Class History: 1939

Naval Nuclear Power and the Class of 1939

By Captain John "Jack" Crawford '42, USN (Ret.)

“Seven members of the Class of 1939 made contributions of fundamental and enduring value to the foundation and still widening development of nuclear power: They are as follows: Lou Roddis, Jim Dunford, Bob Laney, Bill Turnbaugh, and Eli Roth, all Engineering Duty Officers; and Ned Beach, and Vince DePoix, Submariner and Naval Aviator, respectively.

Around 1948, a small organization was established to carry forward a joint effort of the Navy and the Atomic Energy Commission to develop a nuclear power plant for a submarine. It was led by then Captain H.G. Rickover and known as Naval Reactors. It included Roddis and Dunford, who had received training at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Laney, Turnbaugh and Roth joined at an early date.

Two power reactor types were chosen for development: one was cooled by water under high pressure, the other was cooled by liquid sodium. Westinghouse became the lead contractor for the water type at the Bettis Laboratory near Pittsburgh; General Electric became the lead contractor for the sodium plant at Schenectady. Naval Reactors provided technical direction and guidance. As these projects advanced, Roddis became, in effect, a special assistant to Rickover; Dunford and Turnbaugh concentrated on the water plant; and Laney on the liquid sodium plant.

By mid-1953, the pressurized water effort   had succeeded in producing power in a useful amount. It was the very first time this had ever been done. This achievement made it possible for the first nuclear powered submarine, USS NAUTILUS, to go to sea in 1955. It was followed by another, when the submarine, USS SEAWOLF, powered by a sodium-cooled plant, went to sea in 1957 and gave President Eisenhower his first ride in a nuclear submarine.

Meanwhile, exploratory studies had begun on applying nuclear power to an aircraft carrier. Roddis had a key role for NR in this activity. Soon, however, both Roddis and Dunford moved on to new assignments. Roddis became Deputy Director of the AEC’s large division responsible for all power reactor development. Dunford became Assistant to AEC Commissioner, Thomas E. Murray, an especially strong supporter of both Naval Reactors program and civilian nuclear power. ( another  Murray assistant was Bill McGuirk, Class of 1939, who had become a civilian).

The move by Dunford to this assignment proved to be providential and of large benefit to NR. The Secretary of Defense had cancelled support for aircraft carrier reactor development. Murray and Rickover took advantage of this by persuading the full Commission to turn the carrier reactor effort into one for a civilian nuclear power plant. Dunford had an important role in bringing this about, and also for arranging that   responsibility for the civilian project would be given to NR. Not long after this, the Department of Defense established a military requirement for a nuclear powered aircraft carrier. Suddenly, NR had two new large projects, both important to nuclear power development.

The superlative operational success of NAUTILUS created a large demand for more submarines of this type as quickly as possible. This led to Turnbaugh’s being assigned to Portsmouth Naval Shipyard as Nuclear Power Superintendent. Laney moved to the Bettis Plant as NR Representative, and Dunford returned to NR as its first-ever Deputy Manager under Admiral Rickover as Manager.

By that time, the burgeoning program of building nuclear submarines had called for greatly increased numbers of personnel with nuclear training. Meeting this demand became one of Dunford’s key responsibilities. He had exceptionally strong qualifications for the tasks involved, and carried them out with consummate effectiveness.

By 1958, the aircraft carrier reactor project had reached the point where building could begin at Newport News Shipyard on this first ever, eight- reactor USS ENTERPRISE, CVN 65. Suffice it to say, that this large effort was carried forward with high effectiveness so that the ship was ready to go on Builder’s Trials in the fall of 1960. Much of the credit for this must go to Vince DePoix, Prospective Commanding Officer, and a carefully trained crew. Following nuclear submarine practice, they had operated all the ship’s nuclear systems under shipyard direction. Thus ENTERPRISE went to sea on Builder’s Trials, not with a shipyard crew, but under Capt. DePoix and a Navy crew. The trials were so successful that Admiral Rickover, who was on board, said that ‘the ship was ready to go to war’.  When it did go, it gave the Navy a high order of operational effectiveness for fifty years- from Vietnam to Afghanistan.

Being built about the same time as ENTERPRISE was the first two-reactor nuclear submarine, USS TRITON, with Ned Beach as Prospective Commanding Officer. When placed in commission, it was the first submarine to circumnavigate the world submerged.

The extraordinary operational success of the naval ship propulsion program, as well as President Eisenhower’s ‘Atoms for Peace’ policy, encouraged many electric power companies to undertake building civilian nuclear power plants. Almost all used the pressurized water type reactor pioneered by the Navy. Overall, this civilian effort did not go well. So poorly, in fact, that Congress insisted the Atomic Energy Commission take corrective action. The problem was overcome by two measures: the adoption of Naval Reactors engineering standards and procedures, and by hiring former Navy personnel, both officers and enlisted, who had received Navy nuclear training. Today, about one quarter of the nation’s electric energy comes from nuclear power plants. Members of the Class of 1939 made an important contribution to the establishment of the foundations. 

Important as this is, it is even more important to take note of their contribution to the establishment of sea power of a new and higher order. Today, the U.S. Navy provides the nation with sea power of a magnitude Admiral Mahan could not have dreamed of. With its fleets of nuclear powered aircraft carriers and submarines it can bring force to bear, in degree needed, as rapidly as needed, and for as long as needed.  

Many, many members of the magnificent Class of 1939 contributed to this new order of sea power in all its dimensions. Certainly Roddis, Dunford, Beach, Depoix, Turnbaugh, Laney and Roth will be remembered as among them.

About the author:

Captain John Crawford is a 1942 graduate from the United States Naval Academy. He was on active duty as a naval officer for twenty-two years serving aboard the USS YORKTOWN (CV5), the USS SANTEE (CVE29) and the USS BROOKLYN (CL40). He was one of two individuals to complete a graduate program in nuclear engineering at MIT in 1950. Upon completion, Crawford became an engineer duty officer working as a technical manager, field representative and then deputy. He held many key positions with the Atomic Energy Commission providing support for the naval nuclear propulsion program at the time when interests were high on nuclear weapons. He went on to work for the Department of Energy (formerly the ERDA) as Deputy Program Director for their Nuclear Energy Programs, retiring in 1981. But he continued to do consulting work and became board member for the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. Upon his retirement in 1996, he continues to play a role in nuclear energy management as a consultant.  In 2001, he was awarded the Distinguished Graduate Award by the USNA Alumni Association.


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