USS Sam Houston (SSBN-609)
Active during the Cold War, the USS Sam Houston, designated SSBN-609, was a ballistic missile submarine of the Ethan Allen class. It was the only ship in the U.S. Navy to have been named for Sam Houston, the president of the Republic of Texas. As a ballistic missile submarine, the Sam Houston’s main purpose was as a deterrent. Her firing capabilities were eventually downgraded as part of a peace-keeping treaty with the Soviet Union.
Along with other U.S. Navy vessels, the USS Sam Houston was constructed during a time when asbestos use was common and heavy in shipbuilding. The use of asbestos was for the purpose of insulating and fireproofing, to keep crew members safe on board, but for some veterans it did more harm than good. Exposure to asbestos on ships like the Sam Houston triggered serious illness in a number of navy veterans decades after service.
About the USS Sam Houston
The USS Sam Houston was designated SSBN-609, a ballistic missile submarine. She was ordered in 1959 and was laid down at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company on December 28 of that year. Construction took more than a year and she launched on February 2, 1961 and was commissioned the following year on March 6, under the Command of Captain W.P. Willis, Jr. and Commander Jack H. Hawkins.
The Sam Houston was a member of the Ethan Allen class of submarines. Five of these submarines were built throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s. Together with a few other classes of ballistic missile submarines, these vessels were known as the ’41 for Freedom’ and were the main nuclear deterrent force throughout the Cold War. The Sam Houston and other Ethan Allen submarines were not based on an earlier class of vessels. Instead they were built from the keel up to carry the Polaris A-2 missile. They were longer and sleeker than previous submarines and had fewer torpedo tubes and were later upgraded to carry the A-3 missiles.
The USS Sam Houston and other Ethan Allen submarines were reclassified in the 1980s as a result of the SALT II treaty with the Soviet Union. They were reclassified as attack submarines and their missile tubes were filled in. The Sam Houston was converted to be able to carry Special Operations Forces as well as equipment and vehicles for their missions. She was decommissioned on September 6, 1991 and struck that same day. She was recycled through the navy’s Ship and Submarine Recycling Program.
A Blue Crew and a Gold Crew alternately staffed the USS Sam Houston throughout her active service. The Blue Crew began operating the vessel in spring of 1962 and made the first test firing of Polaris missiles off the coast of Cape Canaveral in Florida. This was followed by shakedown training, after which the Blue Crew took over and piloted the Sam Houston on her first patrol. Submerged for 48 days the submarine then moored in Scotland.
During her third patrol as a deterrent submarine the Sam Houston deployed to the Mediterranean, the first of her type of submarine to be deployed there. She engaged in NATO exercises as well as patrols with a stop in Turkey. The Sam Houston returned to the U.S. in 1966 after eleven more patrols, with the longest lasting for 71 days. At this time she was due for an overhaul and was stationed and upgraded at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine.
Back in action in October of 1967 the Sam Houston conducted six more patrols until August 1970 when she was sent to Rota Spain to join Submarine Squadron 16 for two years. She again received upgrades in 1972, this time at the Charleston Naval Shipyard. By the late 1970s the U.S. and Soviet Union were in talks to slow the escalation in the arms race. The resulting SALT treaties required that the number of ballistic missile launchers be frozen at current levels.
This meant that the Sam Houston would be converted and reclassified. Her missile tubes were deactivated as new ballistic missile submarines from the Ohio class were being commissioned. She was reclassified and designated as SSN-609, an attack submarine and was largely put to use for training exercises beginning in the early 1980s. By 1985 she had been upgraded again, this time to be able to accommodate Special Forces. In 1988 the Sam Houston ran aground in Washington and was decommissioned in 1991.
Asbestos on the USS Sam Houston
The choice of asbestos used on the USS Sam Houston and other navy vessels was made because of several factors. Asbestos was not expensive, was readily abundant, could be used for insulating and fireproofing, and did not add a lot of extra weight. As a bonus for the tight and oddly-shaped spaces in a submarine like the Sam Houston, asbestos is flexible and can be shaped and fitted to any shape or size.
The torpedo rooms and the areas around the reactor and turbines in a submarine like the Sam Houston were places that much of the asbestos was used for fireproofing and insulating. It was also used extensively around pipes that ran throughout the ship as fabric insulation and wrappings. The mineral was also used in many other parts and areas of the ship, from firefighting gear to valves and gaskets.
Personnel Exposed to Asbestos
Anyone who served on board the USS Sam Houston could have been exposed to asbestos. Any fibers that came loose from asbestos materials would have circulated throughout the air of the enclosed spaces of the submarine, causing contamination and exposure. The men who worked in the torpedo rooms or who repaired materials and parts that contained asbestos were at the greatest risk of disturbing and inhaling the harmful fibers.
Also at a greater risk were all the men and women who worked in the shipyards and handled asbestos. When the Sam Houston was being built, the men who installed asbestos materials could have been exposed. Every time the ship came into a shipyard for repairs and upgrades, the men and women working on her were at risk of exposure.
An example of a U.S. Navy veteran exposed to asbestos on the Sam Houston can be seen in a claim made to the Veterans Administration. He served on the submarine and reported having seen asbestos insulation applied to pipes. He later suffered respiratory symptoms and made a claim with the VA over asbestos-related illness to seek compensation.
Any veteran of the U.S. Navy who served on a ship that contained asbestos, such as the USS Sam Houston, was put at risk of asbestos exposure. If you served on this ship or another and now suffer from an illness that could be attributed to asbestos you could be entitled to compensation. Let our expert veteran advocates guide you through the process of making a claim.
Page edited by Dave Foster
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