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Remembering "Nautilus 90 North"
Amateur Radio Special Event Operation Honors 50th Anniversary of Historic North Pole Mission, Radio Message
By Don Keith N4KC
Copyright 2018 by Don Keith
America desperately needed heroes in the late 1950s. Our country was still trying to recover from the non-victory in Korea. Our space program was literally blowing up on the launch pads down at Cape Canaveral. Then the Russians launched Sputnik. That single event sent a shiver through the Free World. Even the closest allies began to question U.S. military might and her previous technological superiority over the Soviets. That was the primary reason President Dwight Eisenhower decided to send what was then the world’s most famous vessel, USS Nautilus, through the unexplored waters beneath the Arctic ice pack, from Pacific to Atlantic via the North Pole. It was a daring mission, one that could have been another spectacular and tragic failure—and almost was. Of course, there were other reasons, military and scientific, for sending the first nuclear vessel off on such a hazardous voyage. Still, the need for heroes, to show the world America still had the “right stuff,” was a compelling reason for the president to order the historic, top-secret mission in the summer of 1958.
It is my opinion that the importance of what Nautilus and her brave crew accomplished at the top of the world is not fully appreciated now, fifty years later. At the time, it made a worldwide splash that would only be exceeded eleven years later by the first moon landing. That was one reason I was so proud to be asked to co-author a book about the event with the man who was her skipper on the North Pole run, Captain William R. Anderson (The Ice Diaries, Thomas Nelson Publishers). It was also the reason I decided the 50th anniversary of the voyage was a perfect opportunity for a special event amateur radio operation—both to call attention to the historic event and to tie ham radio to what was sure to be a very public celebration. I had no way of knowing that it would turn into such a success.
Permission to come aboard
My goal from the beginning was to try to do the operation from the Navy’s Submarine Force Museum and Library in Groton, Connecticut. That also just happens to be where Nautilus is now berthed and open to the public as only the second vessel dubbed “Historic Ship” (“Old Ironsides” in Boston is the other). If we could actually operate from the deck or radio room of the world’s first nuclear-powered vessel, that would be even better. Moreover, if we could do the event over the weekend of August 2 and 3 (the actual anniversary of Nautilus becoming the first ship to reach the North Pole was August 3, a Sunday night East Coast time), then it would be a perfect alignment with history. That would guarantee us the biggest crowd at the ship and museum, too. Since the anniversary was going to fall on a weekend, it would be best to take advantage of that bit of luck.
I could see several big problems, including logistics and coordinating with the staff at the museum and ship. Nautilus is in Connecticut. I live in Alabama and, in addition to writing and promoting the books I write, I also have a day job. I was not sure how I was going to get a good, working couple of stations up to New England and set them up properly. Or how I could work from long distance with the museum management folks in Groton to get permission and direction on a location from which to operate. They did not know me and, I assumed, would be wary of somebody who wanted to come set up radios on their site. I had also heard that they were not particularly welcoming of such events. Thankfully, that turned out to be anything but the case, but I suspect the organized and professional manner in which they were eventually approached certainly contributed to what turned out to be a very warm welcome and plenty of gracious assistance.
The main reason for that was the Southern New England Navy/Marine Corps Military Affiliate Radio System (MARS) group. Back in January 2008, I had blindly sent emails to several clubs in the area, looking for help in the operation, and got a couple of replies, saying they would float the idea with their membership. I did not hear back from any of them. Of necessity, I started considering alternate plans. I could try to operate from the USS Alabama battleship and the submarine USS Drum in Mobile, Alabama. That was certainly closer to me and I had contacts there, plus they have onboard ham radio stations that participate in “ships on the air” events. The problem was that neither of those great museum ships had any connection to Nautilus or the North Pole, other than Drum being a submarine. As a last resort, I could just put my home station on the air, using a special call sign, but that would have been a poor effort to pay homage to those brave men and what they accomplished beneath the treacherous ice pack.
That is when I got a nice note from Chuck Motes, K1DFS/NNN0HAL, who is active in the Southern New England MARS group and helps man and maintain the MARS station at the U.S. Navy’s submarine base, a few hundred yards from Nautilus. It seems that Scott Moore, W1SSN, had seen my original emailed plea for help and passed it along to Bob Veth, K1RJV/NNN0FCC, Director—Region One, Navy MARS. He and his organization immediately recognized this as an excellent way to accomplish several ends. First, they could get exposure for their group during a special weekend at the museum. It would also enable them to test their emergency response trailer, mobile tower, and station setup. And, of course, they wanted to help me give the Nautilus crew and this special anniversary some worldwide recognition via amateur radio. Everyone in the organization was enthusiastic from the start and gave approval, appointing Chuck Motes, K1DFS, the point man. It was the perfect choice for several reasons, including the fact that Chuck’s father and grandfather had worked on the construction of Nautilus back in the early ‘50s.
Chuck’s second email to me already had ideas for station configuration—pending approval from the Nautilus museum crew, of course—and a plan for approaching Lt. Cdr. Greg Caskey, who runs the place. I already had a presentation and book-signing event scheduled for Saturday, August 2, at the museum, coordinated with the museum director, so we went at our contacts from both directions. The staff and Lt. Cdr. Caskey were extremely helpful, directing visitors to our eventual location, coming by to check on us and see if we needed anything, and even giving us 24-hour access to an area typically closed in the evening. That enabled us to keep the stations on the air at night as long as the bands lasted.
As it turned out, we were not able to operate from aboard Nautilus. They have quite a few visitors wandering through on any weekend. They anticipated being especially crowded this particular couple of days. That would make it difficult for us to work in already cramped quarters, and we would have had to settle for compromise antennas. There was also a special commemorative ceremony planned for Sunday afternoon on the ship’s deck, which included raising a replica of the North Pole flag on the sail of the submarine. The ship flew that flag when she first entered port in Portland, England, after the successful polar crossing. As it turned out, during the ceremony, the special event station was announced to the big crowd and everyone was invited to come by and visit.
Actually our eventual setup ended up being better in every way than if we had been below decks on the submarine, but more on that later.
“Nautilus 90 North”
Even before I started begging for help to pull this thing off, I was thinking about the call sign I wanted. There was one obvious choice. When Nautilus first emerged from beneath the ice pack in the Greenland Sea near the island of Spitzbergen, she wanted to report her success to the key people who had staked their careers—and presidency—on this mission. The radio operators aboard the submarine ran into the typical propagation problems found in those high latitudes. They were finally able to raise a Navy radio station in—of all places—Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the spot where the polar mission had started two weeks before. Not bad DX! The historic message sent in Morse code was, “Nautilus 90 North.” That short piece of traffic to President Eisenhower and the Pentagon confirmed that the submarine had successfully reached the most inaccessible spot on the planet, the North Pole, at 90 degrees north latitude.
I wanted N9N for the special event station call.
Thankfully, it was available for that weekend and I quickly went through a very efficient member of the VEC system to reserve it. The “9” caused some confusion during the weekend, since we were in the “1” call area. My being listed on several websites as the QSL contact in Alabama threw some folks, too. Some ops are still not accustomed to the 1 X 1 format either, and kept arguing that there had to be another letter or two to make it a legal call sign. And a contest group in Indiana uses N9N for their state QSO party in June every year. Since I listed the N9N callsign on QRZ.com as soon as I got it reserved, I was getting QSL cards long before the event, wondering if they had really contacted USS Nautilus. I should have waited until later to get it up on QRZ.com and I apologize for the confusion.
QSOs and sausage stew
When I arrived in Groton the evening before the event was to kick off, I was amazed at what Chuck and his guys had accomplished. They had a travel trailer for comfort, including air conditioning and restroom facilities. There were already two complete HF stations set up outside, Field Day style, protected from sun and rain—both of which we had an abundance of that weekend! A converted boat trailer was parked nearby, bearing a 40-foot, portable, crank-up tower with a 4-element HF beam and a 2-meter Yagi on top. A G5RV for 40 and 75 meters was strung from the tower to end supports across the parking lot. There was even a legal-limit amplifier available for the 20-meter station but we only used it when we really needed it because it required firing up a separate generator. Chuck and his crew had even organized volunteer operators and loggers, some from Navy and Army MARS and others who were not MARS members, and had them scheduled on big marker boards in one-hour shifts throughout the weekend. My contribution was a set of “talking points,” key facts about the submarine, the mission, and why we were there. The whole operation was located right there on the banks of the Thames River, only a few hundred feet from Nautilus, in the middle of the museum parking lot. We had great visibility from the main entrance. Visitors could not miss us. Chuck and the crew had a table full of material about amateur radio and information on becoming a MARS volunteer and handed it out to curious people all weekend.
It was an inspiring location. As we operated and told over-the-air contacts about Nautilus and the North Pole, we could look over at the actual historic vessel with her famous hull numbers—SSN-571, the first ship to carry the “N” for “nuclear”—sitting there quietly in her final resting spot. Occasionally one of her modern sisters made its way up the Thames, bound for the submarine base next door, still using much of the technology Nautilus pioneered over fifty years ago.
Rick Castrogiovanni, N1JGR/NNN0JGR, was our designated chef, and we were well fed all weekend. His sausage stew on Friday night was wonderful, the perfect kickoff to the weekend. The camaraderie was fantastic as well. Though I had not met any of these folks before, and had only exchanged emails with Chuck, they made me feel right at home. Of course, we had one big thing in common, a hobby we love. All I had to do was show up, operate, and eat. Rick, along with Gil Woodside, WA1LAD/NNN0WWW, Alan Lisitano, W1LOZ/NNN0LOZ, George Carbonell, N1RMF/NNN0RMF, and Chuck, K1DFS, made up the crew who stayed with the stations from Friday morning setup all the way through teardown on Monday morning. I dashed off down I-95 to New York City in the wee hours of Monday morning for some media interviews so I even got out of that thankless job, too!
Bob Veth, K1RJV/NNN0FCC, drove down from Massachusetts and was there most of the weekend as well. His enthusiasm and support were invaluable. We had literally scores of volunteers who operated, logged, and did many other tasks to keep things running smoothly. When the tower support for the G5RV broke early Sunday morning, somebody had to climb the tower and restring it. When a sudden thunderstorm blew in on Saturday afternoon, everyone had to scramble to get the gear secured. Nobody complained. They just pitched in and helped. I wish I had room to mention everyone by name and call sign, but I hope they know that their efforts, time and expertise are appreciated.
I thank Betsey Doane, K1EIC, ARRL Section Manager for Connecticut, who sent us a warm welcome but was traveling and could not be there that weekend. She is, by the way, a member of Navy MARS with the call sign NNN0EBP.
We ended up the weekend with over 2,000 QSOs in the log, working all fifty states and 26 foreign countries. I do not know how this compares to other special event stations, but it has to be near a record for only two operating positions over one weekend. As of this writing, I have received about 500 QSLs and will be responding when I get the specially designed cards from the printer. There were so many highlights of the weekend it is hard to get them all into this article. Several former Nautilus crewmembers dropped by the stations, including a couple of men who were aboard for the North Pole run. At least one of the former 571 crew who visited is a ham and took a turn at operating. We worked a number of former Nautilus crew on the air, too, and others who had taken part in constructing that marvelous Jules Verne-like vessel at Electric Boat Company, which is located just a few miles downriver from where N9N was set up. It was also a pleasure to talk with many other former submariners and military veterans who are amateur radio ops.
But one especially thrilling moment occurred when I took a call on 20-meter SSB from AC3Q, Harold Dennin, from Des Plaines, Illinois. Harold explained that he was one of the naval radio operators at Pearl Harbor who copied the historic transmission of “Nautilus 90 North” that day in 1958. We promptly switched to CW and recreated that bit of radio traffic! Maybe it was only the magic of the moment, but Harold’s fist certainly sounded wonderful. I could imagine the feeling of the radio operator aboard the submarine when the message was safely sent and QSLed.
Another special feature of the event came on Sunday night. Nautilus officially reached the North Pole—the first vessel in history to do so—at 11:15 PM EDST on August 3, 1958. Thanks to K1DFS and his dedicated crew, N9N remained on the air Sunday night until that “magic minute.” At that time, stations were invited to “check in,” and as many of the call signs were copied as possible in one minute. Then the ops went back and conducted official contacts with as many of them as they could. We plan to send each of those stations a special certificate.
I cannot say enough about the Navy/Marine Corps MARS folks and what they did to make this event possible. In the true spirit of amateur radio, they gave up their weekend, took days off work, and labored in heat and humidity to make the stations strong and viable, even with especially poor band conditions. I think propagation was the only thing Chuck and his guys were not able to fix! Thanks as well to all the other volunteers who took part in the weekend, and to the staff at the Submarine Force Museum and Historic Ship Nautilus for their help and hospitality.
As a result of these efforts, amateur radio and the MARS program got excellent PR before thousands of visitors over the weekend and others who read about the event in local media. Thousands more who listened in or worked N9N learned more about the historic event that was the primary reason for the operation.
Most importantly, we were all able to honor 116 brave men who took their marvelous ship where no man had gone before. In the process, they changed the course of the Cold War and gave America the heroes we so desperately needed.
As submariners say, “Bravo zulu!”
“Job well done!”