James A. Rehkopf
Lieutenant, US Navy (1971-79)
Commander, US Navy Reserve (1979-1987)
Operations Office, USS Gudgeon (SS-567) – Weapons Officer
USS Ethan Allen (SSBN-608) – Staff Commander
James Rehkopf (Jim) was born in July 1949 in Portsmouth, Virginia at the Portsmouth Naval Hospital. His father was a twenty-year Navy veteran, onboard the USS MINNEAPOLIS operating in the Pacific. The ship was returning from Lahaina, Maui on December 7th, 1941 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Jim’s father served the entire war and attained the rank of Lieutenant Junior. After twenty years of service, Jim’s father retired in 1957, ultimately earning the rank of Lieutenant Junior Grade.
Jim Rehkopf was inspired by his father’s years of service in the Navy and thought it would be an exciting profession to pursue. “I was the number two son out of six children. I decided in the eighth grade that I wanted to be a Naval officer and go to the Naval Academy. Because my father was career Navy, I was able to compete for a presidential appointment. I was the co-Val Victorian of my high school, and a letterman in track.” Jim achieved the presidential appointment he needed, which was a competitive process rather than the typical appointment by congressmen. He reported to the Naval Academy in June of 1967 for Plebe Summer, a summer readiness program, which was significantly more difficult back then. A typical class size would start with 1,200 students and in the final stage only graduate 800 students.
The Naval Academy years from June 1967 to June of 1971 were wonderful years for Jim. He maintained a 4.0 grade point average during his first two years of school. He remembers the typical hazing that took place: “I hated plebe year, but then it got better. There were some pretty tough guys in the first and second class; they would just tear you apart physically.” Jim graduated number eight in his class and was interest in becoming a Navy pilot. It was the Vietnam era, however, and most of the men from the Naval Academy who were killed in action were the pilots. So, Jim had second thoughts and decided to pursue submarines. Because of his excellent class standing, he qualified for the Burke Scholar Program. It was a program designed to offer two years in the fleet, and then four years attending college to get a PhD, followed by a return to the fleet. “I was planning to pursue nuclear submarines, but because of the Burke program, I was asked to start with diesel boats, then get the PhD, and then go into nuclear submarines. “
During the fall of 1971, Jim attended submarine school in Groton, Connecticut. After completing that training, he was assigned to the diesel boat USS GUDGEON (SS567); diesel boats are ships that no longer exist in the Navy. Jim recalls, “It was a great boat, great skipper, and great operation.” After Eighteen months on the boat, it came time to return back to Nuclear power training school to complete his last two years.
Jim attended the University of California, San Diego to earn his PhD. While there he felt he was more of a “generalist” and changed course to earn his masters degree, which was a perfect fit for him. At about this point in time, Jim decided that the field of Nuclear Power was not for him. “I had been on diesel boats and knew enough about nuclear power school and nuclear operations. There were plenty of nuclear boats around us and I saw the hours that they were putting in. I told the nuclear detailers that I didn’t want to go to nuke school and they said, ‘Yes you do.’ So, I had to go back to Naval Reactors (the center of the nuclear world in Washington, D.C.) and interview with the admiral. Times were tense then, but I did not end up entering the nuclear power program. “
Jim recalls the time: “The head of naval reactors was Admiral Hyman Rickover who was a legend in his own time. He started the nuclear power program and ran it for over thirty years. He ran the program with an iron fist and everyone was afraid of him, rightfully so. He was incredibly tough, but through his efforts, there have been no major incidents and we have nuclear power submarines and surface ships running all around the world. The Russians tried to duplicate the program and ended up killing a bunch of people. “
In spring of 1972, after Jim discontinued submarine school, he thought he might serve on a surface ship. At the time, Naval Academy graduates could not serve on diesel boats. As it turned out, there were a few non-nuclear billets on ballistic missile submarines and so he went that route.
For the next three years, Jim was a lieutenant assigned as the Weapons Officer to the Ethan Allen (SSBN 608 – Blue). “That position was exciting because you have your finger on the button that can wipe out a significant portion of the population of the earth. But for most of my time on the boat, the operating plan was to run around quietly, staying away from everyone. Towards the end of Jim’s tenure on the boats, the Navy began doing flexible operations where we would go out and do SSN or attack submarine maneuvers. We could mix it up with surface ships or other submarines. We usually got killed in the simulations because we found ourselves coming up against newer quieter submarines that would win the war games.”
After completing three years aboard the diesel boat, Jim was assigned to the COMSUBPAC staff. Jim took a position in the scheduling department, managing of the Navy’s ballistic submarine fleet. His first job was to schedule the soldiers’ patrol, determining who would miss Christmas. At that point, they were completing the task using colored paper, “sticky notes” and tape! During that time, Jim also undertook the job of finishing a major revision to the manual to control submarines. “I thought that was a big accomplishment.”
In 1979, after eight years of military service, Jim decided it was time to resign as a Lieutenant. He moved to San Francisco. His friend John Dillon, who had served with Jim on the Ethan Allen, got Jim involved with the reserves on Treasure Island. From 1979 until 1986, Jim served in the reserves, during which time he obtained the rank of Commander. He married his lovely wife, Nancy, in 1982. After buying a house with Nancy, Jim ended his reserve commitment and stopped drilling in 1986. Jim Rehkopf currently resides in San Rafael with his wife, Nancy. They have two boys in college and a newly married daughter.
Interview by Victoria Pereira on July 8, 2012.