The USS Triton was the first submarine to circumnavigate the world completely underwater. It was spotted just once, by a Filipino fisherman.
The Cold War was a funny time. Both the United States and the Soviet Union were eager to show off their respective technological and military might. But both countries at least made some efforts to appear peaceful. These two goals often came into conflict.
Paris was to be the site of a peace summit between the leaders of the superpowers in 1960 – the first such meeting in five years. The United States was keen to show off a bit for this meeting. They planned to do something that had never been done before: circumnavigate the world in a nuclear submarine, without ever coming up to the surface.
The USS Triton was the pride of the US navy, the newest and most advanced submarine in the world. It had two nuclear reactors and a lot to prove. Its first mission, code-named Operation Sandblast, was a secret from even the crew until they went to sea. (Although the submariners were told to get their tax returns in order before they set out, so they were probably expecting a long trip.)
The circumnavigation followed, roughly, the route that Ferdinand Magellan had taken 438 years earlier. It began and ended at Saint Paul’s Rocks, which you may remember from the post about Neptune dunking Charles Darwin in a crossing the line ceremony. Neptune visited the USS Triton as well when they first crossed into the Southern Hemisphere:
The voyage was pretty uneventful, except some equipment malfunctions and one medical emergency. The Chief Radarman developed kidney stones and had to be evacuated. How do you achieve this without surfacing? Nope, they didn’t shoot him out a torpedo tube. (Although, side note, that was how they got rid of their garbage.) Instead, they surfaced just the “sail” – the top part of the submarine – and transferred him to a waiting ship.
I guess the sail doesn’t count as part of the submarine for the purposes of the underwater circumnavigation record?
Anyway, the whole mission was supposed to be a big secret. Being able to sail a submarine all the way around the world without being detected was the best way to show off the United States’ naval power. But the USS Triton was spotted, just once.
On April 1, 1960, a young Filipino fisherman named Rufino Baring set sail from Mactan Island in a tiny fishing boat. Paddling through the waters, he spotted a periscope sticking out of the water. It was the USS Triton: they were trying to spot a monument to Magellan on Mactan Island. (This was the island where Magellan died, centuries earlier.)
The photo at the top of this page is Baring, taken from the Triton’s periscope view. The poor kid was terrified – as you would be! – and fled as fast as he could. He was the only non-authorized person to spot the submarine on its entire round-the-world voyage.
The USS Triton completed its underwater circumnavigation in sixty days. The Paris Summit was a bust, though. The Soviet Union shot down an American spy plane near Yekaterinburg and that pretty much sabotaged any hope of a thaw to the Cold War.