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Tales from the Silent Service – USS Skipjack SSN-585

USS Skipjack SSN-585 was the lead ship of her class of nuclear-powered attack submarines and the third ship of the United States Navy to be named after the skipjack, a streamlined, fast-swimming pelagic fish common in tropical waters throughout the world.
Her keel was laid down on 29 May 1956 by the Electric Boat Division of the General Dynamics Corporation in Groton Connecticut and she was launched on 26 May 1958 sponsored by Helen Mahon, wife of Representative George H. Mahon from the 19th District of Texas. Skipjack was commissioned into the United States Navy on 15 April 1959 with Commander W. W. Behrens, Jr., in command. During his distinguished naval career, Commander Behrens skippered USS Balao SS-285, USS Harder SS-568 and USS Ethan Allen SSBN-608 as well as Skipjack, went on to attain the rank of Vice-Admiral, and was instrumental in establishing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Skipjack’s motto, Radix Nova Tridentis, translates to “Root of the New Sea Power” because, and appropriately so, she incorporated innumerable ground-breaking design changes that were the result of revolutionary scientific insight into submarine design and construction that every new USN Attack submarine has since mirrored.

The submarine community, now with nuclear power at its command, had envisioned the construction of a “true submersible” submarine that could operate at deep depths and high speeds for extended periods. To accomplish this required a design that could readily adapt to its underwater environment and could theoretically remain submerged and support life indefinitely. Accordingly, Skipjack became the prototype that mated nuclear power with the “Albacore hull“ that had been pioneered by the conventionally powered USS Albacore AGSS-569 earlier in 1958 and that was designed for optimum performance and maximum speeds submerged. The novel hull’s only protrusions were the 23-foot-high sail or “Fairweather” with diving planes relocated from the bow and used for fine depth control, especially at periscope depth. It resembled a shark’s dorsal fin that rose at a point midway along the hull to keep the ship stabilized similarly to the centerboard of a sailing yacht. All periscopes, masts and antennas were housed within the sail structure to be raised and lowered at periscope depth, or when the submarine was running on the surface and she was the first to have a bow-mounted sonar array. Too, a single prop located behind the rudder drove the submarine making it more maneuverable and quieter than past multi-prop designs. The stern planes were similar in function to the wings of an airplane to control depth and were mounted forward of the prop and rudder. The Skipjack hull was constructed using improved HY-80 a high-tensile strength, high yield strength, low alloy steel that was developed for use in naval applications specifically for the development of pressure hulls for the US nuclear submarine program. It’s since been replaced with HY-100 steel used in the current day USN Sea Wolf and Virginia class Submarines.
Other areas of improvement included modernized electro-mechanical push-button control of HP pneumatics and trim systems all operated centrally from the Ballast Control Panel (BCP) in the Control Room. The Mushroom type anchor was streamlined and housed within the hull in the stern and the mooring cleats were manually retractable into the deck before diving to reduce drag and flow noise during submerged operations.
Propulsion and electric power for the new class were furnished by an innovative Westinghouse S5W reactor plant designed by Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory that is the U.S. Government-owned research and development facility located in the Pittsburgh suburb of West Mifflin, Pennsylvania and that works exclusively on the design and development of nuclear power for the U.S. Navy. The S5W reactor’s extended core life allowed the ship to travel at full power for 90,000 to 100,000 miles. Nuclear power had already been deployed on Nautilus and the follow-on Skate class boats, but the new 15,000 shaft horsepower (shp) plant was such an advance that it wholly transformed submarine capabilities to a level never before imagined. Furthermore, although the S5W reactor was thirty percent larger than the S1W plant on Nautilus, the reactor compartment on Skipjack was more compact occupying only twenty feet of the ship’s 252 feet total length. This reactor proved so successful that it became the standard reactor plant for almost all USN submarines until the Los Angeles class. However, the design of the core was such that it became the new standard of accessibility for all submarine rectors to date.
Skipjack had such advanced underwater capabilities that her speed and maneuverability could be compared to an aircraft in flight. And as earlier private inventors like John P. Holland and Simon Lake had envisioned, the submarine had become virtually aquatic by readily adapting to its underwater environment, and it became capable of things never before seen. Consequently, attack submarines were later dubbed “sharks of steel” and the “sports cars of the sea.”
Whereas earlier diesel-electric submarines were modified surface ships that could submerge for only limited periods in order to attack enemy surface vessels. Skipjack could stay submerged indefinitely and performed much like a fighter jet executing high speed turns that she banked and rolled into because of the force of the water force upon the sides of the sail. And the sub could also achieve steep high-speed dives and assents. These maneuvers were commonly known as “angles and dangles” and the submarine crews exulted in performing them.
Skipjack was soon branded the world’s fastest submarine after setting a new speed record during sea trials following her launching. The boat was intended to have a top speed over 20 knots, but their actual speed is much higher and still a guarded secret. But, through the rated reactor power of horsepower of 15,000 shp and reasonable assumptions about the hull’s coefficient of drag, cross-sectional area, and appendage drag it can be calculated that the vessel probably reached speeds over 31 knots (36 MPH) or more submerged.
Skipjack and her sister-ships, Scamp, Scorpion, Sculpin, Shark and Snook radical maneuvering capabilities added an entirely new dimension to anti-submarine warfare (ASW) scenarios as in addition to her other maneuverability characteristics, she could reverse direction in the distance of her own length. Consequently, the ASW challenges created by such maneuverability and high sustained speeds took several decades to resolve to parity.
During her shakedown cruise in August 1959, she became the first nuclear ship to pass through the Straits of Gibraltar and operate in the Mediterranean Sea. Then following post-shakedown availability at Groton, Connecticut, the new submarine conducted type training and participated in an advanced Atlantic submarine exercise from May through July 1960, which earned the submarine and crew a Navy Unit Commendation (NUC), and also a Battle Efficiency ” award (Battle “E”), an award it would receive three more times.
In late 1960, Skipjack entered the mouth of Murmansk Fjord, a 36-mile long channel of the Barents Sea that cuts into the northern part of the Kola Peninsula leading to Murmansk, home to the Soviet Northern Fleet. It is up to 5 miles wide and has a depth of only 650 to 985 feet. During the journey, she passed so close to the Soviet port that the officers could see it through the periscopes just 40 yards away. The mission was classified Top Secret and so all electronic tracking devices were turned off to negate any written record of the action.
Ultimately, Skipjack lacked the space required to be upgraded with modernized warfare systems, therefore in her later years operated with obsolete sonar equipment and fire-control systems. However, despite these limitations, she remained an effective attack submarine through the end of her operational career. She was retrofitted with a newer and quieter seven-bladed propeller during a refit in 1973 replacing her original five-bladed propeller with which she had set a trans-Atlantic underwater crossing record. And although the new prop quieted her considerably it also resulted in a marked reduction in speed.
Many Cold War-era USN Attack submarines have followed the path forged by Skipjack and her crew into Soviet territorial waters to carrying out reconnaissance patrols known as “Northern Runs” to deter the spread of Communism and Socialism and to defend American values. Additionally, they have stealthily operated in every ocean of the world as a result of Skipjack being the first of her kind to combine nuclear propulsion with the sleek and highly maneuverable “tear-drop” hull design that ushered in modern submarine operations. And under the guidance of Adm. Hyman G. Rickover who oversaw the USN nuclear power program, she along with Nautilus and Albacore were the game changers that propelled America’s Navy into the nuclear age and thereby contributed immensely to the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
USS Skipjack SSN-585 was decommissioned and stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on 19 April 1990, having served America for 31 years in the U.S. Navy Submarine Force. “Ex-Skipjack” entered the Nuclear Powered Ship and Submarine Recycling Program in Bremerton, Washington on 17 March 1996 with recycling being completed on 1 September 1998. She is an icon within the submarine community and will forever be renowned and revered as the first of the Navy’s high speed, deep diving, true submersible “Cold War Warriors”.