William Anderson, 85; commanded submarine that reached North Pole

Times Staff Writer

William Anderson, who made history in 1958 when he commanded the atomic submarine Nautilus under the polar ice cap to the North Pole and later served four terms as a U.S. congressman from Tennessee, has died. He was 85.

Anderson, who as a congressman became an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War and made headlines by revealing that cells resembling “tiger cages” were being used to house political prisoners in a South Vietnamese prison, died Feb. 25 after a brief illness in Leesburg, Va., his family said.

A U.S. Naval Academy graduate and veteran of Pacific submarine service during World War II, Anderson took command of the Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, in 1957.


The Nautilus’ successful top-secret mission to the North Pole in 1958 began on July 23, when Anderson and his crew left Pearl Harbor.

The Nautilus submerged under the Arctic ice pack off Point Barrow, Alaska, on Aug. 1. It crossed the North Pole at 11:15 p.m., Aug. 3, and ended its 1,830-mile journey under the polar ice pack when it emerged in the Greenland Sea on Aug. 5.

As the Nautilus approached the pole, according to a 1958 account in Life magazine, crew members who were off watch began filing into the sub’s attack center, where Anderson began a countdown over the ship’s loudspeaker: “ ... three ... two ... one ... mark!” he said, then added: “Sunday, 3 August 1958, 2315 Eastern Daylight Saving Time. For the U.S. and the U.S. Navy: the North Pole.”

Worldwide acclaim greeted the 37-year-old Tennessee native and his crew, who became overnight heroes.

Anderson was dubbed “the 20th century’s Captain Nemo” in reference to the fictional submarine skipper in Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”

During a ticker-tape parade on Broadway in New York City, a crowd estimated at about 250,000 people turned out to give Anderson and his crew members a rousing ovation.

Anderson appeared on the cover of Life magazine, and President Eisenhower presented him with the Legion of Merit at the White House.

At a White House news conference, Anderson bragged about his navigators, saying, “I really think that this is the most remarkable job in ship navigation that has ever been done.”

Elaborating, he said, “A trip across the North Pole, where there is no opportunity to observe anything outside of the ship, no opportunity to observe stars or do any type of electronic navigation, presents a very formidable problem -- or what has been up to now a very formidable problem.”

During another news conference, in London, Anderson said a new type of on-board navigational device had let them know precisely when they were reaching the North Pole.

“I don’t mean close to the pole, and I don’t mean near it,” he said. “I mean [when] we actually pierced it.”

“Nautilus 90 North,” Anderson’s 1959 account of the submarine’s historic voyage, which he wrote with Clay Blair Jr., became a bestseller.

Although Anderson and Blair asserted in their book that the feat was “perhaps the most remarkable voyage in the history of man,” Anderson seemed to downplay the inherent dangers on the epic voyage’s 40th anniversary in 1998.

“When we thought about the people who did it the hard way -- with dogsleds, over ice, against incredible wind and low temperature -- we felt like our way was easy,” he told Life.

After retiring from active duty in the Navy in 1962, Anderson unsuccessfully ran for governor of Tennessee as an independent.

In 1964, he was elected to Congress, representing the 6th District of Tennessee as a Democrat.

Initially a hawk on the Vietnam War, Anderson did an about-face after making a two-week trip to Vietnam as a member of a House fact-finding committee in 1970. While in Vietnam, he and California Rep. Augustus Hawkins discovered that Communist prisoners of war were being held in small cells resembling tiger cages at the Con Son prison.

Anderson was born June 17, 1921, in Bakerville, Tenn. After graduating from Columbia Military Academy, he entered the U.S. Naval Academy in 1939.

After leaving Congress in 1973, Anderson became chairman of the board of Digital Management Corp.

He and his wife, Pat, founded Public Office Corp., a data management firm that specialized in computer-related services to presidential primary campaign committees and members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives seeking reelection.

Anderson also wrote “First Under the North Pole,” a book for children, and “The Useful Atom,” co-written with Vernon Pizer.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by his sons, Michael David Anderson, William Robert Anderson Jr. and Thomas McKelvey “Mac” Anderson; his daughter, Jane Hensley Anderson; his sister, Josephine Garner, and a granddaughter.