Adm. Wilkinson, who also held the initial command of the Navy’s first nuclear-powered surface ship in the early 1960s, had taught college-level chemistry and mathematics before serving aboard submarines during World War II.
His dual background as a professor and naval officer caught the attention of Adm. Hyman G. Rickover, who directed the Navy’s postwar program in nuclear propulsion. Historical accounts have noted that Rickover selected Adm. Wilkinson at least in part because he did not attend the U.S. Naval Academy and had an independent approach to shipbuilding and sailing.
“Rickover was looking for guys bright enough to think, design and build something that hadn’t been built before,” retired Vice Adm. Kenneth M. Carr, who served aboard the Nautilus with Adm. Wilkinson, said in interview. “He was looking for a guy who had the practical experience in submarining and the dreaming experience of being a scientist.”
Adm. Wilkinson received advanced training in nuclear physics at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago and a U.S. Atomic Energy Commission facility in Pennsylvania. He performed calculations about the size and configuration of the reactor that eventually would power the Nautilus.
By 1949, he presented a schedule to Rickover for development of the first nuclear submarine.
“That schedule called for this as-yet-unnamed ship to go to sea on 1 January 1955,” he said in a 2005 speech. “We went later — on the 17th.”
Rickover’s nuclear program was controversial among Navy brass, but President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave it a boost in his 1953 “Atoms for Peace” speech at the United Nations, in which he called for constructive uses of nuclear energy. The next year, first lady Mamie Eisenhower christened the Nautilus.
The Nautilus carried the same name as an early submarine built by Robert Fulton and the underwater vessel featured in Jules Verne’s 1870 novel “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.” It became one of the Navy’s most celebrated postwar achievements, as members of Congress, scientists and journalists flocked for the chance to climb aboard the 319-foot vessel.
Adm. Wilkinson, then with the rank of commander, led the submarine’s crew of 11 officers and 85 enlisted men as it left its berth in Groton, Conn., on Jan. 17, 1955. He sent a terse cable from the Nautilus, which has entered naval lore and is engraved on the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington: “Underway on nuclear power.”
Eugene Parks Wilkinson was born Aug. 10, 1918, in Long Beach, Calif. Both his parents died when he was a child, and he was raised by grandparents in Holtville, Calif. He was known to friends and family throughout his life as Dennis, the name of his father and grandfather.
He skipped two grades in school, was a tennis champion in high school and graduated from what is now San Diego State University when he was 19. He was teaching at San Diego State when he joined the Navy in 1940.
“I thought, ‘Boy, they’ll use me as a chemist,’ ” he recalled in a 1989 interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune. “But they didn’t need chemists. They needed fighters. It was really the best thing that ever happened to me.”
He had eight wartime patrols aboard submarines during World War II and received the Silver Star. He later received three awards of the Distinguished Service Medal and the Legion of Merit.
Adm. Wilkinson relinquished command of the Nautilus in 1957, one year before the submarine captured the world’s imagination by passing beneath the North Pole on a 2,000-mile underwater journey. The Nautilus was retired in 1980 and is on display at the Submarine Force Museum in Groton.
In the early 1960s, Adm. Wilkinson was the first commander of the USS Long Beach, a cruiser that was the Navy’s first nuclear-powered surface ship. He later held several top commands in the Navy’s submarine warfare unit, including deputy chief of naval operations for submarine warfare. He retired in 1974.
He later served on corporate boards and worked as a consultant to a variety of federal agencies, laboratories and companies. From 1980 to 1984, he was president of the newly formed Institute of Nuclear Power Operations in Atlanta. In that role, he helped develop systems of inspection and regulation of nuclear power plants after the partial meltdown in 1979 of the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania.
“In my opinion, he was much more important for the country in what he did in nuclear energy than he was in the Navy,” said Carr, the Navy vice admiral who later served as chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Adm. Wilkinson’s wife of 58 years, the former Janice Thuli, died in 2000.
Survivors include four children, Dennis E. Wilkinson of Nagasaki, Japan, Stephen J. Wilkinson of Austin, Marian Cassazza of Del Mar and Rodney D. Wilkinson of Bremerton, Wash.; four grandsons; and seven great-grandchildren.
From the beginning, Adm. Wilkinson was certain that the Nautilus would revolutionize the Navy’s vessels above and below the surface. Today, the entire U.S. submarine fleet runs on nuclear power.
“There wasn’t any doubt in our minds that this was going to work,” he said in 1989. “We knew what we were doing. We were eager to get out to sea.”