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The USS Gato, designated SSN-615, was one of many ships in the U.S. Navy that veterans said made them sick because of asbestos exposure. An attack submarine of the Thresher/Permit class, the Gato contained asbestos in many of its components, from insulation to small valves and gaskets.
The Gato was in service for much of the Cold War, from the early 1960s through the 1990s and was the first nuclear-powered submarine to circumnavigate South America. The Gato also had some low moments during service, such as when she collided with a Soviet submarine. Many veterans who served on the Gato were proud to do so, but still some were later diagnosed with mesothelioma, asbestosis, or lung cancer. These veterans can often connect their illnesses to onboard asbestos and are seeking compensation through the Veterans Administration as a result.
About the USS Gato
The USS Gato was a nuclear-powered attack submarine, designed to seek out and destroy enemy ships or to support offensive actions onshore by firing from the water. Attack subs were also used to gather intelligence and for surveillance. She was the second U.S. Navy ship to be named Gato, for a species of catshark.
The Gato was a member of the Thresher/Permit class of submarines, called the Permit class after the USS Thresher was lost. This class, including the Gato, included several improvements over the previous Skipjack class: better sonar, the ability to dive deeper, better silencing, and faster speeds. These ships became the basis for the next several classes of SSN ships.
The Gato was ordered in July of 1960, was laid down on December 15, 1961, and was commissioned on January 25, 1968 after being launched in 1964. She was built by General Dynamics Electric Boat in Groton, Connecticut. She displaced 2,424 tons when full, was 292 feet in length, and could hold a complement of 12 officers and 115 enlisted men. The ship had four torpedo tubes and was armed with MK-37, MK-38, and MK-67 missiles, Harpoon cruise missiles, and SUBROC short-range ballistic missiles. The Gato was decommissioned on April 25, 1996 and was recycled as part of the navy’s Ship/Submarine Recycling Program.
The Gato launched so late after construction began because plans for her changed mid-build. She underwent modifications that delayed her launch and commissioning. These included a longer hull and a new mast, among other improvements. The Gato did not actively participate in any wars but patrolled the seas around the world. In 1976 she became the first nuclear-powered submarine to travel all the way around South America. She was also the first to go through the Straits of Magellan and the Panama Canal.
What the Gato is most often remembered for is an accident on November 15, 1969, when she collided with the K-19, a Soviet submarine, in the Barents Sea. The ships were at a depth of about 200 feet, and while the accident destroyed the sonar and some of the torpedo tubes of the K-19, the USS Gato was not seriously damaged and was able to continue patrolling. The Gato was hit in the area around its nuclear reactor, but fortunately it was well protected. The accident does, however, highlight how asbestos can be damaged in such instances, increasing the risks that crew members will be exposed.
Asbestos Use on the Gato
Some veterans who served on the USS Gato later described symptoms or were given diagnoses that related to asbestos exposure. Most ships in the navy, especially those built from the 1930s through the 1970s, were made using asbestos in many of their components and materials. Asbestos was chosen for its ability to insulate against heat, protecting crew from heat-generating equipment and pipes, and for its ability to fireproof, again protecting crew members. Fires on submarines can be particularly dangerous, so having materials to prevent or stop the spread of a fire was important.
On the Gato like on other ships in the navy, asbestos was used to insulate components like the pipes, turbines, boilers, and in the case of nuclear-powered ships, the reactor. The Gato also likely had asbestos in gaskets used in the torpedo rooms, in valves and seals, in adhesives and flooring materials, in panels and insulating fabrics, and in many other components.
Asbestos Exposure Risks
Wherever asbestos is used, the people working with and around it are put at risk of exposure. Any time the fibers of the asbestos are disturbed, from wear and tear, from maintenance, or in an accident, they can enter the air and be inhaled. Inhaling the fibers causes damage and illness in some people, but not others. Men on the Gato may have been at particular risk because they were in a confined space with poor ventilation.
The accident with the K-19 was an example of how the dangerous work of the navy can be made more dangerous by the risk of asbestos exposure. It may not be known whether that incident exposed or disturbed any asbestos on the ship, but it could have. Also at risk were any men who made repairs or worked on installing asbestos components and materials in the USS Gato.
Some of the cases of men being exposed to asbestos are recorded in claims made to the Veterans Administration. In one such case a veteran made a claim for compensation over developing cancer. He testified to having worked on the USS Gato and engaging in duties that required removing and installing asbestos materials around the nuclear reactor.
If you, like this veteran, know you were around asbestos or worked with asbestos, whether on the Gato or another ship, you too can make a claim with the VA. The VA is responsible for the well-being of veterans and valid claims for compensation are accepted. You can let an experienced mesothelioma and asbestos advocate help you make that claim and get what you are owed.
Page Edited by Patient Advocate Dave Foster
Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available.