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'Something that was very important’

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Raymond Engle, 94, holds a picture of his family greeting him in 1967, when he was commander of a submarine called the USS Seadragon. Prior to that, Engle was a Naval officer aboard the first nuclear-powered sub, the USS Nautilus.
Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune A picture of USS Nautilus (SSN-571), the world's first operational nuclear-powered submarine, hangs at the home of Raymond Engle, 94, in Medford.
Medford resident Raymond Engle talks storied Naval career on first nuclear-powered submarine

When Raymond Engle gave a tour of his townhouse at Rogue Valley Manor, one of the first things he pointed to was a framed picture of a black submarine partially submerged in the ocean, ripping through the waves.

That submarine, the USS Nautilus (SSN-571), was the first nuclear-powered submarine. And Engle, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, was one of the first officers aboard once it was completed in 1955.

“I’m very proud, that’s for sure,” said Engle, who will turn 95 March 8. “I’m so glad that I had a chance to do something that was very important.”

The first-of-its-kind vessel was made possible by a team of engineers led by then-Capt. Hyman G. Rickover, who became known as the father of the nuclear Navy.

“I, frankly, didn’t know they were doing that,” Engle said.

Engle was on the Nautilus before his son, Andy, was born. The junior Engle, who is retired and living in Florida, did not serve on a submarine when he was a Naval officer. But he was able to speak to the sub’s significance. Nuclear-powered submarines stand in stark contrast to diesel-fueled ones.

“Submarines were coming up (from the water) once a day to recharge their batteries. They could be seen, attacked and tracked on the surface,” Andy said. “But a nuclear submarine can stay submerged for months at a time, so they’re very hard to track.”

And when those submarines come up to the surface of the ocean, they can fire from miles away.

“You wouldn’t even know they were there and the attack is done and over with,” Andy said.

The success of the Nautilus had led us to more nuclear-powered submarines, some of which Ray Engle headed up.

“They’re the biggest threat that another country would face if they took on the U.S.,” Andy said. “A nuclear submarine can pop up anywhere — and that became possible because of the pioneering work that people on the Nautilus, including my father, did.”

Growing up in Chicago, with planes flying over the Midway Airport, Ray Engle took an interest in flying and was destined to become a pilot.

But at the Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, set along the Severn River, where men would practice sailing, Engle’s interests evolved.

“I finally turned away,” he said. “I voluntarily spent a couple of weeks of vacation we had, I thought, ‘it’s good,’ so I decided I was going to be a submariner.”

After graduating from the Naval Academy, Engle attended submarine school in Connecticut. That experience wasn’t dull.

“I liked to say I had the highest standing of a bachelor,” Engle said. “I did all sorts of funny things and found a girl, eventually.”

That girl was Claire, a college student and staff member at the New London Day, whom Engle invited to the commissioning ceremony for the Nautilus. The submarine was christened by then-First Lady Mamie Eisenhower in 1954, before it moved out of port in 1955.

“The Nautilus was different in everything,” Engle said.

Although he couldn’t give specific memories of being on the Nautilus himself while it was at sea, Engle does know he was a supply officer, charged with making sure his fellow men had sheets on their beds and took orders for food.

“If you needed anything, I was in charge of getting it,” Engle said.

His son noted that even as a junior officer on the Nautilus, one of his first assignments, Ray Engle was not a qualified submarine man, since he had not even been on diesel ones.

“(Ray) was the junior guy, they gave him a job that was related to maintaining the ship and crew, but he didn’t run the nuclear power plant,” Andy said. “Subsequently, he earned his dolphins.”

The pins that signifies Engle was qualified to run a submarine were something he showed with glee during an interview at the Manor Wednesday. Those dolphins would earn him commanding positions on three different submarines.

The Naval History and Heritage Command’s website provides quite a bit of information on the history of the Nautilus.

That same year it set sail, en route to Puerto Rico, it completed the longest submerged cruise, to that date, by a submarine, traveling 1,381 miles in 89.8 hours.

But that was just the beginning, as the Nautilus racked up so many more journeys at sea. That included “Operation Sunshine,” a fully submerged transit under the North Pole in 1957. That mission — considered highly secret until its end — resulted in the submarine’s crew being personally congratulated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Engle was not part of the Arctic mission, but his son, Andy, said his father has told him many times he was responsible for drawing up plans for the mission.

“They made him do a special project, and his project was determining the feasibility of going under the polar ice caps with a nuclear-powered submarine,” Andy said.

Over the next few decades, Nautilus would go to many more places — Cuba, the Mediterranean, Europe and South America. All the while, the U.S. would produce more nuclear submarines like it. Nautilus left its home of Connecticut one last time in 1979, for Panama, to begin decommissioning procedures.

The vessel wasn’t destroyed once it no longer had a job. It earned National Historic Landmark status in 1982 and was placed at the Submarine Force Library and Museum in Connecticut, where it remains. Even in recent years, it still needs repairs so it can continue as a museum ship. That work, with a price tag of $36 million, is expected to be complete this summer.

Engle, his wife and their children have visited the floating museum. To this day, the retired Navy man gets a kick out of seeing the compartments he used to occupy on the Nautilus.

“Whenever they let me in, I can go all the way to the stern — and I do, because I like to refresh myself,” Engle said.

Visiting the Nautilus is also a chance for him to visit with the next generation of submarine crew men and women.

“I can give them a talk here, a little bit there — it’s good,” he said.

Engle’s walls are covered with memorabilia from his time in the Navy, but none is more important than one of him in 1967, when he was commander of another nuclear-powered sub, the USS Seadragon.

The black-and-white picture shows Engle in his full Navy uniform with flowers thrown around his neck, as is typical in Hawaii, where the submarine came to port. With a smile on his face, the much younger Engle is flanked by his three sons.

“He was an outstanding role model — he got all three of us boys into Boy Scouts — and demonstrated, in his life, all the virtues of scouting as well as the virtues of being a naval officer,” Andy said. “He wasn’t always around, but he was serving his country, doing things we didn’t even know about.”

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.