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"You were practicing all the time to be perfect at something you hoped would never happen." (Video Interview, 1:10:36)

   Edward H. Mortimer
Collection image
Edward Mortimer [detail from video]
War: Cold War
Branch: Navy
Unit: USS Gudgeon (SS 567); USS Abraham Lincoln (SSBN 602); USS Nathan Hale (SSBN 623); USS John Adams (SSBN 620)
Service Location: Annapolis, Maryland; Pacific; Pearl Harbor, and Ford Island, Hawaii; New London, Connecticut; Charleston, South Carolina; United Kingdom; North Sea; Atlantic; Pacific; Guam (Mariana Islands)
Rank: Captain
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Annapolis graduate Edward Mortimer’s career spanned the central years of the Cold War, 1954-1977, during which he served on five submarines with increasingly sophisticated technology. He worked his way up from communications officer to captain of the USS John Adams, a third-generation Polaris submarine. Patrolling both major oceans and several of the seven seas, Mortimer was exquisitely aware of what firing one of his sub’s missiles would mean. He also talks of a good friend who was aboard the ill-fated Thresher, the first nuclear submarine to be lost at sea.

Interview (Video)
»Interview Highlights  (11 clips)
»Complete Interview 
Download: video (90 min.)
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 Video (Interview Excerpts) (11 items)
How he came to go to Annapolis; had begun school at Princeton in sciences, so he was better prepared academically than his fellow plebes; commitment for service at that time (early 1950s) was only four years, which didn't daunt him, though he did not expect to like life in the military. (04:34) Plebe year; dealing with the harassment, understanding why it was employed; sailing on outstanding vessels. (02:42) Getting interested in submarine service; his plan to get into submarine school as an officer of the deck; went to sub school 18 months after graduating from Annapolis; working on simulators; lowest guy on totem pole, or "George," gets all the dirty jobs; working his way up from communications officer to chief engineer. (04:17)
Home port of call for his first submarine, the Gudgeon, was Pearl Harbor; the good life when they were there made it easy to think about making the Navy his career; another attraction was chance to train on nuclear power; in school 40 hours a week, expected to study 80 hours a week, so Saturday nights were the only real free time. (02:28) Problems with some of the early Polaris missiles, which would backtrack instead of going out into the ocean or go horizontal instead of vertical; first voyage on his second boat, the Abraham Lincoln, was in the North Sea; range of missiles at that time was limited, so they had to be close to the targets of interest behind the Iron Curtain. (01:51) Length of patrols were around eight weeks; on upkeep when the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred in 1962; they were scheduled to leave on patrol in l3 days, but it was shortened to 13 hours' notice; they went out for 76 days that time; partway through the patrol, they learned that "Khrushchev had blinked" and the crisis was resolved; during the crisis they would have frequent weapons system readiness tests; that was the only time during his tours on ballistic missile submarines that he felt there was a possibility of a real war breaking out and he could be coming home to very little. (03:05)
Sinking of the Thresher; a good friend was on it; his own boat, the Lincoln, had some problems that in retrospect might have predicted what happened to the Thresher; SubSafe program was instituted after that accident to prevent a recurrence. (01:18) Commanding officer training; 13 weeks of Admiral Rickover's "Charm School;" working in his office in Washington, DC; studying 8 hours a day, listening to his lectures; "if we knew what was good us, we would do it the Admiral's way." (02:51) Finally getting his first command; pay was modest considering he was in charge of a $100 million boat and 140 men (including 12 officers), but he loved the feeling of camaraderie--an all-volunteer group which had also been carefully screened so they knew they were special; family got to move to Pearl Harbor for this period, so despite his long absences, they did have a good life. (03:39)
First ship to command was the John Adams, third-generation Polaris submarine; had four-and-a-half years of command, thanks in part to the boat having to be overhauled for a year; essential job was deterrence, practicing to be perfect at something you hope would never happen. (02:58) One potential danger in a submarine: malfunctioning atmosphere control equipment. (02:18) 

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  October 26, 2011
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