Commissioned by the U.S. Navy on September 30, 1954, the USS Nautilus was the world’s first nuclear submarine. On August 3, 1958, the ship also became the first submarine to pass under the North Pole.
Crew members Frank Holland and John Krawczyk decided to commemorate the historic trip with a special cancellation stamp and envelope cachet stamp. The journey below the pole, made in the midst of the Cold War, was planned in secrecy. The ship first tried to pass under the pole in July, but found the ice was thicker than anticipated. Crew member John C. Yuill later recalled that the ship was forced to “grope along near the bottom, trying to find a way through into deeper water. It was tedious at times and nail-biting at others as we passed under ever thickening ridges of ice forcing us closer and closer to the sea bottom.” When the ship had only about six feet of space between it and the ice above or sea floor below Commander W.R. Anderson ordered the ship around. The crew would try again later.
While at Pearl Harbor preparing for the next attempt, Krawczyk had this cancellation device constructed. He had it built in two parts, so no one could guess the ship’s still secret mission. Holland helped prepare the date cancellation device. The date and time was added at the last minute, once the ship was under the pole, at 11:15pm, August 3.
Crew members helped cancel 1,528 envelopes with Krawczyk and Holland’s hand-made devices. The cachet was added on the trip up and the date stamp applied while the sub was 700 feet below the pole.
The Nautilus emerged northeast of Greenland on August 5, 1958. Commander Anderson was airlifted off the ship and flown to Washington, DC, for a press conference. He brought along the specially-cancelled mail. Postmaster General Summerfield assured Anderson that the mail would be put into the mail stream, despite having been cancelled by a ship crew, not postal workers. True to Summerfield’s word, the envelopes were placed into the mail and made their way to their destinations.
By Nancy A. Pope