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In Memoriam: Rear Admiral Richard A. Riddell, USN

June 29, 2022 | By Sam Cox (Rear Adm. USN, Ret.), Director, Naval History and Heritage Command

It is with deep regret I inform you of the passing of Rear Admiral Richard Anderson “Dick” Riddell, U.S. Navy (Ret.), on 27 May 2022 at age 81. Rear Admiral Riddell entered the U.S. Naval Academy in June 1958 and served as a submarine officer until his retirement in 1998 as the director of Test, Evaluation and Technical Requirements (N091) in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO). His commands included USS Nautilus (SSN-571), Submarine Squadron ONE (SUBRON 1), and Submarine Group NINE (SUBGRU 9)/Naval Base Seattle. He was the last commanding officer of Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine. 

Dick Riddell first took the oath of office at the U.S. Naval Academy on 30 June 1958. While at the academy, he was editor-in-chief of the Lucky Bag (the academy yearbook), played in the drum and bugle corps, and participated in sailing, cross-country, and fencing. He was known as an “astute thinker” with “a flair for coming up with unusual and original ideas….” He graduated with a degree in naval science and was commissioned an ensign on 6 June 1962. 

Selected for nuclear power training, Ensign Riddell reported to Nuclear Power School, Mare Island Naval Shipyard, California, in August 1962. In March 1963, he then was assigned to the Naval Nuclear Power Training Unit, Idaho Falls, Idaho, followed in October 1963 by additional training at the Naval Submarine School, Groton, Connecticut. He was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade) in December 1963. 

In April 1964, Lieutenant (j.g.) Riddell reported to nuclear guided-missile submarine USS Halibut (SSGN-587), homeported in Pearl Harbor, for Halibut’s last of seven Regulus missile deterrent patrols in the northwest Pacific. Halibut was the first submarine specifically designed to launch guided missiles and was the first nuclear-powered submarine to launch one. The strategic deterrent mission was taken over by the far-more survivable Polaris ballistic missile submarines, with USS George Washington (SSBN-598) conducting the first such patrol in November 1960. Halibut then underwent a yard period at Mare Island for conversion to an attack submarine. After a period of operations from Pearl Harbor, she then underwent even more extensive modification for intelligence collection missions. Riddell was promoted to lieutenant in December 1965. 

In May 1967, Lieutenant Riddell reported to USS John Marshall (SSBN- 611) at Newport News Shipyard, Virginia, as the submarine was undergoing her first major overhaul. Upon completion of overhaul in April 1968, he served as Blue Crew engineering officer, deploying from Charleston, South Carolina, to Holy Loch, Scotland, for John Marshall’s 18th through 25th deterrent patrols. He was promoted to lieutenant commander in September 1969. 

In May 1970, Lieutenant Commander Riddell assumed duty as executive officer of Naval Nuclear Power Training Unit, Schenectady, New York. In November 1972, he was assigned temporary duty at Commander Submarine Force Atlantic (SUBLANT), followed in January 1973 by a tour as a student at Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk. In June 1973, Riddell assumed duty as executive officer of fast attack nuclear submarine USS Spadefish (SSN-668) as she commenced a major overhaul, followed by Atlantic operations out of Norfolk after June 1974. In July 1976, he reported for duty under instruction to the Division of Naval Reactors, Energy Research and Development Administration. This was followed in October 1976 with prospective commanding officer training at SUBLANT. 

In December 1976, Lieutenant Commander Riddell assumed command of USS Nautilus (SSN-571), the first (and oldest) nuclear submarine, assigned to Submarine Squadron TEN (SUBRON 10) out of New London. He was promoted to commander in July 1977 while Nautilus was deployed to the Mediterranean. In April 1979, Commander Riddell took Nautilus on her last voyage, from Groton to Vallejo, California, where she was decommissioned on 30 March 1980. 

In March 1980, Commander Riddell reported to Submarine Squadron TWO (SUBRON 2) as Deputy Commander, responsible for administrative command of up to 12 submarines operating out of New London. In February 1981, he reported to the Department of Energy, Division of Naval Reactors, as special assistant for personnel and training to the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Naval Reactors/Director Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program (during Admiral Hyman Rickover’s last several months). He was promoted to captain in August 1983. 

In July 1984, Captain Riddell reported to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations as deputy director and then director of the Strategic and Theater Nuclear Warfare Division (OP-65). In July 1986, he assumed command of Submarine Squadron ONE (SUBRON 1) at Pearl Harbor, responsible for about eight fast attack nuclear submarines. In July 1988, Captain Riddell assumed duty as chief of staff for Commander Submarine Forces Pacific (COMSUBPAC). In May 1990, he returned to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations as the director, Strategic Submarines Division (OP-21). 

Captain Riddell was promoted to rear admiral (lower half) on 1 February 1991. In July 1992, Rear Admiral Riddell assumed command of Submarine Group NINE (SUBGRU 9)/Naval Base Seattle, responsible for the first eight Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines. (Naval Base Seattle was formerly the 13th Naval District and now is Navy Region Northwest.) In October 1993, he was designated a rear admiral (two-star) for duty in a billet commensurate with that rank and then officially promoted on 1 March 1994. In August 1994, Riddell returned to the Office of the CNO as director of Special Programs Division (N89). In June 1995, he became director, Test and Evaluation and Technical Requirements (N091). Rear Admiral Riddell retired on 1 July 1998. 

Rear Admiral Riddell’s awards include the Legion of Merit (five awards); Meritorious Service Medal (three awards); Meritorious Unit Commendation; Navy Expeditionary Medal; National Defense Service Medal; and the Sea Service Deployment Ribbon with one bronze star. 

After retiring from active duty, Rear Admiral Riddell worked for General Dynamics. He authored a book published in 2013, Through My Periscope: A Recollection of My Life (available on Amazon). 

I have no information on funeral arrangements at this time. 

Rear Admiral Riddell’s career began just after the Soviet’s Sputnik surprise, the era of the “bomber gap” and the “missile gap,” and an ongoing thermonuclear arms race. Shortly after graduation from the academy, the tense situation came to a head in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest the United States and Soviet Union came to nuclear war (1983 was a close second, that most people don’t know about). Although Rear Admiral Riddell would rack up plenty of time in attack submarines, the preponderance of his career was spent in the business of deterring nuclear war—by being ready to wage it. His first tour on Halibut was an example of the risks taken to hold Soviet forces at risk in the event of a nuclear conflict (it was also an example of a surprisingly frequent U.S. Navy propensity to pursue technological dead ends). Armed with five subsonic nuclear-tipped Regulus missiles—but only one launcher—Halibut would have to surface to fire a missile and remain on the surface to guide the missile to target by active radar, then repeat the process for each missile. This was not considered conducive to submarine longevity—the Polaris was a much better idea. Unclassified submarine histories are pretty boring, but the “Atlantic Operations” when he was executive officer of Spadefish coincided with OKEAN ’75, the largest Soviet world-wide naval exercise ever. Spadefish would no doubt have been somewhere very interesting during that evolution. (At the end of the Cold War, the commander of the Soviet submarine force would complain to CNO Trost about U.S. submarines acting as “suppositories” to Soviet submarines—submariners will understand the analogy.) Even later tours, such as director of “Special Programs,” belie a career that included action-packed sensitive and dangerous operations, everything short of actually pulling the trigger. It will be many years before the true impact of U.S. submarines on the outcome of the Cold War becomes known, but it was profound. Rear Admiral Riddell was among the best of those who waged that silent war, and his extreme professionalism was a factor in ensuring that war never went hot, literally saving the lives of millions. The Navy and nation do not know just how grateful they should be for his service, and the sacrifice made by his family to enable it. 

Rest in Peace, Admiral Riddell. 

On a personal note, in July 1977, Midshipman Third Class Cox had the privilege to see then-Commander Riddell’s submarine in action from the USS Basilone (DD-824) during an antisubmarine warfare (ASW) exercise in the Tyrrhenian Sea. At ENDEX, after 36 hours without a whiff of contact, Nautilus surfaced 300 yards off our starboard quarter. In August 1978, Midshipman Second Class Cox had dinner in the wardroom of Nautilus with the in-port officer of the deck. Suffice it to say that I was far more impressed by Nautilus than Basilone. Now, as the Director of NHHC, I am the ISIC (immediate superior in command) for Historic Ship Nautilus, which just this week (June 2022) came out of her first major overhaul and dry-docking, on time and under budget (and with no impact on operational submarine maintenance), making her good as a museum ship for another 35 years.