Book Reviews
January 2007

Reviewed by CAPT. Bill Norris

Dan Gillcrist. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, Inc. 2006. 249pp. Illus. Glossary. Notes. $20.95

In a way the forward to this book should not be read until the reader has finished the book. It maintains a zero angle in summarizing the many fine and varied interviews that Dan Gillcrist has gathered. The book portrays the Power Shift for what it was; a transformation of the Submarine Force from diesel boats to nuclear power. It was an inevitable transformation driven by technology and the book tells of the price paid and rewards won by the people during such a transformation.

This is a trade publication and it will mean different things to different generations of submariners. Those who were submariners before there were nuclear submarines will enjoy the interviews about how it used to be when the world was pure. Those who lived through the transformation as diesel submariners and who didn’t convert, for whatever reason, will find solace either in the interviews with the DBF’ers or those who understood necessity for the course of events. Those who lived through the transformation, either as nuclear submariners or those who converted to nuclear submarines, will relive the difficulties of a transformation of men and machinery. Those who never really knew a diesel submarine or a diesel submariner will feel they are reading about today’s disputes between warfare communities, maybe even in an internecine sense, but at least the world is now pure again.

A few personal reflections:
Life is not fair, especially to those caught in transformation. Many who entered the Submarine Force after World War II were joining a very elite group that had played a key role in the defeat of the enemy (and we should always treasure that heritage). To many of these, the advent of nuclear submarines turned many super careers into fine or average careers regardless of their real performance. It also began the end of an era, and many good people are always lost in such a transition.

Those that started the Power Shift had a tough time not only because they had a great legacy to try to build on, but with nuclear power came an awesome responsibility. That required hard work that was beyond what the post World War II diesel boat was experiencing. But without that transition to nuclear submarines and that hard early work, the Submarine Force would have not been able to maintain its elite position (By the way, it’s still hard work). There were too many advantages to a true submersible that could be further enhanced by the increased design space and electrical and propulsion power available. And thus, just as in World War II, submarines were a key element in the victory in the Cold War.

In every fleet and organization there are good and not so good ships and parts. Most of us served in both. There were good and not so good leaders in diesel boats and in nuclear submarines as well. One ship or organization does not stay good or not so good. People can and do change things. Whether ships or organizations are good or not so good, the experiences are what made us better, if we learned from them.

The camaraderie of the diesel submariners seems to be played much better than that of the nuclear submariners. Just as there was a Power Shift from diesel to nuclear, there was a change in what people saw as camaraderie. The harder work needed to make nuclear submarines a success begat a different closeness. Looking back, I would have judged the camaraderie on the diesel submarine I served on as fourth (of six submarines). I would bet that other submariners who have served on both sides of the Power Shift would vary and run the gamut from top to bottom.

There have been many who have written chronicles of Admiral Rickover. Dan adds some balanced anecdotes to the collection. A lot is made of whether Admiral Rickover stayed too long. Maybe he did, but where would we be today if he hadn’t started us out with his firm hand and high standards. One should also not discount the Grand Dolphins of OP-02 who never received much credit but worked so hard to marry the right operational tools to the nuclear propulsion system, and also served as a check and a sounding board for Admiral Rickover.

Power Shift reveals many tales across the submarine spectrum. Every time one listens to the stories of the experiments, such as with pancake diesels, you suffer with the crew. The NAUTILUS experiment and the others of the early nuclear Submarine Force were equally painful for those crews. Many of Dan Gillcrist’s interviews will stir memories, good and not so good. Great credit goes to Dan for his perseverance in telling a story that spans a generation of submariners and submarines.

Power Shift is neither a great book nor a classic. It is a book worth reading for the human stories about the Power Shift that Dan Gillcrist has brought to light and life. We older submariners will enjoy it more. We will all have our favorite stories within its covers. We will disagree with some of the portrayals and resonate with others. We will find lost shipmates and contemporaries and friends. We will remember similar tales from our past. This is another piece of our great submarine tradition.

U.S. Naval Institute
June 2006

Power Shift: The Transition to Nuclear Power in the U.S. Submarine Force As Told by Those Who Did it

Dan Gillcrist. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, Inc. 2006. 249pp. Illus. Glossary. Notes. $20.95

This is a comprehensive account of the Navy's transition from diesel to nuclear power. Against the background of intense Cold War operations, when U.S. subs played a pivotal role, officers and seamen tell their stories.

As noted in the Foreword by Commander Don Walsh, USN (Ret), people and institutions are wary of change "even though they understand intuitively that it is inevitable." Transformation of the Navy's submarine service under Admiral Hyman Rickover's abrasive and unbending leadership certainly must rank among the Navy's most astounding and turbulent revolutions in machinery and manpower management.

In addition to his in-depth interviews of key veterans, including Admirals James Watkins and Dave Oliver, some 90 other submariners responded to the author's request for input. Chapters range from "Sub Culture" and "Transition" to "Ditty Bag", the latter being a collection of anecdotes.

Views of the eminently complex Admiral Rickover vary from harsh to admiring and even humorous. One officer describes Rickover as brilliant intellectually, although his obsession with "academic excellence" frequently overshadowed his ability to select operators and leaders. Another contributor was somewhat kinder: while Rickover stayed in the Navy "too long", he undoubtedly succeeded in influencing the entire service in a positive and necessary way. And several recall the crusty admiral often showed genuine concern for people and was blessed with a charming social sense.

Power Shift does not evade other difficult issues, such as cultural clashes between diesel and nuclear sailors and the apparently significant number of competent diesel sub officers who were left behind as the nuclear force advanced. Dan Gillcrist has provided an important case study of major technological and operational change in the military as well as a worthy contribution to naval history.

From "Books of Interest" - Colonel Gordon W. Keiser, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)

Comment by the reviewer COL Gordon Keiser USMC

I was glad to do Power Shift for "books of interest" - especially because it presents one of the most balanced views of Admiral Rickover that I know of. I’ve always been fascinated by him.