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Rickover, Creator of U.S. Nuclear Navy, Dies at 86

July 09, 1986|RUDY ABRAMSON | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Retired Adm. Hyman G. Rickover, the acerbic, hard-driving Navy officer who was the moving force behind the creation of the U.S. nuclear submarine fleet, died Tuesday at age 86.

The cause of Rickover's death was not disclosed, but he had been in declining health since suffering a major stroke July 4, 1985. He had been in retirement since January, 1982, when he was forced from active service after 64 years in uniform.

Rickover died at his home in Arlington, Va., the Navy said.

Rickover, who was graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1922, had served on active duty longer than any military officer of modern times. He was kept on duty by powerful congressional supporters for 30 years after the Navy first denied him promotion to rear admiral and ticketed him for retirement.

By the time he did retire, Rickover had battled with 14 defense secretaries, 16 secretaries of the Navy and a dozen chiefs of naval operations. Four presidents retained him on active duty after he had passed mandatory retirement age, among them Jimmy Carter, who, as a young Navy officer, had been hand-picked by Rickover for nuclear engineering school.

During the years Rickover dominated the design and production of the nuclear fleet, he saw his submarines travel 40 million miles and, according to the Navy, accumulate the equivalent of 30 centuries of operating time without a death or serious accident attributed to nuclear propulsion.

Shortly after he retired, three former presidents--Carter, Gerald R. Ford and Richard M. Nixon--turned out for a dinner paying tribute to him, and the next year he became the only person in history except for Gen. Zachary Taylor to receive a second congressional gold medal for exceptional public service.

President Reagan, in a statement issued at the White House, said that Rickover's "commitment to excellence and uncompromising devotion to duty were integral parts of American life for a generation. The nuclear-powered submarines, cruisers and aircraft carriers deployed throughout the world today in defense of liberty are a major part of Adm. Rickover's legacy . . . . We have lost a great American."

However, in spite of his achievements, it was Rickover's public temper tantrums, his vitriolic criticism of the military Establishment and his spellbinding appearances before dozens of congressional committees that made him perhaps the best-known military officer since World War II. And he grew increasingly controversial both within and without the Navy.

Bane of Big Spenders

His image as the bane of big spenders and critic of contractors was suddenly tarnished one year before his death.

Three years after he had been forced into retirement by the Reagan Administration after continuing clashes with Pentagon officials, Rickover was censured in 1985 by Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. for taking $67,000 worth of gifts from General Dynamics, the company that had been the leading contractor for the Navy's nuclear submarines. In announcing the action, Lehman described many of the gifts as "trinkets," saying the admiral had solicited gifts over a period of 17 years, among them items such as laminated $50 bills and teak trays.

Rickover, whose reputation was based on his hounding of shipbuilders as much as his virtuoso performances on Capitol Hill, replied to the Navy's charges in an eight-page letter to Lehman, declaring that he had never considered the items personal gifts and was never influenced by them.

"I can state emphatically," Rickover said, "that no gratuity or favor ever affected any decision I made." He added: "In fact, I have been consistently tougher on defense contractors than any government official at any time."

On Tuesday, Lehman said in a statement: "With the death of Adm. Rickover, the Navy and this nation have lost a dedicated officer of historic accomplishment. In his 63 years of service, Adm. Rickover took the concept of nuclear power from an idea to the present reality of more than 150 U.S. naval ships under nuclear power, with a record of 3,000 ship-years of accident-free operations."

Born in Russia

Rickover, the son of a Jewish tailor, was born in Russia on Jan. 27, 1900. He grew up in Chicago and earned an appointment to the Naval Academy, where he excelled academically but was a distant, introspective midshipman who made few friends and disdained social and athletic activities.

While his contemporaries made their way up through the ranks with combat assignments in World War II, he worked in obscurity in shipbuilding and repair.

After the war, Rickover was sent to Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee to study nuclear energy, and he immediately became a crusader for atomic power, pressing for the Navy to develop a nuclear-powered submarine.

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