USS Nautilus lets visitors experience life down below

USS Nautilus

If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to be a submariner and dive deep below the ocean surface you can do just that at the Submarine Force Museum in Groton. There you can see the history of the submarine service and climb aboard the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear powered vessel.

The Nautilus, named after the ship depicted in Jules Verne’s novel, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” was first launched Jan. 21, 1954, after 18 months of construction. First lady Mamie Eisenhower broke the traditional bottle of champagne across Nautilus’ bow during the ceremony. On Sept. 30, 1954, Nautilus became the first commissioned nuclear powered ship in the U.S. Navy.

Nautilus made naval history on July 23, 1958, when it departed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, under top secret orders to conduct “Operation Sunshine,” the first crossing of the North Pole by a ship. It was at 11:15 p.m. Aug. 3, 1958, that Commander William R. Anderson announced to his crew, “For the world, our country and the Navy … the North Pole.” With 116 men on board, Nautilus had accomplished the seemingly impossible task of reaching 90 degrees north, the geographic North Pole.

The museum with more than 33,000 artifacts is dedicated to saving the history of the submarine. The museum can trace its roots back to 1955 when the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics founded the Submarine Library with a huge collection of books and documents relating to the history of the submarine. In 1965 the facility was donated to the U.S. Navy and moved to its current location. The name was changed to the Submarine Force Museum in 1969 and efforts began to convince the Navy to donate Nautilus to the museum. A new 14,000-square-foot museum was built in 1986 and was expanded in 1997 and again in 2000.

On display in the is a replica of the Turtle, the world’s first combat submarine built in 1775. The Turtle was designed to attach a mine to the hull of an enemy ship. It was used against the British during the Revolutionary War but was not successful.

Also on display are models of several different classes of submarines and a control room where visitors can sit and operate the controls of a sub. A 50 foot-long 1/6th scale cutaway model of the submarine USS Gato is suspended from the ceiling in the main exhibit area. The Gato was the primary class of submarine used by the United States during World War II. Other displays include midget submarines from WWII, working periscopes and the Explorer, an early U.S. research submarine.

The museum library has a collection of more than 20,000 documents and 30,000 photographs related to the history of the submarine. The collection has 6,000 books including an original 1870 copy of Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”

The centerpiece for the museum is the Nautilus which was designated a National Historic Landmark by the Secretary of the Interior on May 20, 1982. The historic ship then underwent an extensive conversion at Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, Calif., to make it more accessible to visitors. When the conversion was complete it was towed to Groton and on April 11, 1986, the museum and Nautilus opened to the public.

Tours aboard the Nautilus are self guided and visitors get an audio wand that describes each numbered stop on the tour. The first stop after entering the forward part of the ship through a specially constructed glass house added during the conversion to a museum is the torpedo room. The Nautilus has six tubes for its 24 torpedoes. Plexiglas partitions have been installed throughout Nautilus so visitors can see but not touch the historic vessel.

As the tour continues visitors pass by berthing areas for the crew and the wardroom for the 11 officers on board. On the wall behind the wardroom table are instruments showing the ship’s speed, course and depth. Also on display in the wardroom is an original copy of Jules Vernes’ “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”

Next on the tour is the Attack Center where the periscopes are located as well as the firing panel to launch the torpedoes. The Control Room is located directly below the Attack Center and has all the instruments and controls for diving, surfacing and steering the ship. To the right of the Control Room is the Radio Room where all the ship’s communication equipment is located.

The final stop on the tour is the Crew’s Mess where the enlisted men ate. Food was served every six hours and because living conditions were stressful, submarines had the best food in the military.

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