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News / Northwest

Retired captain of first U.S. nuclear submarine celebrates turning 100 in Spokane

Frank Fogarty knew nothing about nuclear physics when duty called in 1957

By Treva Lind, The Spokesman-Review (Spokane)
Published: April 28, 2024, 5:25pm

Frank Fogarty knew nothing about nuclear physics on ships when he got pulled from his Korean War submarine duty to interview for a fledgling U.S. Navy program.

Fogarty, who just turned 100 years old in Spokane, has never forgotten meeting Hyman Rickover, known as the father of the world’s first atomic-powered submarines that began with the USS Nautilus in 1954. Its advantages meant speed and prolonged submersions.

He initially joined an officers’ team to develop he Nautilus’ sister craft, the USS Seawolf, which launched in 1955. But by 1957, Fogarty had joined the Nautilus crew — first as an engineering officer, and then as the Nautilus’ fifth commanding officer from 1963 to 1967.

“I was in this position of being qualified for command, so Rickover picked from the younger submarine officers who were qualified, and he interviewed them all,” Fogarty said.

“He was the first to apply nuclear practically to something besides bombs. In my case, they flew me back from Korea to Washington for an interview with him, and it was an all-day deal. You interviewed with his staff; they all came up with their opinion of each interviewee.

“The last thing was you interviewed with the KOG — (what) Rickover was called for ‘kindly old gentleman.’ He was not kindly; he was old,” Fogarty said.

Rickover was famous for his stress interviews, seeing if an officer entering the program could maintain composure and still think clearly if rattled. The program’s leader also drilled officers about any actions “that weren’t so great,” Fogarty said. “So it wasn’t the most pleasant thing.”

Fogarty thought that ended it.

“About three months later, we came back in from patrol and tied up to the pier in Japan with other submarines, and the captain of the submarine that was tied up where we came alongside of said, ‘I hear you have a Rickover guy on your boat.'”

He soon joined a Navy team working with General Electric to develop the Seawolf in Schenectady, N.Y. Simultaneously, he and other officers trained in reactor technology and nuclear physics at Union College.

“We were sent there to be with the construction, to see it and then train in nuclear power, which we didn’t know what that was,” he said. “We also had a crew of 20 enlisted people.”

Fogarty was one of four officers in upstate New York at the Seawolf plant.

“One of the common names of another fellow is Jimmy Carter; he was the senior naval officer of the four of us. He was a class ahead of me at the Naval Academy,” Fogarty said.

The future president was set to become Seawolf’s top engineering officer. But in July 1953, when his father died, Carter resigned from the Navy to take care of the family’s business. Fogarty recalls Carter’s mother also didn’t want to deal with his brother, who was “a little hard to handle.”

Another officer was assigned to replace Carter. The Fogartys traded Christmas cards with the Carters for a few years but lost connection before he got into politics. Meanwhile, Westinghouse already had built the Nautilus prototype plant outside of Idaho Falls, Fogarty said, and the Nautilus was a year ahead of the Seawolf.

“They had two land-based plants that mimicked a submarine, built in a submarine hull on land,” he said. “Both of them, one in New York and one in Idaho.”

A big advantage for submarines is staying submerged. They are most vulnerable when surfacing, Fogarty said. “Diesel submarines had to surface to recharge batteries, but with these, you could stay down forever.”

That gave the U.S. an advantage that held, he added. Fogarty spent time with the Seawolf as part of the crew taking it out for trial runs. They eventually found a problem with the different reactor design being “sodium-cooled,” versus water-cooled like the Nautilus, he said.

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“Technically, the sodium potassium turned out to be corrosive material. When heated up, it ended up eating the pipes. We got an alarm that the pipes were leaking, which was down in a compartment with thick shielding above it. The medical doctor who was a nuclear-trained physician, he and I went down to see what was wrong; that’s where I got my highest dose of radiation.”

By then, Rickover had decided to make over the Seawolf with the Nautilus design, so it had to go back to port for a retrofit. Fogarty and another nuclear-trained officer from the Seawolf got transferred then to the Nautilus, which had been fully operational for over a year.

He was on the Nautilus in 1957 when it made its first unsuccessful attempt to cross the North Pole from the Atlantic side, seeking to pass the Arctic sea basin between Greenland and the Norwegian island Spitsbergen, but the sub’s periscope was damaged in an ice collision, and the gyrocompass became erratic, forcing the boat to turn back.

“We learned a few lessons about icebergs, how deep they go down, and when you bump into an iceberg, it’s not very mobile,” Fogarty added. “It’s stronger than you are, so it bent over the periscope.

“We had to wade our way out of there and back into the ocean without any idea where we were other than dead reckoning. We didn’t have any of our navigation stuff. We could tell how deep the water was, but not how high.”

After repairs, “they sent us through the (Panama) canal over the Pacific side,” but before the second North Pole attempt, Fogarty got assigned to the USS Skipjack, a smaller class of nuclear-powered submarines with a single big propeller and a more streamlined design.

“That hull, incidentally, was based on the prototype that was here in Idaho at the Navy test lab at Farragut,” he said.

He remained with the Skipjack for a while and earned promotions.

On the Nautilus, he was the fifth commanding officer for a crew with typically 11 officers and 105 enlisted members. Fogarty said memorable events occurred under his watch, but he doesn’t think he can share a lot. The Cold War against Russia was in full force.

“The most significant is probably still classified,” he said, smiling. “I’ve never been told I could release it, other than it involved being in water heavily foreign and against their submarines.

“We were still way ahead of the rest of our enemies. We were kept in patrol, and the Russians tried to stay in track of us, but we were able to know where they were and stay tracking distance with them wherever they went.

“But most of the time, we spent operating with the fleet, with surface ships, to teach the U.S. Navy what they were up against with the nuclear submarines, in simulated attacks.”

He also recalls the two nuclear submarines lost to accidents at sea, and he knew crew members killed on both the USS Thresher and USS Scorpion. The Thresher sank in April 1963 during deep-diving tests east of Cape Cod, Mass., and an investigation found a “most likely” cause was a piping system failure that allowed flooding of the engine room.

The source of the May 1968 tragedy on the Scorpion is uncertain, Fogarty said.

Early in his career, Fogarty served on two diesel-powered subs: Tiru and Queenfish. He also did a tour much later on the USS John Marshall. His final duty was in the Pentagon as operations officer in the Submarine Warfare Division. He earned a master’s degree in administration from George Washington University before retiring from the Navy in 1970.

After his Navy retirement, Fogarty returned west to the Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls. That job stretched more than 22 years and took him to brief stints in Butte, Mont., and for the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Raised in Great Falls, Mont., Fogarty married high school girlfriend Dorothy Reilly after graduation from the Naval Academy in 1948. They were together 67 years until her death in 2015. They have 10 children, 21 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. He moved to Spokane in 2015 to be near family.

Fogarty has never been idle. In his retirement, he ran a 40-acre ranch in Idaho Falls where he created pheasant habitat, raised cows and built a model train museum in a barn, inviting school groups. He later donated his train collection to the Cheyenne Depot Museum. He also liked to hike and do outdoors activities while being active in the Catholic community.