Periodically in this column, I write about the recent deaths of American military veterans whose unique achievements while in uniform led them to national and even international fame and distinction.
Today, I am recalling the accomplishments of a distinguished naval officer whose submerged submarine was the site of one of the worst cases of seasickness I have ever encountered.
Eugene Parks Wilkinson was 94 when he died last week at his family home in the San Diego suburb of Del Mar.
When I met Wilkinson in l957, he held the rank of commander and was the first skipper of the Navy’s first nuclear-powered ship, the USS Nautilus, a 320-foot, 3,533-ton submarine.
Before taking the helm of the Nautilus, he had won the Silver Star for Valor during World War II for directing the torpedo shots against Japanese warships from the submarine USS Darter during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Lt. Wilkinson’s aim proved perfect, and he sank the Japanese heavy cruiser Maya and several other enemy ships during that historic encounter.
When the war ended, he was assigned to Admiral Hyman Rickover’s nuclear power project and he ultimately became the commanding officer of the Nautilus when it made its maiden voyage on Jan. 17, 1955.
In 1957, Cmdr. Wilkinson sailed the Nautilus to the naval base in Long Beach, the city where he was born in 1918. This was the sub’s first visit to the West Coast, and as a 21-year-old reporter for the Pasadena Star-News, I was assigned to cover and photograph this historic visit.
I spent two hours on the sub, interviewing Wilkinson and his men and taking photographs for my newspaper. As I was preparing to depart, Wilkinson came up to me and said, “Would you like to sail with us to San Diego in two days?”
Of course, I said “yes,” and two days later I was aboard the Nautilus when it headed out to San Diego in the early morning.
The first hour or so on the sub, which was submerged most of the time, proved successful for me, as I was able to spend time with several of the 13 officers and 96 enlisted men at their battle stations and living quarters and during the noon meal.
I later wrote in my newspaper, “The officers and men enjoy spacious living, eating and recreational quarters, a well-stocked library and modern conveniences such as electric stoves, radios and televisions, automatic washing machines, gramaphones and first-run movies.”
And, I added, “the submariners told me they ate the best food in the Navy including steaks for dinner every night.”
But soon, alas, I became deathly seasick and was half-carried, half-dragged to the skipper’s stateroom by two hefty petty officers who lay me down on the captain’s berth.
I was sick as a dog, and when Capt. Wilkinson came to check on me a few minutes later, he exclaimed, “Good grief, Mr. Henley, your face has turned green!”
When we docked in San Diego, I hauled myself from the bed, stumbled topside to say farewell to Wilkinson and his crew, returned to Long Beach by Greyhound bus to fetch my car and drove to the newspaper in Pasadena to write my second story about the Nautilus. It and my photos appeared on page one two days later, and I was gratified that my cruise on the submarine, despite the seasickness episode, was worthwhile.
Wilkinson remained Nautilus skipper another year or two, later was given command of the nuclear powered, guided missile cruiser USS Long Beach, was promoted to rear admiral, and was deputy chief of naval operations for submarine warfare before retiring as a vice admiral.
In civilian life, he became executive director for Data Design Inc., a high-tech company, and then was named the first president of the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations.
His wife, Janice, died in 2000, he is survived by four children and four grandchildren and he was buried at Fort Rosecrans National Military Cemetery in San Diego, the city where he received a BS degree in chemistry and physics from San Diego State University in 1938 and, in 1941, his commission as a U.S. Navy ensign.
As for the USS Nautilus, it was decommissioned in 1980 and today serves as a floating museum at the Submarine Force Museum near Groton, Conn.
David. C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus of the LVN.