April 25, 1960: USS Triton completes first underwater voyage around the world

·Christy Karras

It was called Operation Sandblast, but it had nothing to do with sand, and the only blasting was the propulsion of a metal tube through water. The USS Triton’s around-the-world underwater voyage in 1960 was intended to prove American strength at the height of the Cold War. The U.S. and the Soviet Union were vying for dominance on land, in the air and even in space, and dominating the seas would be just as critical.

The Triton — the largest nuclear-powered submarine in the U.S. fleet — set off in February. Its mission was timed to impress the world right before U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev met for the Paris Summit that May. In a mere 60 days, the submarine traveled 26,723 miles back to its starting point, the Saint Peter and Saint Paul Archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean. It used roughly the same route Magellan had (on the surface) to circle the world more than 400 years earlier.

The sub's triumphant arrival on April 25 made it the first sub to circumnavigate the globe without ever surfacing. The New York Times called it "a triumph of human prowess and engineering skill, a feat which the United States Navy can rank as one of its bright victories in man's ultimate conquest of the seas."

Even many Triton crewmembers didn't know the top-secret mission’s true goal until it was underway, and no other government spotted the Triton during its tour. The only unauthorized person to see it en route: a Filipino man in a dugout canoe who found himself staring into the submarine’s periscope.

It wasn’t a completely smooth voyage. The crew had to come up with ingenious fixes for a few equipment malfunctions along the way, and one man became ill and had to leave (a nearby Navy cruiser off the South American coast took him on).

Along the way, the sub collected data about everything from ocean currents to how well the crew adapted to long-term life under water. Although other vessels have circumnavigated the earth, the USS Triton still holds the record for doing it the fastest.