Asbestos Use on Submarines

The successful Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was a turning point for the use of submarines in warfare by the Unites States Navy.  Prior to World War II, U.S. Navy submarines had mainly served as scouts for the battleship fleet, but after Pearl Harbor submarines took on a new role as commerce raiders.  Operating primarily in the Pacific, U.S. submarines sank a major part of the Japanese Merchant Fleet and much of the Imperial Japanese Navy.  However, this victory came at a high price.  One out of five U.S. submarines was lost–a total of 52 boats.  Nevertheless, by the end of the war, U.S. submarines had cut the supply lines to the island nation of Japan.  German U-boats could not match our Navy’s success in the Pacific with their campaign against Allied convoys and shipping in the Atlantic.

Asbestos on World War II Submarines

World War II submarines were driven by diesel engines.  To recharge their batteries, these submarines needed to surface often and were limited in the time they spent submerged.  Even though these submarines did not have high pressure steam boilers, many asbestos insulating products were installed in these diesel submarines.  The diesel exhaust piping and joints on the two diesel engines typically had insulating pads made of asbestos cloth filled with long fiber asbestos, then sewed and quilted with asbestos twine.  The hot and cold fluid pipes, flanges, valves and fittings used asbestos insulating felt sheathed with asbestos paper and lagged with asbestos cloth.  The hot machinery and heaters throughout these boats were insulated with the same asbestos products.

The shipyard workers where these submarines were built were exposed to heavy concentrations of asbestos dust created during construction.  Likewise, when these boats were overhauled and repaired throughout the years, shipyard workers were exposed to asbestos dust when the asbestos insulation was removed so repairs could be made.

While these submarines were at sea, submariners were exposed to asbestos materials that were disturbed during routine operation and maintenance.  All of the crewmen on these submarines were exposed to the asbestos dust that permeated the sub’s extremely confined spaces.  The submariners were unaware of the dangers of breathing the asbestos dust and even today these veterans remain at risk of contracting mesothelioma as a result of the toxic asbestos on board.

Conventional Powered Submarines:

Gato Class

•    USS Gato SS-212
•    USS Grouper SS-214
•    USS Darter SS-227
•    USS Banshaw SS-241
•    USS Dace SS-247
•    USS Flier SS-250
•    USS Rasher SS-269
•    USS Rock SS-274
•    USS Scorpion SS-278
•    USS Bowfin SS-287

Balao Class

•    USS Sabalo SS-302
•    USS Archerfish SS-311
•    USS Perch SS-313
•    USS Sealion SS-315
•    USS Bugara SS-331
•    USS Capitaine SS-336
•    USS Carbonero SS-337
•    USS Diodon SS-349
•    USS Greenfish SS-351
•    USS Menhaden SS-377
•    USS Razorback SS-394
•    USS Redfish SS-395
•    USS Ronquil SS-396
•    USS Sea Owl SS-405
•    USS Remora SS-487

Tench Class

•    USS Tench SS/AGSS-417
•    USS Corsair SS-435

Tang Class

•    USS Tang SS-563
•    USS Trigger SS-564
•    USS Wahoo SS-565
•    USS Trout SS-566
•    USS Gudgeon SS-567
•    USS Harder SS-568

Grayback Class

•    USS Grayback SSG-574
•    USS Growler SSG-577

Darter Class

•    USS Darter SS-576

Albacore Class

•    USS Albacore AGSS-569

Barbel Class

•    USS Barbel SS-580
•    USS Bluejack SS-581

Nuclear Powered Submarines:

Nautilus Class

•    USS Nautilus SSN-571

Skate Class

•    USS Skate SSN-578
•    USS Seadragon SSN-584

Skipjack Class

•    USS Skipjack SSN-585
•    USS Scorpion SSN-589
•    USS Snook SSN-592

Permit/Thresher Class

•    USS Thresher SSN-593
•    USS Permit SSN-594
•    USS Tinosa SSN-606
•    USS Gato SSN-615

Narwhal Class

•    USS Narwhal SSN-671

Sturgeon Class

•    USS Sturgeon SSN-637
•    USS Bates SSN-680
•    USS Pogy SSN-647
•    USS Richard B. Russell SSN-687

Los Angeles Class

•    USS Los Angeles SSN-688
•    USS Cheyenne SSN-773

Sea Wolf Class

•    USS Sea Wolf SSN-21

Virginia Class

•    USS Virginia SSN-774

George Washington Class

•    USS George Washington SSBN-598
•    USS Abraham Lincoln SSBN-602

Ethan Allen Class

•    USS Ethan Allen SSBN-608
•    USS Thomas Jefferson SSBN-618

Lafayette Class

•    USS Lafayette SSBN-616
•    USS Alexander Hamilton SSBN-617
•    USS Andrew Jackson SSBN-619
•    USS John Adams SSBN-620
•    USS James Monroe SSBN-622

James Madison Class

•    USS James Madison SSBN-627
•    USS Tecumseh SSBN-628
•    USS Stonewall Jackson SSBN-634

Benjamin Franklin Class

•    USS Benjamin Franklin SSBN-640
•    USS Kamehameha SSBN-642
•    USS Will Rogers SSBN-659

Ohio Class

•    USS Ohio SSGN-726
•    USS Georgia SSGN-729
•    USS Henry M. Jackson SSBN-730
•    USS Louisiana SSBN-743

USS Nautilus

In the early 1950s, there was a revolution in the submarine world.  The first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus, forever changed how submarines operated.  The nuclear plant that powered the Nautilus meant that the submarine could stay under the surface for literally months at a time–only limited by its need to take on food and supplies.  With re-supply by mini subs, even that limitation was gone.  The Nautilus was the first vessel to complete a submerged crossing under the North Pole.

The introduction of nuclear power meant the return of steam power.  The nuclear reactors produced high-pressure steam that was used to drive the main turbines and all the equipment and machinery on the submarine.  Because of the high temperature of the steam, asbestos insulating products such as pipe covering, block, felt, pads, and cement were all used on nuclear submarines.

During the construction of nuclear powered submarines like the Nautilus, shipyard workers were exposed to the asbestos dust that was created as the asbestos materials were cut, sawed, and shaped for insulation.  The submariners who served on these nuclear-powered boats were exposed to asbestos on a daily basis as they engaged in routine operation and maintenance.

Strategic Ballistic Missile Submarines

The USS George Washington added yet another innovation to submarine warfare–strategic ballistic missile submarines–nicknamed “Boomers”.  While diesel submarines carried strategic missiles, they had to surface in order to launch them.  The George Washington could fire its missiles while totally submerged.  “Boomers” like the George Washington, which carried Polaris missiles, superseded all other strategic nuclear systems in the United States Navy.  The same is true today, although today’s submarines are the Ohio class armed with Trident missiles.  These ballistic missile submarines together with long range U.S. Air Force bombers and fixed underground intercontinental ballistic missile silos form the strategic triad of nuclear deterrence policy.

Fast Attack Submarines

The other major post World War II advancement in submarines involved the development of the tear drop hull form.  Based on various experimental hull designs of the USS Albacore (AGSS-569), the U.S. Navy adopted this hull shape for the majority of its boats up to the current generation of submarines.  The shape produced much improved underwater cruising speeds.  Fast attack or hunter-killer submarines like the Los Angeles class submarines were deployed to find and track Soviet submarines during the Cold War.  Their missions also included reconnaissance, intelligence gathering and special operations.  Fast attack submarine’s primary weapons are torpedoes, but they also carry short and medium range missiles to engage surface ships beyond torpedo range.  Modern boats are equipped with cruise missiles that can be launched against ground targets hundreds of miles away.