This 60 Day Submarine Voyage in 1960 Tested the Psychological and Physical Limits of Crew

This 60 Day Submarine Voyage in 1960 Tested the Psychological and Physical Limits of Crew

Larry Holzwarth - February 26, 2020

A ship conducts a shakedown cruise after its construction is complete, or after a lengthy period of refit and repair in a shipyard. USS Triton used its shakedown cruise for another purpose entirely. America’s then newest nuclear submarine steamed around the world, remaining submerged for the entire cruise. It followed, as closely as possible, the route followed by Magellan’s ships during the first around the world voyage in the 16th century. Triton’s achievement was more than a propaganda victory, displaying America’s superiority in the use of nuclear power. It was a clear demonstration that American submarines could go anywhere on earth where the water was deep enough to accommodate them.

This 60 Day Submarine Voyage in 1960 Tested the Psychological and Physical Limits of Crew
USS Triton had a short but dramatic career with the US Navy. US Navy

Triton was commanded on its epic first voyage by Captain Edward L. Beach Jr. Beach was a World War II veteran (12 war patrols), a published author, and a former Naval Aide to President Eisenhower. His book Run Silent Run Deep had been made into a popular motion picture starring Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster two years earlier. Beach took command of Triton after completing nuclear power training, and was actively involved in preparing the boat – the Navy has long called submarines boats – for its epic first voyage. The crew was not informed of the magnitude of their boat’s first voyage. Not until they were underway and submerged did the crew of Triton learn they had embarked on a voyage unlike any other in history. Here is its story.

This 60 Day Submarine Voyage in 1960 Tested the Psychological and Physical Limits of Crew
The course taken by USS Triton during its submerged circumnavigation in 1960. US Navy

1. The voyage was an opportunity to observe the psychological impact of long submergence

In 1960, the United States Navy was preparing to launch the first Polaris submerged ballistic missile submarine deterrence patrols. Polaris submarines were designed to remain at sea, submerged, for ten weeks or more. Data on the psychological impact of such deployment was scarce; Triton’s long voyage would add to the bed of knowledge on the subject. Accordingly, Dr. Benjamin Weybrew joined the ship as a supernumerary, to interview and test volunteers among the crew over the course of the voyage. Other supernumeraries included photographer (and Naval Reserve Officer) Joseph Roberts. Roberts would record the voyage for National Geographic Magazine.

Triton provided the test bed for a new form of underwater navigation, the Ships Inertial Navigation System (SINS). Up to the development of SINS ships, including submarines, used the centuries-old means of sighting celestial bodies to determine their position and navigate to their destination. Triton had a periscope with a sextant built-in for that very purpose. SINS was a critical component of the Polaris missile system, and during the voyage of Triton, the system would be tested by comparing its data to that obtained through the use of observations via the sextant. As these preparations – and many others – were completed the crew of Triton remained in the dark about the upcoming voyage.

This 60 Day Submarine Voyage in 1960 Tested the Psychological and Physical Limits of Crew
Commissioning ceremony for USS Triton at the US Navy Submarine Base New London. US Navy

2. Triton was a uniquely configured American submarine

Each of the first eight American nuclear submarines was purpose built, and considerably different from its immediate predecessor. USS Nautilus, for example, was built to prove the suitability of nuclear power for submarine operations. USS Skate was designed to crack through the Arctic ice, proving the ability to operate successfully in those waters. Triton was designed as a radar picket submarine. After World War II, the surface Navy task force was centered on the aircraft carrier. Ships of the task force needed advanced radar pickets to give them sufficient warning of an attack so they would be able to respond and defend themselves. Picket destroyers were vulnerable to attack. Picket submarines were safer.

In order to perform suitably as a radar picket, the submarine needed to be fast enough to keep up with the task force it guarded. For that reason, Triton was equipped with two nuclear reactors, which drove two screws. It was the only American submarine built to such a configuration. It was also designed with a knife-edge bow, making it as fast on the surface as it was submerged, a rarity in a submarine. During its initial sea trials in late 1959, Triton registered a surface speed which exceeded 35 miles per hour, a feat the ship repeated while submerged. Triton was also the last American submarine to include an after-torpedo room, allowing it to fire weapons from both stern and bow.

This 60 Day Submarine Voyage in 1960 Tested the Psychological and Physical Limits of Crew
Triton’s knife-edge bow with bulbous forefoot, and its twin reactors, gave it unbefore reaching submerged speeds. US Navy

3. Triton was the largest submarine ever built at the time

There were other reasons which rendered Triton the most suitable boat in America’s arsenal for an around-the-world cruise. Triton was the largest submarine ever built by any navy at the time it first entered the water in 1959. The boat was over 447 feet in length. Nonetheless, as with all submarines, its interior was cramped. Every nook and cranny was crammed with the equipment necessary for it to complete its mission. Besides equipment, it accommodated the crew with 96 bunks. There were separate quarters for Chief Petty Officers, known as the goat locker among the rest of the crew (from “old goats”). Triton’s status as the longest American submarine wasn’t surpassed until 1981 (USS Ohio).

Triton also had the largest sail of any American submarine, a record it retains. The large sail was necessary to house the various masts and antennae needed for it to perform its duties as a radar picket. It also housed the navigational periscope, designated Number One scope, with the built-in sextant. One thing Triton did not have was the ability to generate oxygen, a capability later shared by all American submarines. The lack of oxygen generators meant Triton would have to operate at periscope depth daily throughout the voyage, using the snorkel to ventilate the submarine and provide fresh air. Captain Beach was preparing Triton for its shakedown cruise when he received orders to attend a top-secret meeting in Washington on February 4, 1960.

This 60 Day Submarine Voyage in 1960 Tested the Psychological and Physical Limits of Crew
The route for the voyage was prepared in secret, with the crew left uninformed of their mission. US Navy

4. Operation Sandblast was the name given for the proposed circumnavigation

When Captain Beach returned to New London and Triton after the Washington meeting, his crew noticed some unusual goings-on. There was nothing strange about civilian factory representatives aboard for a shakedown cruise (there was one from Sperry to monitor SINS, as well as one from Electric Boat, which built Triton). But the presence of two additional photographers, as well as other officers with scientific backgrounds and credentials was unusual. So were the inordinately large number of supplies being loaded aboard the submarine, especially foodstuffs. It was quickly clear to the crew that they were about to embark on more than a mere shakedown cruise.

Captain Beach allowed a cover story to circulate that after completing its shakedown cruise Triton was to call at Caribbean ports. For sailors in New London, Connecticut, the idea of a Caribbean port call in February was appealing. Only three men in Triton besides Beach – all of whom were involved in preparing the cruise track for the mission – were aware they were embarking on a mission of which, “for reasons of the national interest it had been decided that the voyage should be made entirely submerged, undetected by our own or other forces and completed as soon as possible”.

This 60 Day Submarine Voyage in 1960 Tested the Psychological and Physical Limits of Crew
Beach was a prolific writer, including the story behind the popular 1958 film, Run Silent Run Deep. MGM

5. The Navy intended to release the narrative of the cruise to the public once it was completed

Captain Beach noted in his prologue to the ship’s cruise narrative that it was intended for public consumption. “For these reasons, the normal naval style will have been expanded in the narrative section to follow”, he wrote. Beach noted that when possible conversations and other descriptive passages were included in the official document, “in non-restricted and non-technical language”. Captain Beach’s previous success as a novelist placed him in good stead as the author of the document, which was titled, USS Triton SSRN 586 First Submerged Circumnavigation *1960*. He also noted that due to its immense size and power, Triton was referred to as a ship, rather than a boat, by the men in the vessel.

The narrative indicated that the crew, although it did not know the specifics of the mission, was well aware something unusual was contemplated. Beach credited the crew with keeping the evident length of the mission quiet, even from their families. Although they were scheduled to depart in February, the crew was told to complete their tax returns before departure, or arrange for them to be completed in their absence. That told them they would be gone beyond April 15. On February 16, 1960, Triton departed New London, eased down the Thames River, and entered Block Island Sound. Just over three hours later the ship submerged. Beach noted in the log, “We will be coming to periscope depth occasionally, but we shall not surface until May”.

This 60 Day Submarine Voyage in 1960 Tested the Psychological and Physical Limits of Crew
Triton’s launch at Electric Boat, Groton, Connecticut. US Navy

6. Life aboard a nuclear submarine is unique among ships of the United States Navy

Daily life aboard a nuclear submarine can never be fully explained to those who haven’t had the experience. The only privacy to be had, other than for the senior officers, is when one is in one’s bunk, called racks by the sailors. Even that is limited. Showers are timed, in the early days of nuclear submarines limited to three minutes, with the flow of water cut off while “soaping up”. Waking hours are spent on watch, or on working on qualifications, or maintaining equipment. Even after qualifying in submarines and winning the right to wear dolphins – the pin insignia of the submariner – there are additional qualifications to be earned.

Meals are taken in shifts, often served family-style. For leisure periods, especially in 1960, there were reading, board games, movies, and cards. Poker, pinochle, and cribbage were popular. The sailors were subjected to the constant hum of machinery and fans, the announcements over the ship’s intercoms, the smell of cooking, the smell of cleaning, and the smell of human beings. Cleaning the ship was almost constant activity, yet weekly, “field days” of intensive cleaning and maintenance were still required. In the 1960s sailors were allowed to smoke in submarines, except when certain conditions demanded the “smoking lamp” extinguished. One of the studies conducted during the circumnavigation was the effect on smokers’ performance when denied access to nicotine for extended periods. It was not a popular experiment.

This 60 Day Submarine Voyage in 1960 Tested the Psychological and Physical Limits of Crew
Captain Beach announcing the circumnavigation to the crew while underway. US Navy

7. The circumnavigation began and ended at St. Peter and Paul Rocks

On February 17, at noon, Captain Beach announced to the officers and crew under his command the true nature of the voyage upon which they had embarked. “As I reveal our intention over the general announcing system, there is a most attentive audience”, he noted. The circumnavigation had not yet begun. St. Peter and Paul rocks, off the coast of Brazil, were the starting and ending point for that phase of the cruise. The decision to follow the track of Ferdinand Magellan as closely as possible dictated the circumnavigation based on land sighted by the 16th century explorer. The following day the ship received notice that one of the crew had become a father. No opportunity to reply to the message was presented.

After just a few days at sea Beach noted that the requirement to come to periscope depth each night for an hour or more was retarding the ship’s progress behind projected schedules. Coming to periscope depth slowed the huge submarine, which had to rise slowly and in stages, in order to ensure that there were no ships on the surface which posed a collision hazard. Beach decided to use the speed built into Triton during the periods of deeper submergence to make up the time lost. That too posed hazards; much of the sea floor remained uncharted, and unknown seamounts waited to wreck a submarine moving blindly at high speed. Triton charted several previously unknown seamounts during the long voyage, using a fathometer and active sonar.

This 60 Day Submarine Voyage in 1960 Tested the Psychological and Physical Limits of Crew
Beach’s narration of the voyage included a description of the codes used in hydrographic bottles. US Government Printing Office

8. Triton released hydrographic bottles during the cruise around the world

One of the projects in which Triton engaged during its cruise was the release of hydrographic bottles. The bottles were loaded with forms, written in multiple languages, which asked whoever found them to deliver them to the nearest office of the US government, with a description of when and where the bottle was found. They were literally messages in a bottle, Triton found standard medicine bottles served the purpose. The submarine was equipped with a signal ejector. Bottles placed in the ejector contained enough air to allow them to float to the surface, without the need of forcefully ejecting them. Several of Triton’s bottles were found and returned to the United States.

The hydrographic bottles created a concern for Beach in regard to his orders. Beach was directed to complete the circumnavigation undetected by any forces, including those of the United States. The messages, if they identified Triton, could lead to such detection. Accordingly, messages were written in a cryptic code. Nothing could be directly linked to Triton, Captain Beach, or anything else beyond the message’s stated purpose – scientific research charting ocean currents. All of the messages were written using carbon paper and the carbons retained for later comparison with the returned message. The idea of using the ancient method of a message in a sealed bottle cast into the sea combined with nuclear technology was bizarre, but an important part of Triton’s mission.

This 60 Day Submarine Voyage in 1960 Tested the Psychological and Physical Limits of Crew
Captain Beach at the periscope during the cruise, through which he often allowed the crew to view sights. US Navy

9. Captain Beach attempted to establish a ship’s routine early in the cruise

The commanding officer of a US Naval ship has no shortage of drills at his disposal, and the ability to create new ones of his own. Early in the cruise, Captain Beach decided daily drills of all sorts were paramount to the ship’s readiness and the crew’s morale. Drills were conducted after the noon meal, after a test of all of the ship’s various alarms. Beach scheduled the alarm tests first, for them to serve as a sort of reveille for the portion of the crew sleeping following their watch. In addition, though cleaning of spaces and equipment was a duty of every watch stander, weekly “field days” were held, periods of deep cleaning of the ship and equipment maintenance.

To help morale, Beach used the time at periscope depth for star sights and ventilation to attempt to find radio broadcasts. Radiomen monitored the broadcasts, when found, and provided the news, or sports scores, to editors of the ship’s newspaper. Beach recommended in his narrative of the voyage, “For morale purposes alone, during the extremely long submergences now practicable, it appears desirable that daily digests of general news be transmitted over official circuits”. Triton was the first American submarine to avail itself of the Very Low Frequency (VLF) antenna, which was capable of receiving broadcasts over extremely long distances.

This 60 Day Submarine Voyage in 1960 Tested the Psychological and Physical Limits of Crew
Captain Beach wearing a jacket bearing the Triton’s crew patch in 1960. US Navy

10. The garbage ejector threatened the success of the mission on February 22

Submarines disposed of their garbage through a device which had two hatches, one opening to the sea, the other to the inner hull of the ship. They were designed so that only one door could be opened at a time, preventing accidental flooding through misoperation. On February 22, the outer door jammed open, and the use of the garbage ejector was suspended. Garbage aboard a submarine builds up at astonishing speed, and there are few options regarding where it can be stored, even for short periods of time. The use of torpedo tubes to eject the garbage was considered. Beach favored the idea, his torpedo officer did not.

In the end, crewmen cleared the jam. The incident marked one of the inconsistencies of submarine life – indeed all military life. Handling and disposing of garbage are unpleasant tasks, usually given to a junior and relatively inexperienced hand. Yet the consequences of error based on inexperience could be catastrophic. When the jam was cleared the cause was determined to be one likely the result of inexperience, over-greasing the mechanism, from, “an excess of enthusiasm against which we shall hereafter guard ourselves”, according to Beach’s narration of the event. Two days later, St. Peter and Paul Rocks were sighted, and the circumnavigation of the globe officially began.

This 60 Day Submarine Voyage in 1960 Tested the Psychological and Physical Limits of Crew
Crossing the equator ceremonies were a longstanding tradition among sailors of all navies. US Navy

11. Triton crossed the equator – the first of four crossings – on February 24

Crossing the equator is a rite of passage in many of the Navies of the world. Until one has crossed the equator and been initiated by the Court of King Neptune as a Shellback, one is a Pollywog. Pollywog’s are deemed unworthy of entering Neptune’s reign, and those that do are tried by the King and his court. Similar initiations exist for crossing the Arctic Circle (Bluenose) and the International Date Line (Golden Dragon). Shellbacks make the initiation ceremony as uncomfortable as possible for the Pollywogs, beginning many days before the actual ceremony, with exaggerated tales of what the newcomers should expect. For the purpose of the initiation, the niceties of naval rank were suspended. All Pollywogs received equally bad treatment.

The initiation was, to put it mildly, a messy one, which involved grease, various malodorous fluids concocted by the more twisted-minded of the crew, and the elaborately costumed court of King Neptune and his “queen”. The heaviest Shellback of the crew was garbed as the “Royal Baby”. Pollywogs emerged from the ordeal covered with the slime and were rinsed with salt water. Initiation was necessarily followed by extensive cleaning of the crew and the ship. Triton crossed the equator times more during the cruise, but no further initiations were necessary. All of the Pollywogs were elevated to the superior status of Shellbacks at the first, and their service records were annotated with the information.

This 60 Day Submarine Voyage in 1960 Tested the Psychological and Physical Limits of Crew
Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of Tierra del Fuego. Wikimedia

12. Triton encountered several crises in the region of Cape Horn

On March 1, Triton suffered what appeared to be a potentially major casualty. The ship’s fathometer failed. Without the fathometer, the submarine could not follow the contours of the seabed, used to both confirm its position by noting known seamounts, and to guide the vessel through waters which were less well-charted without fear of grounding or collision. Readings on the reactor controls indicated a problem serious enough to warrant shutting down one of the reactors. And one of the crew, Chief Radarman John Poole, suffered the first of a series of attacks of kidney stones, a medical emergency with which the ship was ill-equipped to contend. Only two weeks into the voyage its success was severely threatened by the three problems.

Technicians among the crew repaired the fathometer and corrected the reactor problem within a few hours. Poole’s situation was more problematic. His symptoms were sporadic, and after consultation, Beach decided to continue the voyage toward Cape Horn and the Pacific. Two days later, Triton prepared to perform a photographic survey of Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands, using the periscope. Poole’s condition worsened that day, and Beach reversed course, racing northeast at flank speed. A radio message was dispatched informing the Commander, Submarines, Atlantic (SUBLANT) of the situation. The heavy cruiser USS Macon was sent to rendezvous with Triton near Montevideo, Uruguay on March 5.

This 60 Day Submarine Voyage in 1960 Tested the Psychological and Physical Limits of Crew
USS Macon, a cruiser, as it appeared circa 1960. US Navy

13. Triton transferred the ill radioman without surfacing on March 5

Triton took advantage of its large sail to transfer Chief Poole without surfacing on March 5. The submarine broached, hovering at just above periscope depth with a small portion of the sail protruding above the surface. The rest of the submarine, including the entire hull, remained submerged. Macon dispatched a whaleboat, which approached alongside the protruded sail, and Chief Poole was transferred to it, and carried to the cruiser. Before he was aboard the latter ship, Triton was again beneath the waves, having not surfaced to accomplish the transfer. Poole was examined in Montevideo and did not require surgery. He did not return to Triton.

On March 7 Triton rounded Cape Horn, using the Drake Passage. All members of the crew were allowed to view the Cape via the periscope, which forced Triton to reverse course several times to accommodate them all. After entering the Pacific, the submarine steered for Easter Island. The ship’s routine was modified, Wednesday was assigned the status of Rope Yarn Sunday, a traditional Naval routine in which drills and other scheduled events were suspended. Personal time was allowed for leisure, clothing maintenance, private study, and in general relief from ship’s routine. During the high-speed run to deliver Poole to medical care Beach reported he was astounded at the submerged speeds of which Triton was capable, and noted that the ship could easily be even faster.

This 60 Day Submarine Voyage in 1960 Tested the Psychological and Physical Limits of Crew
Beach spotted one of the famed Easter Island statues by persicope as Triton passed the island. Wikimedia

14. Triton photographed statues on Easter Island through its periscope

When the explorer, Thor Heyerdahl visited Easter Island, he restored one of the fabled ancient statues to its perch, recording its location. Through the use of the periscope Captain Beach spotted Heyerdahl’s statue, “right where he said it was”. Several other statues were sighted at a distance, which made them indistinguishable. Beach reported the sighting to his crew over the general announcement circuit, and invited anyone who wanted to view the statue to come up to see it through the periscope. Submariners called such a privilege, which is relatively rare, “periscope liberty”, another small break from the grinding routine which marked extended submerged voyages.

From Easter Island Triton’s next destination was the island of Guam, some 6,800 miles to the west by north. The journey to Guam included the second crossing of the Equator, from south to north. Triton crossed the line on March 19, and Captain Beach noted of this second crossing, “King Neptune had apparently passed the word along the line; for none of his minions delayed our passage, and Triton suffered to cross the boundary in peace”. The following day Triton reached the closest point to Pearl Harbor of the cruise, and the crew celebrated with a submerged Hawaiian Luau, complete with Hawaiian costumes and hula dances.

This 60 Day Submarine Voyage in 1960 Tested the Psychological and Physical Limits of Crew
Several events during the cruise indicated the sailors had some idea of what they were about to do before departing. US Navy

15. The costumes of the luau suggested that some of the crew suspected they were going to the Pacific all along

Several elements of the luau celebrated over their proximity to Pearl Harbor indicated that there may have been foreknowledge among the crew of Triton’s true mission. Beach noted of the luau, “Many aloha shirts are in evidence and a number of beachcomber outfits. Several of the crew have either found or in some manner manufactured straw hats, and despite the crowded conditions existing just before we shoved off from New London, to my amazement a King-size guitar and a set of bongo drums suddenly appear”. There was also poi, a dish made from taro root, seldom found in the cuisine of the North Atlantic, where Triton was believed to be going for shakedown when it departed New London.

To that point on the cruise, Beach made an interesting discovery. On long runs submerged, regardless of speed, currents had less effect on course deviations than when running on the surface. “Deep waters run still”, he quipped. Captain Beach found navigating by dead-reckoning – an estimation of position based on course and speed – far more accurate in submerged operations than could be expected on the surface. It was confirmed when the telescope sextant failed temporarily on the day after the luau. Beach charted by dead reckoning while his technicians repaired the scope, and its restored measurements confirmed the accuracy of his charts. The famed ocean currents were only found closer to the surface.

This 60 Day Submarine Voyage in 1960 Tested the Psychological and Physical Limits of Crew
Ordinarily, crossing the International Date Line requires another initiation ceremony, but Triton was exempted. US Navy

16. Triton crossed the International Date Line on March 23

Crossing the International Date Line traditionally required an initiation similar to that of crossing the Equator, though the initiates enter the Order of the Golden Dragon. Beach reported in his narrative that a message was received from King Neptune, lauding the crew’s behavior when they first crossed the Equator. Neptune was so pleased, according to Captain Beach, that he had already enrolled all of Triton’s crew into the Order of the Golden Dragon. Hence, no further initiation was necessary. Nonetheless, March 24, 1960, was eliminated from the lives of Triton’s crew. March 23 became March 25. In addition, 24 consecutive days would be worked as being 25 hours long.

As Triton crossed the Pacific, numerous sea mounts and areas of shoaling, previously unknown, were detected by the fathometer and active forward sonar. They were charted by Triton’s quartermasters, location, expanse, and height all being added to the US Navy’s knowledge of the floor of the Pacific Ocean. The submarine continued moving forward steadily, encountered numerous problems with equipment, which were quickly and proficiently repaired by the ship’s crew. On Sunday, March 27, a memorial service was held for the crew of USS Triton, a diesel submarine sunk by the Japanese during World War II. The service was held as Triton passed with 800 miles of the position where it was believed the first Triton was sunk.

This 60 Day Submarine Voyage in 1960 Tested the Psychological and Physical Limits of Crew
Guam was developed into a Polaris submarine support base in the early 1960s. US Navy

17. Guam was surveyed by photographic means as Triton passed

Guam was a point of special attention for Triton. It was at the time scheduled to serve as the advanced base in the Pacific Ocean for the Polaris submarines (Holy Loch, in Scotland, and Rota, Spain, were the advanced sites for the North Atlantic and Mediterranean, respectively). As such, it could be expected to be under surveillance by Soviet submarines at some point in what was then the future. Triton photographed Guam extensively, albeit furtively. Late that night an aircraft was detected on radar, evidently closing on Triton. Accordingly, Beach ordered Triton deep to avoid detection. That night red and green lights were reported during a star sighting.

Beach feared the submarine had been spotted, possibly by an American airplane operating out of Guam, and again ordered Triton to go deep. A few hours later, during another attempted start sighting, the same red and green lights were reported on the same bearing. It was agreed that the “airplane” was the star Arcturus, which was on the same bearing, and which sometimes appeared red and green due to the refraction caused by water spray, or droplets on the scope. With the fathometer again out of commission and deemed unrepairable out of drydock, Triton relied on its active sonar to follow the ocean’s bottom as it steered for the Philippine Trench and the islands where Beach had extensive service during the Second World War.

This 60 Day Submarine Voyage in 1960 Tested the Psychological and Physical Limits of Crew
A young Filipino stares at the periscope in Philippines waters, April 1, 1960. US Navy

18. Triton spent several days traversing the Philippines

The Philippines were where Ferdinand Magellan lost his life during his expedition’s circumnavigation, leaving others to complete it in his name. When Triton reached the spot where Magellan is alleged to have died, it had already traveled close to 20,000 miles. In Philippine waters, Triton encountered numerous ships going about their business. They were used as drill targets for several exercises as the submarine simultaneously maneuvered to avoid detection and stay out of their way. On several occasions off the Philippines, Beach raised the periscope to see people in rafts looking directly at him. One even waved at the periscope. On April 1, Beach raised the periscope and discovered a young man in a dugout canoe, looking directly at the glass of the device.

The young Filipino, looked back and forth in the water before returning his gaze to the periscope, an indication that he had spotted the hull of the submarine beneath the surface. Beach ordered the scope lowered, waited a few minutes, and raised it again. The young man was still there, staring into the scope as it broke the surface. Beach again lowered the scope and ordered the submarine to move ahead of the dugout canoe. When he raised the scope yet again for another look, the young man was paddling hard in the opposite direction, away from whatever it was he thought he had seen. Triton returned to its planned course through the Celebes Sea to the Lombok Strait, bound for the Indian Ocean.

This 60 Day Submarine Voyage in 1960 Tested the Psychological and Physical Limits of Crew
USS Triton (SS 201) was lost to the Japanese during World War II. US Navy

19. Triton encountered diverse shipping as it traveled toward Lombok Strait

During World War II, the Lombok Strait was a major route used by Allied submarines operating out of Australia. One such was USS Bullhead, lost on August 6, 1945, just days before the war ended. Bullhead had been commanded by E.R. Holt, known as Skillet, an Annapolis classmate and close friend of Captain Beach. Triton passed directly over the position where Japanese records reported Bullhead had been sunk, and Beach noted the fact in his narrative. Shipping throughout the area was heavy and of many types, including Naval vessels and Coastal Patrol ships and boats. Triton made its way cautiously down the strait, aware of its mandate to remain undetected.

During the afternoon of April 5, Triton passed Bali, where periscope liberty was again granted. What conversation occurred between crewmen who waited in line to view the island can be surmised from Beach’s comment in the narrative, “incidentally, despite all argument, the song Bali Hi was not written about Bali”. Later that afternoon Triton entered the Indian Ocean, bound for the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of the African continent. On Sunday, April 10, Triton began a sealed-ship experiment, which proved one of the least popular evolutions of the entire voyage. The ship was scheduled to remain sealed, meaning it would not ventilate the air, for a period of two weeks. Oxygen was bled into the atmosphere from banks, and oxygen candles were burned.

This 60 Day Submarine Voyage in 1960 Tested the Psychological and Physical Limits of Crew
Captain Beach frequently resorted to “periscope liberty” to help bolster morale. US Navy

20. The sealed ship experiment included a smoking ban

At midnight on April 15, the smoking lamp was extinguished throughout the ship. Of the crew of 183 including supernumeraries, just under half of the men were smokers, including Captain Beach. On Monday, April 18 at midnight, the smoking lamp was lighted. The results of the experiment were as expected, increased tensions among some, less ability to concentrate among others. Some of the men contravened the ban by chewing tobacco, another indication of foreknowledge of some of the plans for the cruise. Not until 2010 did the Navy announce a ban on smoking in submerged submarines. After the smoking lamp was lighted – which Beach announced by strolling about the ship smoking a cigar – most of the crew resumed immediately.

On Monday, April 25, Triton crossed the Equator for the fourth time. Later that date Triton arrived at the starting point for the circumnavigation, completing the around-the-world voyage in exactly 60 days, 21 hours, by the count of the men in the submarine. A person sitting on Saint Peter’s Rock, waiting for them to return, would have counted 61 days, the difference being the day lost to the men of Triton when they crossed the International Date Line. They traveled 26,723 nautical miles at an average speed for the entire journey submerged of 18 nautical miles per hour (knots). Circling St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s, Triton remained submerged and awaited the next step of the epic voyage, which was not yet over, despite the completion of the world’s first submerged tour.

This 60 Day Submarine Voyage in 1960 Tested the Psychological and Physical Limits of Crew
Triton’s sail, photographed from USS Weeks off Cadiz. US Navy

21. Triton next journeyed to Tenerife, off the coast of Spain

Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, was the next destination for Triton. In Magellan’s day, the island served as a stopping point for ship’s departing Cadiz. The necessities of drinking water and firewood for this ship’s stoves were more cheaply obtainable at the port. It was the last European settlement seen by Magellan before he departed on his final voyage of exploration. In 1798, Tenerife was also the site of an action during the Napoleonic wars. A British expedition led by Rear Admiral Horatio Nelson was repulsed in a bloody assault. Nelson was severely wounded, which led to the loss of his arm.

Triton did another photographic survey of the island, largely for the benefit of the National Geographic Society. It then journeyed to a point off Cadiz to rendezvous with the destroyer USS Weeks. Triton remained submerged for the rendezvous, during which a plaque was delivered to the submarine as it again broached. Triton then turned for New London and home, 3,000 miles to the west, on May 2. Beach closed his narrative of the voyage with the comment, “Triton’s undersea voyage has accomplished something of value for our country”. He added, “The sea may yet hold the key to the salvation of man and his civilization”, and dedicated the voyage, “to the people of the United States”.

This 60 Day Submarine Voyage in 1960 Tested the Psychological and Physical Limits of Crew
A helicopter arriving to carry Captain Beach to the White House, May 10, 1960. US Navy

22. The mission was announced to the world on May 10, 1960

Triton finally surfaced near Rehoboth Beach, Delaware on May 10. Captain Beach was flown by helicopter to the White House, where President Eisenhower announced the circumnavigation with Beach and Admiral Hyman Rickover in attendance. Beach then returned to his ship and continued on to New London. Triton moored at the Naval Submarine Base on the Thames River on May 11. The entire cruise took 84 days, 83 of which the ship was submerged. In total, the ship covered over 36,000 nautical miles on its first voyage. It released 144 hydrographic bottles to chart ocean currents, mapped previously uncharted seamounts, reefs, and other hazards to submerged navigation, and recorded previously unobserved variations in the earth’s gravitational field.

Triton also successfully tested and evaluated the Ship’s Inertial Navigation System (SINS) which was essential to the success of the Polaris missile program. Its voyage also saw the first use of the Very Low Frequency (VLF) radio communications system, with the submarine floating a trailing buoy to receive transmissions. The psychological studies of the men during the long deployment led to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology informing NASA, “getting to the moon and back was simpler than guiding an antiballistic missile or circumnavigating the earth underwater in a nuclear submarine”. Official celebrations of Triton’s achievement were canceled before the submarine returned to its New London pier.

This 60 Day Submarine Voyage in 1960 Tested the Psychological and Physical Limits of Crew
The shooting down of Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 aircraft damaged diplomatic relations with the USSR and dampened celebrations over Triton’s achievement. US Air Force

23. Cold War politics muffled Triton’s achievement in official Washington

Triton’s epic voyage, which remains the fastest circumnavigation of the earth by sea at 60 days, was intended to boost Eisenhower’s and America’s prestige at the Paris Summit in May 1960. Before Triton returned to port Gary Powers’ U-2 was shot down over the Soviet Union. The summit was canceled. Washington acknowledged the achievement, and the crew was officially commended, but celebrations were muted by the increased tension of the U-2 incident, and growing concerns over Cuba. Triton’s narrative was published, though portions were redacted by Navy censors, concerned that it revealed too much of the submarine’s spying capabilities at a time when diplomatic relations with the Soviets were at a new low.

The news media covered the voyage extensively, thrilled when the many photographs taken during the cruise were released to the press. National Geographic magazine published many of the photographs, for some Americans it was the first glimpse inside one of the new nuclear submarines. Look, Life, and the Saturday Evening Post (the latter written by Beach) all ran articles on the cruise, as did many newspapers, especially along the East Coast. Beach and several members of the crew appeared on television, where all but the Captain enhanced the reputation of the submarine service as being the “silent service”. Captain Beach also made many speaking engagements where he discussed the circumnavigation and the benefits derived from it by the US Navy and the scientific community.

This 60 Day Submarine Voyage in 1960 Tested the Psychological and Physical Limits of Crew
Triton is the inboard boat alongside the tender Howard W. Gilmore in Puerto Rico, 1964. US Navy

24. Triton served the US Navy for 9 years

USS Triton, famed for its circumnavigation, was rendered obsolete as a radar picket with the introduction of Airborne Early-Warning Aircraft which operated directly from aircraft carriers. After only two years of service, Triton was out of a job. It was too large for many of the covert operations conducted by the Navy during the Cold War, as well as somewhat noisy. In 1962, it was converted to an attack submarine, a mission for which its design was unsuited. Due to being refueled in 1969 – an expensive undertaking given its twin reactors – it was instead decommissioned and placed in storage in St. Julien’s Creek, Portsmouth, Virginia. It remained there until 1993.

The ship was recycled beginning in 2007, at Puget Sound, a process which was completed in 2009. Only the sail of the submarine exists today, part of a memorial park in Richland, Washington. Captain Edward L. Beach retired from the Navy in 1966. He wrote numerous books, both fiction and non-fiction, and published articles in magazines of both entertainment and technical natures. His narrative of the circumnavigation, which is available online, was called by the book critic at The New York Times “a literary product in its own right rivals in spots the suspense and drama of an adventure from the pages of Captain Hornblower”.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The ABC’s of Stress: A Submarine Psychologists Perspective”. Dr. Benjamin B. Weybrew. 1992

“Beneath the Waves: The Life and Navy of Capt. Edward L. Beach Jr.” Edward F. Finch. 2010

“Cold War Submarines: The Design and Construction of US and Soviet Submarines”. Norman Polmar, J. K. Moore. 2005

“USS Triton SSRN 586 First Submerged Circumnavigation 1960”. Capt. Edward L. Beach. 1960. Online

“Around the World Submerged: The Voyage of the Triton”. Capt. Edward L. Beach. 1962. Online

“SSN-586 Triton”. Article, Global Security. Online

“The Modern Magellans”. Article, The New York Times. May 13, 1960

“When Triton Circumnavigated the Globe”. Edward H. Lundquist, Defense Media Network. September 1, 2013. Online

“A Letter From the Commanding Officer of USS Triton”. Capt. Edward L. Beach, Proceedings. July 1960

“Sea Power Confronts the Twenty-first Century: An Interview with Edward L. Beach”. Nathan Miller, American Heritage Magazine. April/May, 1993