Trivia Question: Which was the first submarine to travel under the arctic ice cap? Answer: USS Nautilus … WRONG! “Nautilus” is correct, but it was NOT the nuclear powered USS Nautilus (SSN-571) of fame. Yes, USS Nautilus was the first submarine to transit the ice cap and visit the North Pole. But an earlier submarine, USS O-12 (SS-73) has the distinction of being the first to dive under the ice cap. This vessel, launched in 1917, was a post World War I vintage O-Class submarine, displacing 500 tons and able to dive to 200 feet. It was decommissioned in 1924, then leased for $1 per year to Hubert Wilkins’s and Lincoln Ellsworth’s Arctic Expedition. The vessel was re-christened “Nautilus” (sans the military moniker “USS”) and baptized with a bucket of ice cubes (champagne forbidden under Prohibition laws at the time). With funding promised by William Randolph Hearst, the boat got underway for Arctic waters in June, 1931 with a plan to rendezvous at the North Pole with the German airship Graf Zeppelin. A series of mishaps, storms, and equipment failures thwarted all attempts until August, when under pressure from Hearst the damaged submarine managed to submerge under the ice. Unable to travel far, and with malfunctioning radios, the ship was presumed lost. However, she had managed to surface through a polynya (area of open water within an ice pack) and was able to return safely. The crew carried out investigations and published scientific papers; however, Hearst considered the venture a failure and refused to pay for the expedition. I learned this bit of history through a re-reading of Rachel Carson’s 1950 book The Sea Around Us.
Books by David W. Jourdan
The Never Forgotten series chronicles Nauticos ocean explorations and discoveries, remembering and honoring lost heroes and explorers.