DR. WALDO K. LYON, Ph.D. - BIOGRAPHY    

see photos of 2005 Waldo K. Lyon Scholarship Ceremony

Dr. Waldo Kampmeier Lyon received his doctorate in physics from UCLA in 1941. Shortly thereafter, he joined the newly-founded Navy Radio and Sound Laboratory in San Diego, embarking on a government service career that would eventually span 55 years. At NRSL, which is now the Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center, Dr. Lyon was charged with forming and directing the initial efforts of the Sound Division, and during World War II worked on testing, repairing, and modifying submarine equipment and harbor defense systems in the Pacific. During this time, he worked with a young Naval officer, Lieutenant (junior grade) Roger Revelle, who would go on to become the long-time director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and one of the “founding fathers” of both the Office of Naval Research and the University of California San Diego

However, Dr. Lyon’s true legacy to the Navy and to the world is in the area he loved most dearly; submarine Arctic operations. Aware that German U-boats had operated under ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and sunk a great deal of Allied shipping, Dr. Lyon began adapting submarine sonar systems for operations in cold water and under the ice pack. In 1946, at the invitation of Admiral Byrd, he took a conventional submarine, the USS SENNETT, under the Antarctic ice. He followed that intrepid mission a year later with a trip under the Arctic ice in the Bering Sea.

Throughout the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, Dr. Lyon continued to spearhead the Navy’s efforts to learn more about operating ships in the Arctic, and personally directed several cruises involving both submarines and icebreakers. To enable him to grow real sea ice under natural conditions and study its physical properties, he constructed an experimental pool ­ 75 feet long and 16 feet deep ­ on the site of an abandoned pre-World War I coastal defense battery. This pool would become the centerpiece of the Arctic Submarine Laboratory. He also established a field station at Cape Prince of Wales, Alaska on the Bering Strait.

In 1955, in recognition of his pioneering efforts to advance the Navy’s ability to operate submarines in the Arctic, the Secretary of the Navy presented Dr. Lyon the Distinguished Civilian Service Award, the highest award that the Navy can award to a civilian employee. It was the first of many accolades he would receive in his long and distinguished career.

The advent of the nuclear submarine, whose endurance and cruising distance was limited only by the amount of food she could squeeze onboard, paved the way for the full realization of Dr. Lyon’s dreams. In August 1958, he served as senior scientist for “Operation Sunshine II”, which culminated in the USS Nautilus becoming the first ship in history ever to reach the geographic North Pole. Although he would receive his second Distinguished Civilian Service Award for the Nautilus mission, Dr. Lyon was far from content to rest on his laurels. Just seven months later, he led the USS Skate back to the Arctic, where she became the first ship ever to actually break through the ice and surface at the North Pole. In 1960, Dr. Lyon served as senior scientist for two landmark expeditions. In February, he guided the USS Sargo through the extremely shallow Bering and Chukchi seas; the only passageway between the Pacific and Arctic oceans. This was the first time that a submarine had made this harrowing transit – more than a thousand miles in water less than 200 feet deep – during the dead of winter, when the entire area was covered with ice. In August, Dr. Lyon led Sargo’s sister ship, the USS Seadragon, on the first submerged transit of the fabled Northwest Passage. Just two years after that, he embarked on Skate again, and engineered a rendezvous at the North Pole with Seadragon; the first time ever that two ships had joined forces under the ice.

Through the rest of the 1960’s and throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s, often on meager budgets, Dr. Lyon continued his under-ice exploits, nearly two dozen submarine missions, as well as his research at his beloved Arctic Submarine Laboratory. Experiments conducted in the sea ice pool were a major factor in designing the SSN 637 “Sturgeon” class submarine. The scientific work overseen by Dr. Lyon also helped solve icing problems on improved SSN 688 “Los Angeles” class submarines, and provided extensive data on the ice breakthrough capability of the SSN 21 “Seawolf” class submarine. Although he rode his last submarine in 1981 at the young age of 67, he remained active in all facets of operations and research until his well-deserved retirement in 1996.

  • Department of Defense Distinguished Civilian Service Award
  • President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service
  • Gold Medal of the American Society of Naval Engineers
  • Silver Century Medal of Societe de Geographie (Paris)
  • Bronze Medal of the Royal Institute of Navigation (London)
  • Bushnell Medal of the American Defense Preparedness Association
  • Lowell Thomas Medal of the Explorer’s Club of New York
  • Two Presidential Unit Citations, and
  • 10 Navy Unit Commendations.



    Dr. Lyon passed away on May 5, 1998 at the age of 84. In a fitting final tribute, his ashes were scattered at the North Pole by the “Sturgeon” class submarine, USS Hawkbill. Just prior to his death, he collaborated with Professor William Leary of the University of Georgia on a book detailing development of the submarine Arctic warfare program. Under Ice: Waldo Lyon and the Development of the Arctic Submarine was published by the Texas A&M press in 1998.

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