Voices of Polonia: Admiral Hyman Rickover

by Ted Rajchel

polish insigniaEditor’s Note: Ted and Joan Rajchel return with their column after a long hiatus.  Welcome back Ted & Joan!  Also, the below article is the full article written for the Phoenix.  The in-print edition was edited due to space considerations.


Admiral Rickover took the American navy into the nuclear age with his persistence that the United States Navy build the first nuclear powered submarine in the world. A graduate of the Naval Academy, he became the Father to the Nuclear Fleet and its officers and men. Hyman came through Ellis Island, as a six-year old with his parents. After serving in World War II, Rickover led the effort to develop the submarine, USS Nautilus (SSN-57), which was launched in 1954 at Groton, Connecticut. The Nautilus made its first nuclear-powered successful run a year later.

Early Life:

He was born in Makow Mazowiecki, Poland located within an hour of Warsaw, Poland on January 27, 1900. When he was a child still living in Russian-occupied Poland, Rickover was not allowed to attend public schools because, of his Jewish faith. Starting at the age of four he attended a religious school where teaching was only from the Old Testament in Hebrew. School hours were from sunrise to sunset, six days a week. His father, Abraham Rickover, a tailor brought his family, who lived initially on the East side of Manhattan to Lawndale, a community of Chicago, two years later. There Rickover’s father continued work as a tailor. During the Second World War the remaining community of Makow Mazowiecki, Poland were killed or otherwise perished during the Holocaust. While attending John Marshall High School in Chicago, from where he graduated with honors in 1918, Rickover held a full-time job delivering Western Union telegrams.

After completing high school he received an appointment to the United States Naval Academy. He graduated in 1922 and was commissioned an Ensign. Assigned to sea duty, he remained there five years before being assigned to the Naval Academy to do graduate work in electrical engineering. He continued his studies at Columbia University where he received his Master of Science Degree in 1929. While at Columbia, he met his future wife, Ruth D. Masters, a Christian and graduate in International law, whom he married in 1931 after she returned from her doctoral studies at the top university in France, the Sorbonne, located in Paris. Shortly after marrying, Rickover wrote to his parents of his decision to become an Episcopalian, remaining so for the remainder of his life.

Illustration by Art Sedien

Illustration by Art Sedien

Early Naval Career:

He joined the destroyer, USS La Vallette, on the fifth of September, 1922. Rickover impressed his commanding officer with his hard work and efficiency and was made engineer officer on the 21st of June, 1923, becoming the youngest such officer in the squadron. He next served on board the battle ship, USS Nevada and was more fond of life on a small ship knowing that young officers in the submarine service were advancing quickly. Rickover went to Washington and volunteered for submarine duty. From 1929 to 1933 he qualified for submarine duty and command aboard the submarines 5-9 and 5-48. In June, 1931, he assumed command of the mine sweeper, USS Finch, and on the first of July of that year was promoted to Lieutenant Commander. He was assigned to the Cavite Navy Yard in the Philippines. Later he took up his duties as assistant chief of the electrical section of the Bureau of Engineering on the is” of August, 1939. On the tenth of April in 1942, after America’s entry into World War II, Rickover flew to Pearl Harbor to organize repairs to the electrical power plant of the USS California. He was the leading person in putting the ship’s electric alternators and motors back in operating condition, enabling the battleship to sail under her own power from Pearl Harbor to Puget Sound Navy Yard.

Later during the war, his service as head of the electrical section in the Bureau of Ships brought him a Legion of Merit and gave him experience in directing large development programs, choosing talented technical people, and working closely with private industry. During his wartime service, as noted later in the January 11th, 1954 Time Magazine issue that featured him on its cover, Rickover had been promoted to the rank of Commander. He was sent to investigate inefficiencies at the naval supply depot at Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. Having identified a number of problems there, he was appointed in July, 1945 to command of a ship repair facility on Okinawa.

Naval Reactors and the Atomic Energy Commission:

In 1946 a project was begun at the Manhattan project’s nuclear-power plant, which focused on the Clinton Laboratory (now the Oakridge National Laboratory) to develop a nuclear electric generating plant. Realizing the potential that nuclear energy held for the navy, Rickover applied. He had been assigned to work with General Electric at Schenectady, New York, to develop a nuclear propulsion plant for destroyers. Then in 1946 Rickover was finally sent to Oakridge as the deputy manager of the entire project. He became an early convert to the idea of nuclear marine propulsion.

In 1947 Rickover met with chief of naval operations, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, who was a former submariner. Nimitz immediately understood the potential of nuclear propulsion and recommended the project to the Secretary of the Navy, John Sullivan, whose endorsement built the world’s first nuclear-powered vessel, the USS Nautilus (SSN-S71). In February, 1949 Rickover received an assignment to the division of Reactor Development, Atomic Energy Commission, and then assumed control of the Navy’s effort as Director of the Naval Reactors Branch in the Bureau of Ships. This twin role enabled him to both lead the effort to develop Nautilus, which was launched and commissioned in 1954, as well as oversee the development of the Shippingport Atomic Power Station, the first commercial pressurized water reactor nuclear power plant. Rickover was the man who the navy could depend on no matter what opposition he might encounter, once he was convinced of the potentialities of the atomic submarine. He was promoted to the rank of Vice Admiral in 1958, the same year he was awarded the first of two Congressional gold medals.


Focus on Education:

Rickover was particular to the opinion that U.S. standards of education were unacceptably low. The admiral states that “education is the most important problem facing the United States today” and “only the massive upgrading of the scholastic standards of our schools will guarantee the future prosperity and freedom of the republic.” He argued that the higher standards, including a longer school day and year, combined with an approach stressing student choice and academic specialization produced superior results, calling for improved standards of education, particularly in math and science. His persistent interest in ‘education led to some related discussions with President John F. Kennedy. The admiral had suggested that there are three things that a school must do: first, it must transmit to the pupil a substantial body of knowledge; second, it must develop in him the necessary intellectual skill to apply this knowledge to the problems he will encounter in adult life; and third, he must inculcate ( to impress on the mind by frequent repetition or instruction) in him the habit of judging issues on the basis of verified fact and logical reasoning. Recognizing that nurturing careers of excellence and leadership in science and technology in young scholars is an essential investment in the United States’ national and global future,” following his retirement Admiral Rickover founded the Center for Excellence in Education in 1983.


On January 31, 1982, in his 80’s, and after 63 years of service to his country under 13 presidents (Woodrow Wilson through Ronald Reagan), Rickover retired from the navy as a full admiral (President Nixon awarded the Admiral’s fourth star in 1973). Rickover is known as the “Father of the Nuclear Navy”, which as of July, 2007 had produced 200 nuclear-powered submarines, and 23 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and cruisers. Though many of these U.S. vessels are now decommissioned and others under construction. With his unique personality, political connections, responsibilities, and depth of knowledge regarding naval nuclear propulsion, Rickover became the longest-serving naval officer in U.S. history with 63 years of active duty. On February 28, 1983 a post-retirement party honoring Admiral Rickover was attended by all three living former U.S. presidents at that time-Nixon, Ford, and Carter. President Reagan was not in attendance.


After suffering strokes, pneumonia, and generally declining health over time, Admiral Rickover died at his home in Arlington, Virginia on July 8, 1986 at 86 years of age. Memorial services were led by Admiral James D. Watkins at the Washington National Cathedral, with President Carter, Secretary of State George P. Schultz, Secretary Lehman, senior naval officers and about 1,000 other people in attendance. Admiral Rickover is buried in Section 5 at Arlington National Cemetery. At Arlington, Rickover’s burial site overlooks the John F. Kennedy Eternal Flame. Rickover created a detail-focused pursuit of excellence to a degree previously unknown; he redirected the Uni ed States Navy’s ship propulsion, quality control, personnel selection, and training and education, and has had far reaching effect on the defense establishment and the civilian nuclear energy field.


He also received 61 civilian awards and 15 honorary degrees. Twice he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. In 1980 President Jimmy Carter presented Admiral Rickover with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest non-military honor for his contributions to world peace. The Los Angeles-class submarine USS Hyman G. Rickover (SSN-709) was named for him. The USS Hyman G. Rickover was launched on August 27,1983.


Hyman G. Rickover-Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia

Admiral Hyman George Rickover by Captain Rubin, Featured Jews, January 6, 2008 Ellis Island-Free Port of New York, Passenger Records Search

Jewish Generals and Admirals in America’s Military, Florida Atlantic University Libraries, 09 July, 2008


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