If You Screwed It Up, Raise Your Hand

Mike Toner: Started June 28, 1965 as a Nuclear Engineer; Became President of EB in 2000

I graduated from New York Maritime College with a B.S. in nuclear science. I had an offer from the Knolls Atomic Power Lab up in Schenectady and I went up there for an interview. It looked like you were going to sit in an office. I really wasn’t prepared to wear a tie and smile broadly whenever pointed at. So I didn’t do that. I had a fellowship from Virginia Tech to get a PhD in physics. The reading was all in Russian and German. Forget it. Then I had the opportunity at EB.

They came down and recruited. I thought it might be a pretty neat thing.

When you started, they put you up at Mitchell College in a dorm for a couple nights. I had an aunt up in Norwich on Cliff Street. I stayed there a week or two until I got friends and we went off and rented a house in Old Lyme on Shore Road.

We hopped around, lived in Mystic for a while, before Mystic was Mystic, adjacent to the Army-Navy store. I think it was $30 apiece, so 90 bucks a month. I slept in a hall on the couch. I thought it was fine. I mean you’re a kid. I hung my clothes on a rope I strung in the back – I didn’t have many so it didn’t matter.

It was a spectacular time. I hired in as a nuclear test engineer. We basically performed the testing of the reactor and the nuclear systems, from initial installation, flushes, hydros, wire checks, turn it on, start it up, right up through initial criticality and then taking the ship to sea.

That was the best day, going down that river. It didn’t get any better than that.

For the Nautilus, people just came together and said, “This is what we’re going to do.” As the processes became specific they built them into the culture. It’s Rickover’s brilliance that he institutionalized all the procedures and processes. We had a procedure for everything.

The people that were in the yard – they were all characters. The shipyard test organization guys, a lot of them were “diesel boats forever.” They didn’t like the nucs. They didn’t like the idea that the nuclear guys could come in and have all these rules that you had to live by.

But the diesel guys were needed because they had the front end of the boat. The whole boat’s going to sea. Everything else had to work perfectly for the reactor to even function. They were good people. I mean good people. You could go in and argue and at the end of the day they’d say, “Hey, we’re going up the hill. You want a beer?”

There were people that lived for the yard. They were devoted to the product. They may have had a family or something else on the sideline but it was a sideline – unfortunately, as time went on. They were dedicated to that ship because they knew that the folks that were going to go in it, their lives depended on it. They knew – we had the Thresher sink in ’63. That’s a big deal.

Rickover was the person behind the whole program, the attention to detail. “Did you check it?

Did you pay attention to it? Did you get it right? If you screwed it up, raise up your hand. Say, ‘Hey, we gotta fix this.’” These guys would do that.

If some guy raises his hand, we may not like it. But we’d go find out what was right. You had to defend every position that you took.

Issues with the steel on the Seawolf in the 1990s came from a guy seeing something that didn’t look right. A fellow named Warren Mayotte, God love him, came up with how we were going to go fix that.

We basically, among many different things, had to preheat the entire ship and soak it at 300 degrees to drive the hydrogen out of the welds. He proved that that would work. We used heater tape. We had a tent almost the length of the ship and guys in there monitoring the temperatures. We sat there and cooked that ship. We solved the problem. And it started out with a guy saying, “This doesn’t look right.”

We learned from Thresher. After Challenger, NASA came to EB to look at our quality control.

What the older people gave us in the ’60s was the culture of getting it done. “We can do this work.” There wasn’t a problem that you could not solve.