Mail from Under the Pole


By Nancy Pope, Head Curator, History Department

In 1954, the Navy commissioned the first nuclear submarine, the U.S.S. Nautilus. Four years later, as that ship traveled under the North Pole, a couple of crewmen marked the occasion in a special way. John Krawczyk and Frank Holland created a special cancellation stamp and envelope cachet stamp. Those materials, a cover and matchbooks from the U.S.S. Nautilus are in the National Postal Museum.

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Frank Holland and John Krawczyk on board the USS Nautilus

The U.S.S. Nautilus, (SSN-571), left Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on July 23, 1958 with top secret orders to cross under the North Pole. As crew member John C. Yuill later recalled, “It’s hard to realize now, with technology being what it is today, just how primitive our under ice detecting equipment was in 1958, even though we had the latest state of the art equipment.” The ship passed through the Bering Strait and found that the ice was much thicker than they had anticipated. Yuill noted 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 crew found themselves with only about six feet of space between the ship and ice above, and the same distance from the bottom to the sea floor, Commander W. R. Anderson decided to move the ship back to safer water, and try again later.

During the layover at Pearl Harbor, a pair of crew members decided to create a special cancellation device to commemorate the coming historic venture. The second attempt would be successful. The crew headed back north and turning north just off of Point Barrow, finding a sea valley that allowed the ship to pass through with more ease. On 11:15 (EDST) on the evening of August 3, 1958, the Nautilus reached the North Pole. Captain Anderson announced the ship had made the goal and cheers erupted throughout the ship.

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One of the USS Nautilus envelopes was mailed to the Smithsonian Institute

Frank Holland, who helped prepare the date cancellation devices, remembers that John Krawczyk created the cachet cancellation device in two parts so no one would be able to guess the ship’s secret mission. This creative pair had help from other seamen to cancel 1,528 envelopes. Three teams of pairs rotated the cancellation work. When the North Pole was achieved, Holland cut the time of 11:15 p.m. into his cancellation device and began stamping all of the covers. Although the cachet had been added prior to reaching the pole, the date stamp was applied to all covers while the boat was there, at about 700 feet below water.

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Two hand stamps were used to create the pictoral cache.
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Cancellation stamp used on the USS Nautilus letters.

Another crew member, Alfred Charette, who served as a sonarman, noticed that leaving the pole had its moments of confusion that led them to consider the next move as a form of “longitudinal roulette.” As Charlotte explains, “when you are directly at the North Pole, as we were, every direction is south! The problem was that we were not sure exactly which South we were proceeding on to get out from under the ice. South back where we had come from? South to the USSR to the west? South to the USSR to the east? South to Norway? South to Iceland? South to Greenland, and on and on.”

The ship traveled 830 miles under the ice in 96 hours, and emerged on August 5 northeast of Greenland. The ship stopped at Great Britain for an enthusiastic reception. By the time the crew arrived in New York City, the Navy had brought their wives to the city to meet them for, as D. Randolph Harrell recollected, “the best liberty ever!” with their husbands. Members of the crew today recall their time on the Nautilus with great enthusiasm and pride. As Captain W.A. Gaines, a young crew member on the historic trip, recalls, “The Navy assembled the finest crew ever to serve on Nautilus. The accomplishments of that historic ship are truly the accomplishments of the crews who served on her. Without the success, and safety record, that they achieved we would not have nuclear powered ships in our fleet today. I am honored to have played a small role in the historic success of Nautilus.”


Nancy Pope

About the Author
The late Nancy A. Pope, a Smithsonian Institution curator and founding historian of the National Postal Museum, worked with the items in this collection since joining the Smithsonian Institution in 1984. In 1993 she curated the opening exhibitions for the National Postal Museum. Since then, she curated several additional exhibitions. Nancy led the project team that built the National Postal Museum's first website in 2002. She also created the museum's earliest social media presence in 2007.