Captain Shepherd Martin “Shep” Jenks, USN (Ret), passed away in Martinez, California, on Wednesday, 26 March 2014. He was 87 years old.
Jenks was born on 29 September 1926 in Berkeley, California. He came east to attend high school at St. Albans in Washington, DC, and then, as he put it, “walked across the river to the Naval Academy,” graduating in 1949. The entry beneath his senior-yearbook photo notes his love of sailing, although “as a result of this activity one fisherman is probably still wondering what species of sea monster parted his nets one stormy night on the Chesapeake.” Sadly, no further description of the incident is provided.
At first Jenks was disappointed with the first ship to which he was assigned: the attack transport USS BAYFIELD (APA-33). That changed when he discovered the vessel’s commodious hold had more than enough room for his MGB sports car. According to his wife, Nancy, Jenks made friends with the Chief Boatswain’s Mate, who ensured that the bright red roadster was the first thing off the ship when she pulled into port and the last thing aboard before she put to sea.
Although life on the surface was good, Jenks must have felt the call of the deep because he volunteered for submarine duty. After graduating from Submarine School in 1952, he qualified aboard USS BLACKFIN (SS-322). He applied for nuclear-power training in 1954, but was turned down. He tried again the following year and was granted an interview with Hyman G. Rickover, the program’s notoriously difficult head. Jenks knew Rickover had seen his earlier application, so when he showed up to the interview he asked Rickover, “Don’t you remember me?” Rickover threw him out of his office—but accepted him into the program.
In 1956, Lieutenant Jenks reported aboard USS NAUTILUS (SSN-571), the newly-commissioned nuclear-powered submarine, first of her kind in the world. Given his position as navigator his nickname, “Prince Henry,” was perhaps inevitable. In 1958, after the Soviets’ launch of Sputnik, President Dwight D. Eisenhower turned to NAUTILUS for a similarly unprecedented response: a journey beneath the Arctic ice to the North Pole. The mission, top secret, was codenamed “Operation Sunshine,” and the president and his representatives made sure the boat had everything she needed to complete it. Jenks later recalled the crew’s nicknaming her “Lola” after a line from a song in the 1955 musical Damn Yankees: “Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets.”
After the first attempt to reach the pole failed, NAUTILUS’s commanding officer, Commander William Anderson, sent Jenks north to conduct aerial reconnaissance flights in order to determine when, or whether, the boat should try again. But there was a catch: the mission was still classified, so no one could know why Jenks was headed to the frozen north. A cover ID was concocted: Jenks would be a “special representative of OP-33, a branch of the office of the chief of naval operations that had absolutely nothing to do with submarines,” Anderson wrote in his book The Ice Diaries. After spending several days peering out the nose of a bomber as it flew triangular patterns over the ice, Jenks was convinced that conditions were improving. On his way back to the boat, he purchased an Inuit doll for his daughter. In order to ensure secrecy, it was stored in the sub’s top-secret safe.
At the end of July, NAUTILUS set out again. Jenks navigated precisely and almost continuously for the entire trip. “If Shep Jenks took time off to sleep during our transit, I was not aware of it,” Anderson wrote. “His attention to detail and meticulous planning were a true inspiration to the members of his navigating team, as well as to me.” At 11:15 PM (Eastern Daylight Time) on 3 August 1958, Jenks’s perfection paid off as he announced to Anderson, who announced to the rest of the crew, that NAUTILUS had become the first seagoing vessel to reach the North Pole.
When her accomplishment was revealed to the public, NAUTILUS’s crewmembers became instant celebrities. New York City even threw a ticker-tape parade in the men’s honor, although, Jenks groused, “I didn’t get to participate in the parade because I had duty that day.” He did not, however, miss out on the Presidential Unit Citation, the first ever awarded in peacetime, that President Eisenhower bestowed on the crew.
Jenks remained in the Navy until 1971. He served aboard USS SKIPJACK (SSN-585) and USS GEORGE WASHINGTON (SSBN-598); as the commissioning engineer aboard the latter, he was present for the first-ever launching of a POLARIS missile from a submerged submarine. He also served as the commanding officer of USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN (SSBN-602), the Nuclear Power Training Unit in West Milton, NY, and the submarine tender USS FULTON (AS-11).
Jenks worked briefly at a defense contractor after retiring from the Navy, and then embarked on a new path—as an Episcopalian minister. He was ordained as a deacon in 1981. Twenty-three years later, in April 2004, his previous career caught up with his current one in somber fashion when he was asked to officiate at the funeral of Rear Admiral James B. Osborn, first commanding officer of GEORGE WASHINGTON (Blue Crew), under whom Jenks had served. Other ministerial duties were much happier: as a resident, at the time, of the state of New Mexico, Jenks gave the invocation at the naming ceremony of USS NEW MEXICO (SSN-779) in December 2004.
Just days before Shep Jenks’s death, NEW MEXICO, participating in Ice Exercise 2014, crossed beneath the pole that he and his shipmates were the first to visit more than half a century ago. Before doing so, they picked up the Chief of Naval Operations and a reporter from the New York Times at a snowy outpost 150 miles north of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Its name: Ice Camp Nautilus.