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USS Kamehameha (SSBN-642)

The USS Kamehameha was a ballistic missile submarine with the hull designation SSBN-642. The submarine was ordered in 1962 and commissioned in 1965. Although she would later be re-designated as an SSN, an attack submarine, the Kamehameha’s initial duties were to make deterrent patrols to protect the U.S. She was decommissioned, struck, and recycled in 2002 after nearly four decades of service in the U.S. Navy.

The Kamehameha was constructed using asbestos to insulate parts and components and to fireproof areas of the vessel for the protection of the crew. Before the human health risks of asbestos were known this was commonplace in shipbuilding and in the navy. Unfortunately the heavy use of asbestos on ships like the Kamehameha put many U.S. veterans at risk of developing mesothelioma and asbestosis decades after serving their countries.

About the USS Kamehameha

The Kamehameha was a ballistic missile submarine, a nuclear-powered ship that could precisely deploy Polaris and Poseidon missiles. The purpose of these submarines was to act as a deterrent. The Kamehameha and her sister ships patrolled waters during the Cold War to protect the U.S. against the Soviet Union and its allies.

The Kamehameha was one of 12 members of the Benjamin Franklin class of submarines built in the middle of the 1960s and was a member of a larger group of subs used as Cold War deterrents. The Benjamin Franklin submarines, including the Kamehameha evolved from the James Madison class and were quieter and designed to launch the Polaris A-3 missiles. She had four torpedo tubes and 16 missile tubes.

The ship was named for a Hawaiian king and was only the second U.S. Navy ship to ever be named for a monarch. Kamehameha I was the King of Hawaii responsible for uniting the islands. The motto of the USS Kamehameha was “Imua,” meaning “go forth and conquer” in Hawaiian.

Construction, Upgrades, and Repairs

Ordered in 1962 the Kamehameha was laid down on May 2, 1963 at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, California. She was launched on January 16, 1965 and was commissioned on December 10, 1965 under the command of Commander Roth S. Leddick and Commander Robert W. Dickieson. The sponsor for the launch was Mrs. Samuel Wilder King, the wife of the governor of Hawaii and one of the first Hawaiians to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy.

The Kamehameha underwent numerous upgrades during her long and distinguished career. The first major overhaul was conducted in 1971 and 1972 and included weapons upgrades. She was again upgraded between 1986 and 1989 and in 1992 was upgraded and reclassified as an attack submarine. She was given the new hull number SSN-642 and her armaments were reduced to torpedoes only. She was also upgraded to be able to accommodate men and equipment for SEAL special operations.

Active Service

The main goal of ships like the Kamehameha, designated as ballistic missile submarines and deployed during the Cold War, was to patrol waters and deter aggression from the Soviet Union and its allies. After commissioning in 1965 the Kamehameha made Pearl Harbor, Hawaii her home port and was deployed with the Pacific Fleet. Based in Guam, she patrolled the Pacific Ocean beginning with her first patrol in 1966.

Following service in the Pacific, the Kamehameha traveled through the Panama Canal and to Charleston to join Submarine Squadron 18 and the Atlantic Fleet. After serving with 18 she underwent an overhaul and then joined Submarine Squadron 16 based in Rota, Spain. For six years she served from Spain and the Mediterranean and then rejoined Squadron 18 in 1979.

The Kamehameha continued with deterrent patrols until 1992. At this time she had conducted 63 such patrols. Her reassignment as an attack submarine put her patrolling career to an end and she became involved in training operations and special warfare operations for the rest of her career. These were mostly conducted in the Pacific.

Decommissioned and recycled in 2002, the Kamehameha was in active service for 36 years, longer than any other nuclear submarine at that point. She was the last of the “41 for Freedom” submarines in service. These were the Cold-War era submarines used as deterrents and for patrolling and protecting against the Soviet Union. Her contributions to protecting the country during a tension-filled several decades were noted by the U.S. Navy.

Asbestos Use on the USS Kamehameha

The heaviest uses of asbestos on any ships in the U.S. Navy were for insulating and fireproofing. Asbestos excels at both of these and was long thought to be harmless. It was only in the 1970s that the real health costs of asbestos use became well known and its use went into decline. Before that, ships like the Kamehameha were constructed with asbestos in many parts to prevent heat from leaking out and to prevent the spread of extremely dangerous fires on board.

On submarines like the Kamehameha asbestos was used as insulation around the reactor, the torpedo rooms and missile areas, and around the pipes running all over the ship. It was also used in valves, gaskets, and seals, in heat-protective gear, firefighting gear, flooring and ceiling materials, adhesives, and much more.

Possible Asbestos Exposure and Related Illnesses

While the navy may have used asbestos initially to protect ships, their components, and the crew, it turned out that this heavy use of asbestos actually harmed many veterans. Any time the tiny fibers of an asbestos material break loose, they pose a risk to anyone around them who may breathe them in from the air. On the poorly-ventilated Kamehameha this was a real risk. Any fibers that broke loose simply circulated through the submarine.

Fibers of asbestos could break loose if a material was accidentally damaged, during repairs and maintenance work, or simply as the result of age and wear and tear. The workers in the areas of the submarine with the most asbestos, like the torpedo rooms, and those who made repairs or worked on any of the equipment with asbestos, were put at the greatest risk of being exposed. This also included workers who built and repaired the Kamehameha in shipyards.

The results of asbestos exposure were illness decades later for some veterans. Not all who were exposed got sick, but those who did developed serious respiratory illnesses. These included mesothelioma, a devastating cancer, lung cancer, and a progressive lung disease called asbestosis. Years after service, this handful of veterans became sick and many died as a result of asbestos exposure.

If you were a veteran in the U.S. Navy, served on the Kamehameha or any navy ship that you think had asbestos on it, you could have been exposed to this harmful mineral. Being exposed, you could then become sick many years later. Connecting your respiratory illness to asbestos on a navy ship may present challenges, but if you can connect them, you may be entitled to compensation through the Veterans Administration. An experienced advocate for mesothelioma and asbestos victims can help you find the evidence, make a claim, and argue your case for compensation and justice.

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