The American Jew Who Created the Nuclear Submarine

June 15, 2022 | Rich Tenorio
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Since 1958, the U.S. military has employed submarines powered by onboard nuclear reactors, which have numerous advantages over those with conventional engines. Similar vessels were later developed by the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and other maritime powers. Responsible for this technological breakthrough was a Jewish immigrant to America named Hyman Rickover. Rich Tenorio tells his story:

Rickover was born Chaim Godalia Rykower into an Orthodox Jewish family in 1899’s Poland. The Rykowers left an increasingly anti-Semitic climate at the turn of the 20th century and young Chaim, age six, arrived at Ellis Island with his mother, Ruchia, and sister, Faiga. Abram, the family patriarch, had arrived beforehand but never received news that the rest of the family had reached Ellis Island. Lacking financial support, Ruchia, Chaim, and Faiga were detained for ten days. Deportation appeared imminent. Yet an acquaintance from Poland miraculously recognized them and summoned Rykower’s father, ensuring their stay in the U.S., under Americanized names.

When the family—including baby daughter Hitel—relocated to the sizable Jewish community of Lawndale, Chicago, serendipitous circumstances connected Rickover with Congressman Adolph Sabath, a fellow Jew who got him into the Naval Academy.

By 1947, Rickover had served aboard multiple types of vessels, seen his leadership ability expand during World War II, and was working to develop a nuclear-powered submarine at the Manhattan Project site of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. His superior and supporter, Admiral Earle W. Mills, grew disillusioned with the rate of progress and relocated Rickover to an office space where the plumbing from toilets was still visible.

Despite working in what was once a women’s bathroom, Rickover persisted in the project, and in five years’ time came up with a viable plan that, as Tenorio writes, included everything “from the production of material to shield the reactor to splitting atoms that would generate heat to power the turbines.”

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