Submarine Legend Captain Leon Herbert Rathbun Jr. : First Commanding Officer of Nuclear Ballistic Missile Submarine, Thomas Jefferson (SSBN-618), WW2 Submarine Veteran & Commanding Officer of the US Navy Submarine School

Submarine Legend Captain Leon Herbert Rathbun Jr. : First Commanding Officer of Nuclear Ballistic Missile Submarine, Thomas Jefferson (SSBN-618), WW2 Submarine Veteran & Commanding Officer of the US Navy Submarine School

Today we are taking a look at a US Naval Legend, Captain Leon “Lee” Rathbun. Captain Rathbun served 3 submarine tours in the Pacific and made history as USS Thomas Jefferson’s first commanding officer.

Captain Leon “Lee” Rathbun passed away on June 21, 2021. He was born in Portsmouth, Virginia in 1921, and later moved to East Aurora, New York. He graduated from high school first in his class in 1938 and then attended Lehigh University for a year, then he was appointed to the Naval Academy in 1939. Furthermore, he graduated in 1942 with the accelerated class of 1943.

His first assignment to DMS Wasmuth was nearly his last. While on escort duty in the north Pacific, Wasmuth was sunk in a violent storm near the Aleutian Islands in December 1942. Miraculously all hands were saved by another ship in the convoy. After a much needed survivor’s leave, Lee reported to the destroyer Halford in Bremerton. In the next two years Halford saw much action while operating with carrier task forces in the central and later the southwest Pacific.

In April of 1944 he volunteered for submarine duty, and completed Submarine School in New London, Connecticut in June. At this time he married his fiancé, Mary Ross Holts, who traveled across the country from Seattle to meet him. Lee next reported to Blueback (SS-326), and made three war patrols in the Java Sea and East China Sea operating out of Perth, Australia and Subic Bay, Philippines.

He received the Navy Commendation medal for his performance as torpedo officer on these patrols.

At wars end in August 1945 Blueback and several other submarines were ordered to remain at Guam for five months. They finally returned to San Diego in January 1946, and Lee had a happy reunion with Mary Ross after eighteen months of separation. After a short leave, Lee was assigned to Entemedor (SS-340). He served as engineer officer and later as navigator on a six-month deployment to the western Pacific. This included a month in Tsingtao, China, which at that time was surrounded and under siege by communist forces.

In 1948 he applied and was selected for graduate school, and attained a M.S. in Electrical Engineering. He then became Executive Officer of Carp (SS-338) in San Diego, followed by staff duty on Submarine Squadron One at Pearl Harbor. He assumed command of Bugara (SS-331) in February 1953. Bugara then operated out of Yokuska, Japan, making surveillance patrols in the north Pacific.

In 1955 he returned to New London and successively became Executive Officer of the submarine tenders Nereus and then Fulton. He next was the commander of Submarine Division 82, and later became Director of Advanced Training at Submarine School. In 1961 he was selected for nuclear power training, and reported to Naval Reactors Division AEC in Washington.

In 1962 he was assigned as first Commanding Officer of the nuclear ballistic missile submarine, Thomas Jefferson (SSBN-618) under construction in Newport News. He commissioned the ship in 1963 and made three strategic patrols as commanding officer.

An aerial bow view of the nuclear-powered strategic missile submarine USS Thomas Jefferson (SSBN-618) underway on 14 June 1976.

He attended the National War College 1965-66 and then returned to New London: this time as Officer in Charge, and later Commanding Officer of the Submarine School.

In this period, 1966-68, the Submarine Force was growing rapidly, and the School had to expand proportionately to meet the need for more trained submariners in the force.

A student at Basic Enlisted Submarine School (BESS), repairs a simulated engine room leak in the school’s damage control wet trainer at Naval Submarine Base New London.
For his direction and management during this period, he later received the Legion of Merit.
1968 aerial view of Naval Submarine Base New London looking north

Lee retired in 1970 and began a new career as professor of mathematics at Miami-Dade Community College. He then served as Chairman of the Mathematics Department. And subsequently he was appointed as Associate Dean of the Natural Science Division. Which encompassed the Mathematics, Chemistry, Physics, and Biology Departments.

Captain Rathbun’s grandchild Meghan Rathbun is the current Director of Battleship Cove and the former Curator of USS Missouri.
USS Missouri BB-63 : USS Missouri’s Curator Meghan Rathbun

Captain Leon Herbert Rathbun Jr. : First Commanding Officer of Nuclear Ballistic Missile Submarine, Thomas Jefferson (SSBN-618), WW2 Submarine Veteran & Commanding Officer of the US Navy Submarine School

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