Why does Idaho have a nuclear submarine named after it? Navy history goes way back.

Tue Feb 27th, 2024

Idaho Statesman

February 27, 2024

By Scott McIntosh

Other than the Port of Lewiston, which happens to be the most inland port on the West Coast, Idaho is otherwise a landlocked state.

You might think, “Why in the heck would Idaho have a Naval vessel named after it?”

“It’s because of the absolute DNA of the Navy in Idaho,” former Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne told me in an interview.

Kempthorne is chairman of the commissioning advisory committee for the USS Idaho, the newest nuclear submarine that will be joining the U.S. Navy fleet.

The Virginia-class submarine is scheduled to be christened March 16 in Groton, Connecticut, where it’s been under construction for the past three years.

It’s the first time in more than 100 years that a Naval vessel has been named after Idaho. The last USS Idaho was a battleship commissioned in 1919 and decommissioned in 1946. That USS Idaho had a stellar career, especially in World War II, where it saw action at Okinawa, Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal, and was in Tokyo Bay for the surrender of Japan.

But Idaho’s roots in Naval history run even deeper than that.

I think it’s safe to say that Idaho is the birthplace of today’s modern nuclear submarine fleet.

The Navy’s first prototype submarine propulsion reactor was built right here in Idaho after World War II at what was then known as the U.S. Naval Proving Ground in Arco, which later became part of the Idaho National Laboratory.

Today’s submarines are all nuclear-powered, and those propulsion systems all got their start in Idaho. The Naval Reactors Facility at INL continues to play a central role in nuclear propulsion systems today.

The USS Nautilus, commissioned in 1954, the world’s first nuclear-powered vessel, famously traveled from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic over four days under the polar ice cap, a feat only possible because of its nuclear propulsion system.

The first prototype for the USS Nautilus was developed in Idaho, and all crew and officers aboard the Nautilus trained in Idaho. In a touch of coming full circle, the USS Idaho will be christened just 2 miles away from where the USS Nautilus is stationed today.

“We have an absolute connection to the Navy,” Kempthorne said. “And so for us to have a nuclear submarine named for us makes perfect sense.”


  • But Idaho’s Naval history goes deeper still: The Sun Valley Resort was the Navy Convalescent Hospital, taking care of 6,578 Naval and Marine patients during World War II. Bing Crosby sang to patients.

  • Farragut Naval Training Center in Athol in North Idaho at one time was the largest city in Idaho and trained as many as 300,000 sailors from 1942-46. Farragut State Park remains today on the shores of Lake Pend Oreille, which Vice Admiral Edmund Giambastiani, commander of the U.S. Submarine Forces from 1998-2000, called “the U.S. Submarine Force’s most important body of water.”

  • The Naval Acoustic Research Detachment in Bayview opened in 1955 and is still operating today on the site of land the Navy retained after closing the Farragut training center. Submarines are known as “the silent service” and made famous by movies such as “Run Silent, Run Deep.” The deep waters of Lake Pend Oreille provide an ideal environment for acoustic testing without the problems and costs of open ocean operations. Much of the acoustic technology on the upcoming USS Idaho was developed here.

  • The largest unmanned submarine in the world – the Cutthroat – is at the detachment.

  • The University of Idaho trained 4,400 sailors through the Navy Radio School from 1942-45.

  • The Pocatello Naval Ordnance Plant was in operation from 1941-1961.

  • The Naval Prototype Training Unit trained 40,000 on nuclear power plant operations from 1949 to 1995.


Part of the mission of the commissioning committee is to raise funds.

Not that there’s any competition in raising money for a good cause, but Kempthorne pointed out that when the USS Washington was commissioned, its committee raised $250,000. The USS Oregon Commissioning Committee raised $200,000, and the USS Colorado, representing a state three times the size of Idaho, raised $500,000.

When Kempthorne started talking about a fundraising goal, he asked what the USS Idaho’s hull number was. It’s SSN-799, so Kempthorne said $799,000 was the goal.

They’ve already surpassed that number and topped $1 million.

“We set the standard,” Kempthorne said. “It’s Idaho. And the enthusiasm that we find everywhere we go is incredible.”

Corporations have stepped up, such as Idaho Power, Albertsons and Simplot. Hecla Mining, which runs the Lucky Friday mine in Mullan, is providing every crew member a silver coin with the state seal on one side and the seal of the ship on the other. The silver comes from the mine.

Kempthorne said that when the committee brought crew members to the mine, going 2 miles underground formed a bond between the submariners and the miners.

Buck Knives, which Kempthorne helped to recruit as governor to move to Post Falls, is donating commemorative knives to all the crew members.

The coins and knives will also be sold to the public to raise more money.

Part of the money raised will go toward making the USS Idaho feel a little more like home.

Navy vessels are government-issue, bare-bones, stark, stainless steel, gray and drab. Warm and fuzzy they are not.

The commissioning committee will be purchasing items to put on the submarine, such as a massive photo of the Sawtooths.

“I have requested that it will absolutely be a summer picture because where they are, there’s no daylight,” Kempthorne said, noting submariners can be underwater for months, usually without contact with the outside world. “So we want them to step in and see the brilliance and the beauty of our colors and the sun.”

Photos of Idaho’s Congressional Medal of Honor recipients, such as Bernie Fisher, Vernon Baker and Ed Freeman, will adorn the walls of the USS Idaho.

Bunk areas will be named after Idaho cities, and the three shifts on the USS Idaho will be named after the mascots of each of Idaho’s universities: the Bengals, the Vandals and the Broncos.

“Idaho permeates every element of this ship,” Kempthorne said.

Part of the money will also go toward helping the families of the crew members and scholarships for crew members and their families — for the life of the ship.

USS IDAHO Crew at Univ. of Idaho

USS Idaho Cmdr. Randall Leslie, in foreground, and USS Idaho crew members salute during the playing of the national anthem at a recent University of Idaho football game as part of a visit to Idaho, sponsored by the USS Idaho Commissioning Committee. Photo courtesy of Dirk Kempthorne


You’ve no doubt seen those videos of a ship christening, where a bottle of champagne is smashed against the hull.

The USS Idaho christening will have a little different spin.

For the occasion, the good folks at 44 North, of Shelley, Idaho, the maker of 44 North Idaho Potato Vodka are creating a special bottle of water from four Idaho lakes — Payette Lake, Henry’s Lake, Redfish Lake and, of course, Lake Pend Oreille. The bottle will be pressurized and scored to ensure maximum breakage and splash at the ceremony.

The bottle will be broken by the ship’s sponsor, Terry Stackley, who is a sponsor mom for midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy. In a long-standing Navy tradition, the Secretary of the Navy typically selects a civilian woman to be a ship’s sponsor.

Ship's Sponsor Terry Stackley Gathers Christening Water

From left, former Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, then-Cmdr. Nicholas Meyers and ship sponsor Terry Stackley collect water from an Idaho lake to be used during the March 16 christening ceremony of the USS Idaho. Water from four Idaho lakes will be the first water to touch the submarine. Photo courtesy of Dirk Kempthorne

Stackley has visited Idaho, where she collected the lake waters for the bottle.

Further, the USS Idaho’s christening will be a “dry christening,” meaning the ship will be up out of the water.

“So the first water that will touch the hull of the ship is Idaho water,” Kempthorne said.

In addition, 44 North Vodka will produce 10,000 commemorative bottles of Idaho Huckleberry vodka made with Idaho potatoes and Idaho huckleberries with the USS Idaho image on the label.

Sockeye Brewing and Idaho Brewing Co. also will be making commemorative brews for the USS Idaho.

As if that weren’t enough, the music department at the University of Idaho composed and recorded an original USS Idaho anthem, which will be played at the christening.


The crest of the USS Idaho is chock full of Idaho references: an opal, the Sawtooths, white pine trees (the official state tree), an Appaloosa horse, the motto of both USS Idaho and the state of Idaho, “Esto Perpetua,” or “let it be perpetual,” five feathers representing the five Native American tribes that call Idaho home, the outline of the state, two steelhead trout, a peregrine falcon, a silhouette of the previous USS Idaho, huckleberries, syringas and a number of references to the U.S. Navy’s extensive history in Idaho. Photo courtesy of the USS Idaho Commissioning Committee


Idaho’s five tribes — the Nez Perce, the Shoshone-Bannock, the Shoshone-Paiute, the Coeur d’Alene and the Kootenai — are represented by five feathers on the crest of the USS Idaho.

Members of Idaho’s Native American tribes will be part of the christening festivities, too, for a one-hour ceremony on the Friday before the christening.

Over the past couple of years, the commissioning committee has brought USS Idaho crew members out to Idaho (the USS Idaho still has a crew even while it’s under construction).

One memorable trip was a visit with members of the Nez Perce tribe, who invited the visitors to smoke a sacred peace pipe with them in a ceremony that was held at the White Bird Battlefield, where the Nez Perce defeated the U.S. Cavalry in 1877 after a Nez Perce peace party was fired upon.

Kempthorne said the tribe elders laid out a buffalo skin, the backside of which held a map of the skirmishes of the White Bird Battle. As each person smoked the pipe, they shared what they were feeling.

“To listen to these young people who absolutely felt it and embodied the spirituality of it was incredible,” Kempthorne said. “So those warriors of centuries ago, embodied in our current tribes, embrace the warriors that serve on the ship. It’s beautiful.”


Length: 377 feet

Four stories tall, four stories wide

If you put it in on the Blue Turf, “it’s beyond goalpost to goalpost,” Kempthorne said. “It’s touching the stands.”

“To see it is breathtaking,” Kempthorne said. “It is Star Wars.”

Cost: $2.6 billion

Lifespan: About 33 years

Crew: 120 submariners, 14 officers

Speed: More than 25 knots

Depth: More than 800 feet (speed and depth are kind of a joke, in that the Navy would never say what a submarine’s capabilities really are. It’s kind of like asking a dairy farmer how many cows he has. “About 100.”)

USS Idaho Battleship

The last Naval ship with the name USS Idaho was a battleship, nicknamed “The Big Spud,” which was commissioned in 1919 and served through some of the biggest battles in World War II. U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command


1866-1873: Steam sloop

1908-1914: Battleship

1917-1918: Motorboat 1

919-1946: Battleship


The christening ceremony is scheduled for Saturday, March 16, at the General Dynamics Electric Boat shipyard in Groton, Connecticut. The USS Idaho Commissioning Committee is planning to host watch parties at various locations around the state.

After the christening, the USS Idaho will have its sea trials for about a year before officially commissioning into the fleet.

SCOTT MCINTOSH 208-377-6202

Scott McIntosh is the Idaho Statesman opinion editor. A graduate of Syracuse University, he joined the Statesman in August 2019. He previously was editor of the Idaho Press and the Argus Observer and was the owner and editor of the Kuna Melba News. He has been honored for his editorials and columns as well as his education, business and local government watchdog reporting by the Idaho Press Club and the National Newspaper Association.

Why does Idaho have a nuclear submarine named after it? Navy history goes way back.

The USS Idaho crew and Electric Boat employees pose for a photo with the future USS Idaho SSN 799 in October. The USS Idaho is four stories tall, four stories wide and 377 feet long. The nuclear submarine is scheduled to be christened March 16 in Groton, Connecticut. Photo courtesy of General Dynamics Electric Boat via the USS Idaho Commissioning Committee