USS Robert E. Lee Historical Overview 

This Historical Overview has been compiled from many sources, including the welcome aboard pamphlets available after commissioning and the Mare Island overhaul.

The USS Robert E. Lee was the third nuclear-powered fleet ballistic missile submarine to join the fleet. She started life as a Fast Attack and 26 years later, she ended her service by once more becoming a Fast Attack (click here to see her final days page). Her keel was laid on Shipway 5 Aug. 25, 1958, less than a month after her contract was signed on July 30.  She was to become the USS Shark (SSN-591), Newport News Shipyard Hull No 545, as one of the boats in the modified Skipjack class (SSN-585) design.  Although the contract for Shark had been awarded almost 18 months earlier than that of Robert E. Lee, the Polaris program had priority, so the Lee was completed first. Robert E. Lee and her four sisters in the George Washington Class (SSBN-598) that were built at other shipyards all started as a modified Skipjack-class design with a 130-foot missile section containing 16 Polaris tubes added amidships. Like the others in the 598 Class, the Lee's construction was expedited and she was launched on Dec. 18, 1959.

The Lee is the first U.S. Navy ship to bear the name of the famous confederate general and the first nuclear submarine to have been built in the South. She was the first nuclear ship to be built at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company. The christening ceremony for Robert E. Lee was a festive one in tradition of the Old South, and Gen. Lee’s granddaughter Mrs. Hanson E. Ely, JR., served as sponsor.  Robert E. Lee fired a water salvo from her missile tubes during the launching of Enterprise (CVAN-65) and completed highly successful sea trials before being commissioned at the shipyard.  Another descendent of General Lee, Vice Admiral Fitzhugh Lee, USN, was the principal speaker when the ship was commissioned on September 16, 1960.

Commissioning commanding officers were CDR Ruben F. Woodall, USN (Blue Crew) and CDR Joe Williams, Jr., USN (Gold Crew). After conducting sixteen Polaris deterrent patrols, Robert E Lee was overhauled in 1965 and 1966 by the San Francisco Bay Naval Shipyard. During this overhaul, the nuclear reactor was refueled, many ship's systems where re-engineered to provide greater safety of operation and reliability, and the weapons system was modified to give the ship the capability of firing the A-3 Polaris missile.

The Ship was longer than a football field, taller than a five-story building, and more than three times as heavy as the fleet-type submarines which played a significant role in the Pacific in World War II. She carries a crew of 124 enlisted men and 13 officers. The air conditioning and atmosphere control equipment maintain the air within the ship at optimum temperature, relative humidity and composition for the comfort of the crew on prolonged submerged operations. The capacity of the sea water distilling unites is more than adequate to provide makeup water for the propulsion plant, the requirements of the galley and scullery, and a shower a day for every man on board.

The Missile. ROBERT E. LEE was originally built to carry sixteen of the 1200-mile A-1 Polaris missiles. The launcher and fire control system were later modified to shoot the more sophisticated 2500-mile A-3 Polaris missile. The A-3 missile was 31 feet long and 54 inches in diameter and carried a nuclear warhead. It was a two-stage, solid propellant ballistic missile which employed an inertial guidance system to steer the missile to the target. The missiles could be fired from the surface or submerged. The destructive power of the sixteen A-3 missiles carried by the ROBERT E. LEE was greater than all the bombs dropped during World War II. It was this tremendous potential for destruction which made the Polaris Weapons System the credible deterrent to aggression that it was.

The Nuclear Reactor. The heart of the propulsion system of ROBERT E. LEE was its nuclear reactor. The reactor was of the pressurized water design in which the energy released by nuclear fission heated the highly purified water in the primary coolant system. The primary coolant then transferred its heat to the secondary water which formed the steam used in the propulsion turbines and the ship’s turbo-generators. Nuclear propulsion enabled ROBERT E. LEE to steam indefinitely at high speeds, completely submerged.

Navigation. Two positions must be known accurately for a successful missile launching - the position of the target and the position of the launcher. Since the launcher was in the ship which was constantly in motion, determining the position of the ship continuously and accurately was a formidable task. Several methods were used to complement each other on the ROBERT E. LEE to provide a high order of accuracy in determining the ship’s position. The heart of the system was the Ship’s Inertial Navigation Systems (SINS), a complex arrangement of gyro-scopes and accelerometers, which sensed ship motions in all directions and kept track of true north. Ship’s position was continuously available from SINS.

Like other Polaris ships she was operated with two crews in alternating 60-day patrols. During the early years, the two crews conducted alternate patrols from Holy Loch in Scotland.  Between Polaris patrols there was a period alongside a submarine tender for upkeep, repair and maintenance. While one crew was on the ship on patrol or in Holy Loch, the other crew was on leave or making preparations back in New London, Connecticut (the original homeport) for the next patrol.

Robert E. Lee fired her first missile off Cape Canaveral in December 1960, and underwent her post shake-down availability at Newport News in February 1961. She was assigned to Submarine Squadron 14 operating out of Holy Loch, Scotland, in July and commenced the first of many deterrent patrols on Aug. 9. During her career Robert E. Lee completed 55 such patrols on both sides of the globe. She underwent her first refueling overhaul at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in 1965-1966 and was modified for the improved Polaris A-3 system. She continued with Squadron 14 and completed her 33rd patrol before her second refueling at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in 1971. She operated on the East Coast until late 1973, then was transferred to the Pacific, arriving at Guam in October. Robert E. Lee underwent her third refueling at Mare Island in 1977 but was not converted to the Poseidon missile system because of her age. With the arrival of the first Trident missile submarines in 1981 and 1982, Robert E. Lee’s days were numbered. She completed her 55th and the US Navy's final Polaris patrol on Oct. 1, 1981, marking the end of a fleet total of 1,245 patrols and over 24,000 man-years at sea with the Polaris system. She was redesignated SSN-601 on March 1, 1982, then operated on the West Cost as an attack submarine with a consolidated crew for the next year. In February 1983, Robert E. Lee entered Puget Sound Naval Shipyard for inactivation. Her reactor was defueled, her missile section was removed, and she was decommissioned at Bremerton, WA, on Nov. 30, 1983, in a ceremony held aboard Missouri (BB-63). Robert E. Lee was then laid up there awaiting disposal after defending her country for over 20 years.
Compiled from "Dictionary of American Fighting Ships,"
Various pamphlets (Commissioning and Mare Island overhaul Welcome Aboard)

Historical Links

This link is to the page in the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships (DANFS) on the USS Robert E. Lee that outlines the first few years of the boat's operational history.  It includes a brief bio on General Robert E. Lee.