Sea story: the Admiral Rickover interview

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Wow. Over six months since the last sea story? Unsat. Here we go:

In late 1981, one of the new SECNAV’s first acts was to persuade SECDEF and the President that it was time for Admiral Rickover to enjoy his military retirement. Over 80 years old, the Admiral had been on active duty for 63 years. He had also outlived the support of the Congressional members who kept voting him an extension.

This is one of the few photos of the Admiral in uniform. To the great annoyance of the rest of the Navy's flag officers, he usually worked in civilian clothes.

You did not want to annoy him.

In January 1982, members of the U.S. Naval Academy Class of ’82 were prescreened for their exclusive invitations to the Admiral’s office to be interviewed for nuclear power training. I was one of the lucky chosen.

Of course, the invitations weren’t necessarily that exclusive anymore.  Two years ago there had been a “draft” (due to insufficient numbers of volunteers) so by now we knew we were destined for “needs of the Navy” nuclear glory no matter what our preferences might be. (I was an eager volunteer.)

At least 150 of us were summoned to help crew the new 600-ship Navy, which would include 100 attack submarines and 35+ ballistic missile subs. Our interviews were three days before the Admiral’s mandated retirement. He never seemed to be in the best of humor, but with only 72 hours left he probably felt obligated to express his displeasure on any available target. Luckily for the Naval Reactors staff, he’d be interviewing us Midshipmen all day.

Of course, we were excused from USNA’s routine for what we knew was going to be a long day. The previous week an airplane had crashed into the 14th Street Bridge of Washington, DC, so traffic was still being re-routed around the area and weekday rush hours were taking all morning. We mids were racked out at 0200, mustered at 0230 in service dress blues (coat & tie), and on the bus (with box breakfasts) until nearly 0800. Of course we slept the whole way, although a few frantically studied their “gouge notes” (passed down from last year’s candidates) in the forlorn hope that would compensate for their liberal-arts majors or their low GPAs. I was snoring.

I hope the process has changed in three decades, but back then you* We had three interviews with different NR staff members. For chemistry students like me, it was usually topics like calculus, physics, and heat transfer. Engineers got quizzed on their majors. NR had your transcript and they knew what you should know, so they’d tailor the questions to be appropriately challenging. They were aware that some mids might not want to be nukes and could be playing stupid, but they’d just make a note on their interview sheet for the Admiral to dig into later. Our interviews took most of the morning.

When we mustered in the special briefing room for the admiral’s interview, a large easel held a 4’x8′ floorplan of the Admiral’s office. It even had little footprints showing the route we were to walk to reach the interview chair in front of his desk. We would enter and sit (dispensing with time-wasting military protocol) and speak only when asked a direct question. We were told that an officer would sit behind us to speak up if we were having “difficulty” understanding what the Admiral wanted. Everybody in the building (including the Admiral) wore civilian clothes that day, but I found out later that “the officer behind me” was an O-6 submariner.

We were offered a bathroom break, but only a few of us were brave enough to take the opportunity. (Not me!) One fearless mid (we’ll call him “Tom K.”) was first to the bathroom, and of course, while he was absent the staff called his name as the first interview. We informed the staff of Tom’s indisposition and they dropped him to the bottom of the list. I’m sure this came to the Admiral’s attention.

The wait was surreal. We’d all sit silently in our chairs, afraid to talk for fear that the staff were listening in. We couldn’t hear the Admiral’s voice down the hall, and the staff stayed clear of us. None of us mids dared nod off or be outrageous enough to leave the room for a drink of water, let alone to ask for a cup of coffee. We pretty much sat there watching the only thing moving in the room– the second hand on the clock. Every few minutes a staff member would enter, call a name, and the lucky mid would shoot to his feet to follow the footsteps on the floorplan and meet his fate. We wouldn’t see that mid again until we finished our own interview– and maybe not even then.

After a couple of hours my name was called.  I managed to march briskly to the chair without tripping over myself, and I found myself looking into the most intense glare stare that I’ve ever seen. The Admiral asked how much I studied, and I told him the simple truth: “25 hours per week, sir.”  He agreed that I needed to do so. (Let’s just say that I had less than a 4.00 GPA, so I was clearly not achieving my potential.)

He asked me how much I thought my classmates studied, and I said that I thought it was 15 hours per week. He asked why I thought that. I said it was the minimum requirement. He responded by starting a new paragraph with “I wonder why…” and began rhetorically extemporizing why mids would study only 15 hours per week when they knew that they could do better. I didn’t hear a question in his soliloquy so I kept my mouth shut.

About two sentences later he glared at me, slammed both hands on his desk, and shouted, “Answer the question, you PISSANT!!

Immediately the man behind me said, “Admiral, the midshipman must be confused as to exactly what question he’s supposed to answer!

I nodded my head firmly and agreed “Yes sir!” Apparently, that was all the answer the Admiral wanted, because he said, “I’m done with you, get out of here!!

That was my 1.5 minutes of fame with the Admiral.

Out in the hallway I was hyperventilating directed to another room, where I discovered (most of) my classmates. (I think we had box lunches, but I can’t remember.) Again we were too terrified (or traumatized) to do more than sit there silently, watching the clock. The crowd slowly grew until a mid entered the room and said, “When I left the waiting room, Tom was the last one.” A few minutes later a man entered and directed us to board the bus. We mentioned that Tom must still be getting interviewed. He said, “The Admiral is still talking with a few of you, and they’ll come home on another bus.” Ruh-roh.

Our bus crawled back through the snarled traffic while we snored and starved all the way, and we reached USNA at about 2100. They had midrats waiting for us, and we crashed into our beds shortly after that.

Several hours later at 0200, a lucky few were racked out and informed that they had been selected for a second interview. The rest of us had no idea whether we were in or out, but we wondered whether we’d also be chosen for an unannounced encore on another day. Even though the Admiral permanently left the office a day later, there were rumors that his successor would run us through the gantlet all over again.

Later, during that day’s classes, we learned that Tom had been called in last.  Unfortunately, during his interview, he gave a thoughtless answer to one of the Admiral’s questions. (This was usually a case of not taking personal responsibility for a low grade– or even worse, blaming an issue on some external factor instead of on your own behavior.) The Admiral yelled at him for a few seconds and then sent him away to think about his faux pas. This meant a trip to the dreaded “closet”– one of several 4’x6′ rooms with only a desk and a chair. You’d be escorted in by the O-6, counseled on where you went wrong, advised to meditate upon your epiphany, and left alone behind a closed door for quality thinking time. An hour or two later they’d retrieve you, return you to the Admiral’s office, and start over.

Tom’s pretty sure the staff forgot that he was in the closet. (They must’ve had a lot of bad answers that day.) Tom wasn’t going to call attention to himself, so he just sat there quietly for several hours. Later that evening they must have noticed the light under the door. An O-6 opened it, looked surprised and abashed, and said that they’d have to finish this tomorrow. Tom raced to the bathroom, and when he came out the O-6 treated him to a vending machine soda and a sandwich, then gave him cab fare back to USNA. I don’t remember whether Tom had an encore, but he was not selected for nuclear training. A few months later in an unbelievable stroke of luck, he was one of our very few classmates who were approved for an interservice transfer to the Air Force.

A week later one mid actually had a third interview (with the new Admiral) before being turned down. Eventually, we were told who’d been selected. Almost everyone made it– the 600-ship Navy needed all hands to fill the watchbills.

For those of you who have heard the rumors other sea stories over the decades, we weren’t asked to do anything outrageous. Nobody was told to make the Admiral mad (although some of us succeeded in that regard anyway) or to break anything or to sing for him or to demonstrate any other unusual behavior. One classmate, a political science major, was asked whether he was planning to run for election as a division officer. (Ironically he transferred to the Air Force too.) Otherwise, by what I’ve read since then, the Admiral was extraordinarily well behaved. I guess the kindly old gentleman didn’t really have it in his heart that day.

I never saw Admiral Rickover again and I only visited Naval Reactors once more for my nuclear engineer’s exam. (That’s another sea story.) A few years after his retirement, the military’s rules were changed to discourage octogenarians from remaining on active duty. (Admiral Grace Hopper retired just short of her 80th birthday.) I don’t know whether Naval Reactors uses the same offices today, and they’ve probably updated their floorplan with a PowerPoint slide. I sure hope that the closets are only used for storing supplies instead of midshipmen.

However, one of my classmates from that day has worked hard and done well for himself. Today he’s only the sixth head of Naval Reactors in over 63 years, although the tour of duty has been reduced to “just” eight years. I’m sure he’ll interview today’s midshipmen with at least as much kindness and consideration as we were greeted with over 30 years ago.

[*  My daughter passed her Naval Reactors interview in April 2014 and went surface nuclear power.  She interviewed with a new admiral, but it was the same staff process.]

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WHAT I DO: I help you reach financial independence. For free. I retired in 2002 after 20 years in the Navy's submarine force. I wrote "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" to share the stories of over 50 other financially independent servicemembers, veterans, and families. All of my writing revenue is donated to military-friendly charities.

  1. Thanks for the story! I was a Reactor Operator on the IKE from 81 to 85 and heard rumors of these interviews. I never got a first hand account until now.

  2. Doug, I was there with you that day in Jan ’82. Don’t remember much about the NR staff interviews other than that I didn’t get completely stumped. I vividly remember the “waiting room” – uncomfortable chairs and dead silence. In HGR’s office, I kept my “eyes in the boat”, so don’t recall much about it other than how small he looked and that he was eating a hard boiled egg, with bits of yolk sticking to the corners of his mouth. He asked the O-6 behind me whether he had any use for an Oceanography major: “No Sir!” (thanks for the knife in the back, sir). He walked out for a minute (prob to go to the bathroom) and told me to tell the Capt what good I was to him. Can’t recall what else he said, except “Get the ____ out of my office” – which I was more than happy to do! My guess is that if did very well/poorly in the staff interviews, HGR didn’t spend much time on you. The decision had already been made. But, if you were borderline, he would work you over to decide whether you were in or out.

    • Hey, Steve, great to hear from you!

      You must have done very well during the staff interviews… and 32 years later, I wonder if the program was having trouble finding enough qualified (let alone motivated) people.

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