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USS Constellation (CV-64)

The USS Constellation was an aircraft carrier of the Kitty Hawk class and was unofficially known as a supercarrier for its large size. Nicknamed “Connie” by crew, the USS Constellation also had the official nickname “America’s Flagship.” She was commissioned in 1961 and was not scrapped until 2015. She had an illustrious and long career that included active duty during the Vietnam War.

In spite of the important role the ship played in U.S. war and peace time efforts, and her distinguished service to the country, the USS Constellation also caused a lot of harm to the men and women who served on her. The extensive use of asbestos aboard the ship is well documented and has caused exposure that led to U.S. Navy veterans later developing lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis.

About the USS Constellation

The supercarrier USS Constellation, or Connie, was one of the largest types of aircraft carriers ever made. Supercarriers like the Constellation can displace over 71,000 metric tons and are longer than any other warships. Today the U.S. Navy has just eleven active supercarriers. The USS Constellation was a supercarrier that belonged to the Kitty Hawk Class of aircraft carriers. These were vessels that came after and improved upon the Forrestal class of carriers with greater lengths and changes to design that made it easier for aircraft to move and launch. Constellation displaced 81,000 metric tons and could hold 90 aircraft at one time.

The USS Constellation was first ordered to be built in 1956, and the New York Naval Shipyard in New York City won the contract to build her. She was laid down the following year in 1957, was completed and launched in 1969 and commissioned in 1961. Constellation was named for previous U.S. warships, which were in turn named for the constellation of stars on the American flag. The name Constellation was chosen for the ship ordered in 1956 because of the addition of Hawaii and Alaska to the Union and their stars to the U.S. flag.

Construction Fire and Later Repairs

Construction of the USS Constitution began in New York in 1956 but did not go smoothly. Close to finishing construction in 1960 a fire caused heavy damage in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. A forklift accidentally pushed its cargo into a steel plate, which then knocked off the plug of a tank of diesel fuel. What ignited the fuel is not certain, but it created a huge fire that spread rapidly. It took nearly 24 hours to put out the fire and 50 workers in the shipyard died.

Over her long and distinguished career, the USS Constitution underwent a number of repairs to keep her afloat and up-to-date for nearly 40 years. Upgrades were made in the mid-1970s at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. These allowed the carrier to accommodate new jet aircraft. Further updates were made at the same location in 1983 to improve missile systems.

In 1990 the USS Constellation underwent upgrades in the Service Life Extension Program, a program designed to allow vessels to remain in operation longer. The upgrades took place at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, and were extensive including an overhaul of nearly the entire vessel. The program added an estimated 15 years to her service life.

History of Service and Deployment

Before setting out to serve the country after being commissioned by Captain T.J. Walker on October 27, 1961, the USS Constellation underwent shakedown in the Caribbean. From 1963 through 1970 she served multiple tours of duty deployed in the Vietnam War. She was instrumental in providing aircraft for several operations including the protection of the fleet from North Vietnamese torpedo boats and conducting airstrikes against North Vietnamese bases and vessels. She was the first U.S. Navy vessel to launch such strikes.

After overhauling the flight deck on the USS Constellation she was re-designated an attack aircraft carrier, or CVA. In 1977 and 1978 she underwent her tenth and eleventh deployments and then took up a position on the Arabian Gulf during the hostage crisis. Her next, twelfth deployment was to the Indian Ocean. At this time the ship was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal for service in the military. President Regan visited the ship in 1981. He gave her the official nickname of “America’s Flagship.”

In the 1980s the Constellation served as an escort for U.S.-flagged oil tankers in the Middle East and in both the 1980s and 1990s underwent several major upgrades. In 1999 the USS Constellation was deployed for a nineteenth time to conduct exercises but also to monitor the rising tensions between North and South Korea. She returned from her 21st final overseas deployment in 2003 and was decommissioned in San Diego. She was sent to Brownsville, Texas in 2015 to be scrapped.

Use of Asbestos on the USS Constellation

The USS Constellation was built at a time when the use of asbestos in construction projects of all types was typical and even desirable. Asbestos, which we now know to be harmful, was then known only for its useful properties. These were particularly useful for ships: fireproofing, lightweight strength, and insulating. Like other U.S. Navy ships built at the time, the USS Constellation was loaded with asbestos materials that were put in nearly every area of the carrier.

The areas of the ship that saw the most asbestos use were those that created heat, like turbines, engine rooms, and boiler rooms. The asbestos was used in these areas to insulate but also to prevent fires starting or spreading. Fire on board a ship at sea is extremely dangerous, so the ability to protect against it meant that asbestos was applied liberally. In addition to these parts of the ship, asbestos was sprayed on surfaces for fireproofing and used in safety gear, like asbestos gloves and firefighting suits, to protect sailors.

Another important use of asbestos on the USS Constellation and other navy ships was in insulation. Pipes ran all throughout the ship, many of them carrying steam or hot water. These needed to be insulated and most were covered in a layer of asbestos insulation. The even ran through the mess area and crew quarters. Asbestos could also be found in flooring materials, gaskets, pumps, valves, and other ship components.

Personnel Exposed to Asbestos on the USS Constellation

The harm of asbestos exposure was only fully recognized after the mineral had been used throughout ships like the USS Constellation. This means that thousands of U.S. Navy personnel were put at risk of being exposed to the small fibers that make up asbestos. Any time any of the asbestos materials on the ship were disturbed, through maintenance, accidents, or simply through wear and tear, sailors were at risk of inhaling the fibers. This is especially true in the confined, poorly ventilated spaces with a lot of asbestos, like boiler rooms. Workers in these areas were at the greatest risk of exposure.

Many veterans have made claims that service on the USS Constellation made them sick because of exposure to asbestos. In one example a veteran who served on the ship claimed that his later respiratory illness came from working with insulation in 1988 that he discovered contained asbestos. Another veteran who served on the Constellation from 1967 to 1970 made a claim over his illnesses caused by exposure to chemicals and asbestos aboard the ship.

If you served on the USS Constellation, and you were later diagnosed with an illness connected to asbestos, it could have been material on the ship that made you sick. You can file for support and compensation through the Veterans Administration to get health care, to pay medical bills, and to make up for living with a terrible, preventable illness.

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