The assignment William T. Anderson (1921-2007) received from US President Dwight D. Eisenhower was as urgent as it was secret. As commander of the USS Nautilus, he was to prove to the whole world that the United States could technically keep up with the USSR after it had clinched a propaganda victory in the Cold War with the launch of the Sputnik satellite in October 1957. However, Anderson's goal was not in space, but at the 90th parallel, the North Pole.
There were good reasons why no one knew about “Operation Sunshine” apart from the President, a few high-ranking staff and those directly involved. Because the company used the most modern weapon system in the USA, which had already tried twice in vain to reach the North Pole, under water of course. Because the "Nautilus" was the first nuclear submarine in the world. Their failure would have meant a fatal loss of prestige.
Captain William T. Anderson came from a rural community in Tennessee and had enlisted in the submarine force during World War II. This made him one of the most experienced U-boat commanders. After various assignments, he was appointed to the "Nautilus" in 1957.
At the end of the Second World War, the Americans learned that submarines weren't just good for hunting ships. After the surrender of Japan, they unexpectedly surrendered to three huge underwater aircraft carriers that had approached unnoticed with several bombers aboard the US fleet. These boats - at 120 meters a quarter longer than the "Nautilus" - were designed to attack New York or Washington and later the locks of the Panama Canal with aircraft. Their range was 70,000 kilometers.
These strategic weapons were sunk off Hawaii in 1946 in order to keep these strategic weapons from being accessed by the world war partner, the Soviet Union. Six years later, the "Nautilus" was laid on keel. Their main armament was still torpedoes and not rockets. But with her nuclear propulsion she was superior to all conventional submarines in terms of speed and diving ability. Mamie Eisenhower, the wife of the US President, was able to christen the ship in January 1954.
In contrast to the huge underwater cruisers with which Japan had wanted to attack the USA and which did not even have proper toilets on board, the "Nautilus" was luxuriously equipped. Since propulsion and fuel required much less space, the boat had a cinema room, a library and even a jukebox. State-of-the-art filters even allowed smoking on board.
The Nautilus should not only boost morale in combat missions, but also ensure a spectacular coup. With the dive under the North Pole, the Eisenhower administration wanted to show the Soviet Union that it could position a submarine right in front of its nose and at the same time take the wind out of the sails of critics of the armament build-up in the United States.
To get the world ready for Operation Sunshine, Disney was persuaded to adapt Jules Verne's novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Nemo's "Nautilus" also plays the leading role in it. When it was launched in 1954, the film starred James Mason and Kirk Douglas. But it soon became apparent that diving was not enough. A first march to the North Pole failed because the gyro compass went crazy. A second had to be canceled because the 97.5 meter long and 3,700 tonne displacement boat threatened to become trapped between icebergs and the seabed. "We had learned that the ice is an enemy to be respected," Anderson noted in retrospect in 1959.
When he left Pearl Harbor for the Arctic Ocean on July 23, 1958 with the “Nautilus”, he was under a lot of pressure to succeed. Eight days later, the final dive began 120 meters below the ice on the north coast of Alaska. The boat glided through the darkness, guided by a state-of-the-art sonar system that constantly monitored the space between the sea floor and the ice sheet.
After a good 1,200 miles, around 11:10 p.m. on August 3, “a solemn silence descended on the boat,” Anderson wrote. “I glanced at the range finder and counted out loud for the team: Eight...six...four...three...two, one...Now! To the United States and its fleet, cheers to the North Pole!”
Two days later, the message "Nautilus 90 North" signaled to the American leadership that "Sunshine" was a success. The world public had its sensation and the Soviet Union was shocked that an enemy submarine had sailed along its coast unnoticed. It was not until June 1962 that a Soviet nuclear submarine, the Leninsky Komsomol, reached the North Pole.
Anderson was awarded the Legion of Merit and used his popularity to break into politics. He was repeatedly elected to the House of Representatives for the Democrats, who at that time still traditionally ruled the conservative US southern states. But Anderson's liberal sentiments soon clashed with the zeitgeist of the South, as the American party system got lopsided over the civil rights movement. Republicans came to power in Tennessee in the 1970s. Anderson retired and died in Leesburg, Virginia in 2007.
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