The U.S. Navy has been using submarines in its fleet since 1900, and those in operation today are the deadliest of the military’s weapons. Submarines are both offensive and defensive vessels and are stealth, operating under water while evading radar detection. The stealth nature of submarines allows them to collect intelligence. There are three modern types of submarines in the U.S. Navy, and all are nuclear-powered.
Many of the submarines built between the 1930s and the 1970s were built using asbestos products and materials. It was chosen for its ability to resist heat and fire and because it could be used in cramped spaces, flexing to fit to any shape or form, and because it is lightweight. Unfortunately, the men who served on submarines in the U.S. Navy were put at risk of developing mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer because of this asbestos use.
Types of U.S. Navy Submarines
Submarines have been in use in the U.S. Navy for over 100 years, but today the modern submarines are high-tech instruments of war and intelligence, able to seek and destroy enemy vessels and evade detection to collect information. There are three main types and designations for submarines:
- Attack submarines (SSN). These are submarines that are designed to seek out and destroy enemy ships, both other submarines and surface vessels. They are also loaded with Tomahawk cruise missiles that can be used on shore. Other purposes for attack submarines are for powering Special Operation Forces ashore, gathering intelligence, supporting battle fleets, conducting mine warfare, and conducting surveillance and reconnaissance.
- Ballistic missile submarines (SSBN). Ballistic missile submarines are also known as boomers and they have just one purpose, which is strategic deterrence. These ships can accurately launch nuclear weapons.
- Guided missile submarines (SSGN). These submarines were designed to support and provide special operation missions and strike missions. They have tactical missiles and high-tech communication devices and work with Special Operation Forces and Combatant Commanders.
Previous classes of submarines included radar picket submarines (SSR), antisubmarine submarines (SSK), and just submarines (SS).
History and Wartime Use of Submarines
Today’s U.S. Navy has had submarines as part of its fleet since 1900, but one of the earliest uses of this type of vessel in warfare was the Hunley, a submarine used by Confederate forces during the Civil War. It was used to sink a Union ship in Charleston Harbor, the first sinking of an enemy vessel by a submarine.
Submarines really came into their own during World War I. The navy’s first submarine was the USS Holland, and having it in the fleet gave the U.S. an edge in sea warfare. It ran on an electric motor when submerged and used a combustion engine for surface travel. By 1916 the navy had a fleet of submarines, called the Submarine Force U.S. Atlantic Fleet. Thirty more submarines were ordered to be built for the establishment of the Submarine Force U.S. Pacific Fleet the following year.
By the time the U.S. entered the war in 1917 the navy had 42 submarines that were mostly used for the defense of coasts and harbors. Some were used in anti-submarine efforts in the English Channel and North Sea. Between World War I and World War II the navy focused on making more submarines that were stealthier, faster, and that could range farther. New construction of submarines began in 1925. The first of the new vessels was the USS Argonaut.
U.S. submarines played a very important role in the Second World War, destroying more than 1,000 enemy vessels during the course of the war, both Japanese in the Pacific and German in the Atlantic. The U.S. fleet was responsible for more than half of the enemy ships taken down. They also played an important role in the search and rescue of American pilots. The submarines that served in the war were those of the Gato, Tench, and Balao classes.
Following the war, the fleet of submarines was once again upgraded to include even newer and better technologies. The navy developed vessels that could operate even longer under water and travel faster. The first new class of post-war submarines was the Tang class. In 1955 the USS Nautilus was a newly-designed submarine that would set the stage for those that would operate during the Vietnam War. It was followed by the Skate and Seawolf classes of submarines that no longer needed to surface unless to load or unload men or supplies.
The navy has continued to build on older versions of submarines to make more advanced and effective stealth war and intelligence vessels. Today there are 18 Ohio class ballistic and guided missile submarines, eleven Virginia class attack submarines, three Seawolf attack submarines, and 34 Los Angeles class attack submarines.
Use of Asbestos on Submarines
Asbestos use in ships was not uncommon from the 1920s through the 1970s when federal regulations put limitations on it and the full health impacts were known. It was such a common choice for use in vessels of all types, including submarines, because it excelled at preventing fire and insulating. It was also useful because it was abundant and inexpensive. For submarines, the light weight and the flexibility of asbestos allowed it to be fit to small and oddly-shaped spaces. Fire is always a risk on ships, but is especially dangerous on a submarine with no escape for its crew, so asbestos fireproofing was particularly important on these underwater vessels.
In many navy ships, asbestos could be found in hundreds of materials and components, including firefighting gear, gunner’s protective gear, pipe insulation, gaskets, valves, boilers, turbines, adhesives, flooring, wall materials, and more. Documentation of use of asbestos on submarines shows that it was also used in flanged valves, important parts in torpedo rooms, as well as in insulation cloth and felt, drain valves, power cables, and many other components.
Asbestos Exposure on Submarines
The men who served on submarines built before the 1970s were put at risk of asbestos exposure, as were the people who built, repaired, and maintained these vessels using asbestos parts and materials. Asbestos exposure is harmful because the material can have loose fibers that get into the air and are then inhaled. This makes asbestos especially dangerous on submarines which have poor ventilation. Any loose fibers circulated through the entire submarine, putting everyone on board at risk.
Although all stationed on a submarine was at risk of asbestos exposure and resulting related illnesses, some men were more at risk. Anyone who worked in the torpedo rooms or who maintained or made repairs to the ship could have disturbed the asbestos materials, exposing fibers and being at risk of inhaling them.
U.S. Navy Submarines with Asbestos
Most of the submarines used in the U.S. Navy were made with asbestos, through the 1970s. Those who served their country on these vessels were put at risk and some of them suffered decades later with diagnoses of mesothelioma, asbestosis, or lung cancer. Some of the many submarines known to have contained asbestos include:
- USS Abraham Lincoln, commissioned 1961, recycled
- USS Albacore, commissioned 1953, museum ship
- USS Andrew Jackson, commissioned 1963, recycled
- USS Balao, commissioned 1943, sunk
- USS Barracuda, commissioned 1951, scrapped
- USS Batfish, commissioned 1972, recycled
- USS Benjamin Franklin, commissioned 1965, recycled
- USS Dace, commissioned 1964, recycled
- USS Dorado, commissioned 1943, sunk
- USS Daniel Boone, commissioned 1964, recycled
- USS Ethan Allen, commissioned 1961, recycled
- USS Gato, commissioned 1966, recycled
- USS Grouper, commissioned 1942, scrapped
- USS Halibut, commissioned 1960, recycled
- USS Hammerhead, commissioned 1944, sold to Turkey
- USS Icefish, commissioned 1944, sold to Netherlands
- USS James Monroe, commissioned 1963, recycled
- USS Kamehameha, commissioned 1965, recycled
- USS Lafayette, commissioned 1963, recycled
- USS Lewis and Clark, commissioned 1965, recycled
- USS Lionfish, commissioned 1944, museum ship
- USS Manta, commissioned 1944, scrapped
- USS Nathan Hale, commissioned 1963, recycled
- USS Patrick Henry, commissioned 1960, recycled
- USS Pollack, commissioned 1937, scrapped
- USS Pollack, commissioned 1964, recycled
- USS Pompon, commissioned 1943, scrapped
- USS Robert E. Lee, commissioned 1960, recycled
- USS Runner, commissioned 1945, scrapped
- USS Sailfish, commissioned 1956, sunk
- USS Sam Houston, commissioned 1962, recycled
- USS Sea Devil, commissioned 1969, recycled
- USS Sea Robin, commissioned 1944, scrapped
- USS Spadefish, commissioned 1969, recycled
- USS Tecumseh, commissioned 1964, recycled
- USS Theodore Roosevelt, commissioned 1961, recycled
- USS Ulysses S. Grant, commissioned 1964, recycled
- USS Von Steuben, commissioned 1964, recycled
Submarines have long been a crucial element of the U.S. Navy’s fleets, but these important warships have also caused a lot of harm to some of the men and women who serve don them. If you served on any of these submarines that contained asbestos and you later got sick, you can make a claim with the Veterans Administration to receive pay and medical care. Let a mesothelioma advocate help you and guide you through the claims process.
Page edited by Dave Foster
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