Eugene P. Wilkinson, a retired Navy vice admiral who helped guide the early development of the Navy’s nuclear-powered fleet and who commanded the Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine, when it was launched in the 1950s, died July 11 at his home in Del Mar, Calif. He was 94.
A son, Stephen Wilkinson, confirmed the death but did not provide a cause.
Adm. Wilkinson, who also held the initial command of the Navy’s first nuclear-powered surface ship in the early 1960s, had taught college-level chemistry and mathematics before serving aboard submarines during World War II.
His dual background as a professor and naval officer caught the attention of Adm. Hyman G. Rickover, who directed the Navy’s postwar program in nuclear propulsion. Historical accounts have noted that Rickover selected Adm. Wilkinson at least in part because he did not attend the U.S. Naval Academy and had an independent approach to shipbuilding and sailing.
Rickover’s nuclear program was controversial among Navy brass, but President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave it a boost in his 1953 “Atoms for Peace” speech at the United Nations, in which he called for constructive uses of nuclear energy. The next year, first lady Mamie Eisenhower christened the Nautilus.
The Nautilus carried the same name as an early submarine built by Robert Fulton and the underwater vessel featured in Jules Verne’s 1870 novel “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.” It became one of the Navy’s most celebrated postwar achievements, as members of Congress, scientists and journalists flocked for the chance to climb aboard the 319-foot vessel.
Adm. Wilkinson, then with the rank of commander, led the submarine’s crew of 11 officers and 85 enlisted men as it left its berth in Groton, Conn., on Jan. 17, 1955. He sent a terse cable from the Nautilus, which has entered naval lore and is engraved on the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington: “Underway on nuclear power.”
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