GRANTS PASS, Ore. — In 1958, the US Navy embarked on a secret mission codenamed "Operation Sunshine." The goal was for a vessel to complete an underwater trip beneath the North Pole.
If the crew of the first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus, could manage the journey, it would change trade and travel routes—and prove that the US could compete technologically against the Soviet Union.
On August 3 of that year, history was made.
"We had president Eisenhower, and in 1957 the Russians put up a satellite called Sputnik. In the world news everywhere was about Sputnik, and so president Eisenhower wanted a way to show that the United States was no dummy," said Charles "Chuck" Partial. Partial was a member of the Nautilus' crew back in 1958.
At the time, no ship had ever made the journey through the North Pole due to the depth of the ice.
"It's just unbelievable...you don't consider yourself, I still don't consider myself a hero—even though newspapers and the media and everyone always calls us a hero. Even the president awarded us the Presidential Unit Citation because of having completed that dangerous journey," said Partial.
It took the Nautilus two tries to succeed.
"We got to the point where we had about a foot of water above the submarine, and about a foot of water below the submarine, so we backed back out and went to Hawaii for a couple of weeks while the ice was changing and then we headed for the ice and went under it and crossed it," said Partial.
The success of that second attempt made world news.
"Us and our wives were put up in hotels, we ended up having lunch at the top of the Empire State building, we had a parade down fifth Avenue, went to the Copacabana and saw went to the raceway and presented the winning horse with its wreath so it was a real big deal," said Partial.
Partial remembers the mission well, but says that he didn't realize that the crew had just made history.
"We had no idea. To us it was just another operation," said Partial.
Operation Sunshine created a new and shorter route from the Pacific to the Atlantic. It also led to new technology, with advanced navigation and guidance systems.
"Most people when they reach my age they've had a humdrum life, and I figure I've had a really exciting different life. I've done things. Everything in the world," said Partial.
On Tuesday, Partial sets off for the 60th anniversary of his expedition under the North Pole—probably the last one he will ever make.
"Most sailors from 60 years afterwards they don't get to the chance to put their feet on the boat that they served on, and with my eyesight and my hearing loss I don't figure I'll ever get this chance again, so it means a lot to me," said Partial.
14 of the original crew members will be there to join him in the three-day long ceremony honoring the courage and spirit of adventure that brought the nation into a new age.