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Passing of Vice Admiral John H. Nicholson, USN (Ret.)

By: Samuel J. Cox Rear Adm., USN (retired) Director of Naval History, Curator for the Navy Director, Naval History and Heritage Command

It is with deep regret I inform you of the passing of Vice Admiral John Harris “Nick” Nicholson, U.S. Navy (Retired) on November 7, 2020 at age 96.  Vice Adm. Nicholson enlisted in December 1942, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1946 and served as a submarine officer until his retirement in 1980 as the Deputy Director, Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff. As one of the first two officers to commence Navy nuclear power training, he served in the commissioning crew of the first nuclear submarine, USS Nautilus (SSN 571) and as Navigator for the first extensive under-ice operations by USS Skate (SSN 578) in 1958. His commands included USS Pickerel (SS 524), USS Sargo (SSN 583, surfacing at the North Pole) USS Stonewall Jackson Blue (SSBN 634, first deterrent patrol), Naval Nuclear Power Training Unit, Idaho Falls, USS Merrick (AKA 97, awarded Bronze Star with Combat “V” for Vietnam operations) Submarine Squadron FIFTEEN, and Submarine Group EIGHT.

John Nicholson attended the University of Nevada for a year studying mechanical engineering and then worked as a carpenter’s apprentice. He enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve on December 4, 1942. He entered the U.S. Naval Academy on June 29, 1943 with the wartime accelerated class of 1947, graduating in June 1946 with a Bachelor of Science in Naval Science. While at the Naval Academy he excelled academically and was a gifted athlete in all sports and was described as “no finer friend, no truer companion could ever be had.” 

In June 1946, Ensign Nicholson reported as Assistant Engineer aboard destroyer minesweeper McCook (DMS 36) operating from San Francisco and then San Diego primarily as part of the Underwater Training Unit.  In March 1947, Ensign Nicholson was assigned as Gunnery Officer and Navigator on the fast transport Wantuck (APD 125) for two deployments to the Western Pacific, on the second operating from Tsingtao, China transporting Chinese Nationalist troops to various locations to fight the Communists during the Chinese Civil War as well as a successful mission to retrieve U.S. aviators who had fallen into Chinese Communist hands.

Selected for submarine duty, Ensign Nicholson reported to the Naval Submarine School New London in June 1948. In December 1948, he was assigned to the new construction diesel attack submarine Tiru (SS 416) with duty in the Gunnery Department and as Engineer for her work-ups on the West Coast and homeport shift to Pearl Harbor. In 1950, he was one of the first two officers selected for the Navy nuclear power program, detaching from Tiru in January 1951. Lieutenant (junior grade) Nicholson commenced nuclear training at the Westinghouse Electric Corporation while assigned to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Division of Reactor Development, Pittsburgh. In June 1952, Lieutenant Nicholson continued nuclear training at the AEC, National Reactor Testing Station, Arco, Idaho on the submarine thermal reactor.

In January 1954, Lt. Nicholson reported to the pre-commissioning crew of the first nuclear submarine, USS Nautilus (SSN 571) under construction at Groton and commissioned in July 1954. Lt. Nicholson served as Main Propulsion Assistant, Engineering Officer, Operations Officer, Navigator and ultimately Executive Officer. He was serving as Machinery Division Officer when Nautilus’ skipper sent the famous “Underway on nuclear power” message on January 17, 1955. Lt. Nicholson received a commendatory letter from the Commander, Submarine Force, Atlantic Fleet for his role in Nautilus’ transit from Groton to Puerto Rico, the longest submerged transit and highest submerged sustained speed to that date.

Immediately upon detaching from Nautilus in December 1956, Lt. Nicholson then reported to nuclear attack submarine Skate (SSN 578) then under construction and commissioned in December 1957. Lt. Nicholson was awarded a Navy Commendation Medal for “one of the finest navigational feats in modern naval history,” serving as Skate’s navigator during her 2,400 NM of under-ice operations in 1958, surfacing through the ice nine times and crossing under the North Pole on August 11, 1958, one week after Nautilus’ first crossing, but was unable to surface at the Pole due to heavy thickness of ice. Skate was awarded a Navy Unit Commendation. (Skate would later become the first submarine to surface at the North Pole in March 1959, after Lieutenant Commander Nicholson detached, after serving as Skate’s Executive Officer.) 

Immediately after detaching from Skate, Lt. Cmdr. Nicholson assumed command of diesel attack submarine Pickerel (SS 524) operating from Pearl Harbor, alternating between North Pacific patrols and serving as a training “target” for surface and air anti-submarine units.

In August 1959, Lt. Cmdr. Nicholson assumed command of recently commissioned (October 1, 1958) nuclear fast attack submarine Sargo (SSN 583) just after her transfer to Pearl Harbor, becoming the first nuclear vessel in the Pacific. Lt. Cmdr. Nicholson was awarded a Legion of Merit and the Sargo a Navy Unit Commendation for her extensive under-ice operations in 1960, surfacing at the North Pole (within 25 feet) on February 9, 1960 (and planting the Hawaiian flag) and becoming the first submarine to enter and exit the Arctic via the Bering Strait in winter. Lt. Cmdr. Nicholson would also be commended for his actions during the first major nuclear submarine accident. On June 14, 1960, one day before taking the King and Queen of Thailand for a demonstration cruise, Sargo was alongside the quay in Pearl Harbor filling her oxygen tanks when the oxygen line passing through the aft torpedo hatch developed a high pressure, high-volume leak, which then ignited in a severe fire that resulted in low-order detonation of two conventional torpedoes. With the reactor off-line and unable to control the fire from sub or shore, Lt. Cmdr. Nicholson kedged the Sargo a short distance away from the quay and submerged the stern with aft torpedo hatch open, which flooded the compartment as the stern bottomed on the harbor floor, putting out the fire. Although Sargo was repaired and returned to service in only three months, regrettably Machinists Mate Third Class James Smallwood, perished in the initial fire; he would subsequently be awarded a posthumous Navy-Marine Corps Medal for his quick actions which saved the lives of other crewmen and prevented a far worse outcome (and a new Bachelor Enlisted Quarters at Pearl Harbor, completed in 1987, was named in Smallwood’s honor). Three other Sargo crewmen were commended for their valor during the fire. Lesson were learned and such an accident was never repeated.      

In May 1961, Lt. Cmdr. Nicholson reported to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations in Washington, D.C. as head of the Nuclear Propulsion and Navigation Section of the Submarine Warfare Division. Promoted to commander in May 1962, he subsequently reported in August 1963 as Commanding Officer (Blue) of the new construction fleet ballistic missile submarine Stonewall Jackson (SSBN 634) taking her from the Pacific to Florida for her first Polaris ballistic missile test launch, and then subsequently taking the submarine from Bangor, Washington on her first ballistic missile deterrent patrol in April 1965.

In July 1965, Cmdr. Nicholson assumed command of the Naval Nuclear Power Training Unit, Idaho Falls, under the AEC Division of Naval Reactors, Pittsburgh. Promoted to captain in July 1966, he assumed command of the attack cargo ship Merrick (AKA 97) in October 1967. Captain Nicholson was awarded a Bronze Star with combat “V” for actions in command of Merrick during Operations Swift Play, Swift Play II and Allen Brook in the summer of 1968, supporting heavy combat by U.S. Marines against Viet Cong and regular North Vietnamese troops on an island just south of Da Nang; although incurring significant casualties, the operations prevented Vietnamese Communist plans to conduct a major “mini-Tet” offensive in the Da Nang area. Merrick was also commended for close operations in the Mekong River Delta and well-planned civic action programs. In June 1969, Capt. Nicholson attended the Industrial College of the Armed Forces (ICAF) in Washington, D.C., concurrently earning a Masters in Business Administration from the George Washington University.     

In August 1970, Capt. Nicholson assumed command of Submarine Squadron FIFTEEN (SUBRON 15) in charge of all Polaris ballistic missile submarines in the Pacific Fleet. SUBRON 15 was awarded a Meritorious Unit Commendation and Capt. Nicholson his second Legion of Merit as Officer in Tactical Command of a “flawless Polaris operational test of great importance to the United States.” In June 1972, Capt. Nicholson assumed duty as Deputy Commander for Fleet and Logistics Support, Naval Ship Systems Command Headquarters, Washington, D.C.

Promoted to rear admiral on May 1, 1973, Rear Adm. Nicholson assumed duty in July 1974 as Director Strategic Submarine Division and Trident Program Coordinator in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, leading the development of the Trident ballistic missile submarine program, the highest priority of the previous CNO (Admiral Zumwalt) to ensure the survivability of U.S. Navy’s strategic missile deterrent submarines as the Polaris/Poseidon submarines began to reach the end of their service life. In June 1975, Rear Adm. Nicholson assumed command of Submarine Group EIGHT in Naples, Italy with additional duty as Commander Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarine Force (CTF 64) and Commander Submarine Force (CTF 69) of U.S. SIXTH Fleet as well as serving as Commander Naval Striking and Support Forces, Southern Europe/Commander Allied Submarines Mediterranean. In June 1977, Rear Adm. Nicholson assumed duty as Assistant Chief of Staff Plans and Policy for Supreme Allied Commander Europe.

In July 1979, he was designated a vice admiral for duty in a billet commensurate with that rank, serving as the Deputy Director, Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, responsible for developing the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP), the general plan for nuclear warfare, one of the most sensitive and highly classified plans at the time. Vice Adm. Nicholson retired on July 1, 1980.

Vice Adm. Nicholson’s awards include the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the Distinguished Service Medal, Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit (2), Bronze Star with Combat “V,” Navy Commendation Medal, Navy Unit Commendation (2 – Skate and Sargo) Meritorious Unit Commendation (SUBRON 15) China Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, WWII Victory Medal, National Defense Service Medal (2), Vietnam Service Medal with two bronze stars, and Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with device.

I have found no information online regarding what Vice Adm. Nicholson did after he retired from active duty other than that he was a Legacy Society member of the Naval Submarine League, and was the main speaker at the dedication of the Smallwood Bachelor Enlisted Quarters in Pearl Harbor in 1987. 

Volunteering to enter the U.S. Navy during the height of World War II, Vice Adm. Nicholson went on to be one of the great early pioneers of the Navy nuclear power program, even providing recommendations on reactor safety improvements to “Captain Rickover,” while still under instruction at the Nautilus plant mock-up in Idaho. He developed completely new navigation techniques for Arctic under-ice operations while aboard Skate and then used them effectively as Commanding Officer of Sargo during some particularly harrowing winter under-ice operations. He was among those who pressed the envelope to see just what the new nuclear powered submarines were capable of, accepting a degree of risk in an existential Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union that would be considered unnecessary today. He excelled at everything he did everywhere he went; even as the skipper of a cargo ship he found his way into the action with skillful support of Marines ashore, earning a Bronze Star with combat “V.” Shifting his focus from attack submarines to strategic missile submarines, he was also significantly instrumental in the early development of the Trident missile and Ohio-class SSBN’s, which are still serving today. Perhaps his most harrowing assignment was his last, developing the “SIOP,” bureaucratese for all-out nuclear Armageddon (and other “lesser” nuclear war plan options). Fortunately, Vice Adm. Nicholson did his job so well that those weapons aboard ballistic missile submarines never had to be used in anger, actually doing their job of preventing all-out nuclear war by being ready for it. Vice Adm. Nicholson served our Navy with great distinction, and our nation is far more secure because of it. His legacy certainly lives on the greatest submarine force in history – ours.

Rest in Peace Admiral Nicholson.