ Forbes and I were not on good terms at the time, recall, so this answer came out spontaneously and honestly. [I’ve seen Deke a couple times over the years, and we both laughed about the five-striper who got caught driving and was fired as Deputy Brigade Commander.]
The interview (discussion?) had been going on for a while, and by this point it wasn’t clear how things were going to end, but the secretary came into the room and told us all that the Admiral has many more people to see, so please finish up soon. The KOG looked at me and said, I want to hear more stories. Send me a letter when you get back to that Disneyland place.
The handler escorted me out of the room, handed me an index card with the mailing address for the Naval Reactors office, and made me sign a piece of paper saying I had not been belittled or hazed in any manner. I signed, went down the elevator to the waiting room and started writing.
There we sat, some classmates clearly in shock, not knowing if we were accepted for nuclear power or not and grazed on box lunch remnants. We waited. And waited. It got dark out. Only one man was still missing, and we could not leave until everybody was finished upstairs. Finally, he showed up, we all got on the bus and returned to Annapolis.
I, along with ten others from 14th company, was accepted for nuclear power training. I hand-wrote a long letter to Admiral Rickover with a litany of colorful conduct cases. Perhaps he quoted it at some congressional testimony. Maybe the letter is enshrined to this day in a manilla folder somewhere in the archives of NAVSEA-08.
And the last man to arrive at the end of that long day in November 1974? He was also accepted into the program. Also from the 14th company. He did pretty well for himself in the Navy. But you’ll have to ask him about his interview.
Ask Jon Greenert.