The USS Saipan (LHA-2) was the second US Navy vessel to bear this name in tribute to the Battle of Saipan—a World War II campaign fought on the island of Saipan in the Mariana Islands from June 15th through July 9, 1944 in which America was victorious. A Tarawa-class amphibious assault ship, the USS Saipan was the second vessel to be constructed in her series of five ships. Guided by the motto “Omnia Facimus” (“We do it all”), the USS Saipan was in service for nearly three decades.
The keel of the 820 foot USS Saipan was laid down by Ingalls Shipbuilding (Pascagoula, Mississippi) on July 21, 1972. Mrs. J. William Middendorf II, wife of the United States Secretary of the Navy who served from April 8, 1974 through January 20, 1977, served as Saipan’s sponsor at her launch on July 20, 1974. Employing a complement of 65 officers and 1,009 enlisted men and capable of transporting a Marine detachment of nearly 2,000, the USS Saipan was commissioned on October 15, 1977 with Captain F.W. Johnston in command.
Powered by two boilers working in conjunction with two geared steam turbines, Saipan achieved speeds of up to 24 knots and displaced approximately 39,000 tons. Her armament consisted of two rolling airframe missile (RAM) launchers, two Phalanx close-in-weapons-systems (CIWS), four 25 mm MK 38 gun mounts, and five .50 caliber mounts.
July 1979 marked the official start of the USS Saipan’s career as she was assigned to Special Contingency Operations to stand at the ready to assist with the evacuation of Americans from Nicaragua during a period of civil war.
Saipan went on to support efforts by the US Coast Guard in May of 1980 to aid refugees from Cuba that were attempting to cross into the United States by means of the Straits of Florida.
Departing from her homeport of Norfolk, Virginia on August 25, 1980, the USS Saipan was recognized as the first landing helicopter assault (LHA) amphibious assault ship to deploy to the Mediterranean.
Saipan departed on a second Mediterranean deployment on September 3, 1981. During this tour of duty she conducted operations in seven countries located on three continents.
The Norfolk Naval Shipyard (Portsmouth, Virginia) was the site of Saipan’s first major overhaul from August 1982 through July of 1983. Refresher training ensued in September of 1983 at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. This training was brief in nature as Saipan was called upon to support a US-led invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada—referred to as Operation Urgent Fury—in October of 1983.
The USS Saipan visited three countries and traveled more than 32,000 miles throughout the course of her third Mediterranean deployment which commenced in January of 1985. A fourth Mediterranean deployment later followed and lasted from August 17, 1986 through February 24, 1987.
The USS Saipan entered the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in October of 1987 where she endured a major refitting that would take her off of active duty and not allow her to return to her homeport of Norfolk, Virginia until January of 1989.
Deployed to the Mediterranean for a fifth time from March through September of 1990, Saipan was credited with the successful evacuation of approximately 1,600 civilians from Liberia as part of Operation Sharp Edge.
Saipan’s service in the Persian Gulf from September of 1991 through March of 1992 as a participant in Operation Desert Storm gave way to a series of further deployments to the Mediterranean as her career progressed: March of 1993 as a participant in Operation Deny Flight and Operation Provide Promise; June of 1996 in support of Operation Decisive Endeavor; July of 1998 on her seventh deployment to this region; and July of 2000 to carry out her eighth deployment.
The USS Saipan returned to the Persian Gulf on January 10, 2003 as a participant in Operation Iraqi Freedom (an invasion of Iraq by the United States) and the War on Terrorism (a United States/United Kingdom-led military campaign against terrorist organizations).
Throughout the remaining four years of her time in service, the USS Saipan’s activities were varied in nature. She supported humanitarian efforts in Haiti (January-March 2005), she visited Norway for a centennial celebration of independence (early June 2005), she participated in the Royal Navy International Fleet Review in the waters off of Portsmouth, England (late June 2005), she transited to the Mediterranean to join in multinational training exercises (May 2006), and she conducted her final operational deployment to the Persian Gulf (August-December 2006).
The USS Saipan was decommissioned on April 25, 2007 at which time she was transferred to the Naval Inactive Ship Maintenance Facility (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) where she joined the inactive fleet. Saipan was later sold for scrap to International Shipbreaking (Brownsville, Texas) on September 30, 2009. The USS Saipan officially ceased to exist upon completion of her scrapping on February 23, 2011.
Asbestos Risk on the USS Saipan (LHA-2)
In service to her country for nearly three decades means that for nearly three decades the USS Saipan served as a site of exposure for humans to the hazards posed by the naturally-occurring mineral asbestos.
Asbestos was a key component in the industrial setting of the United States, in particular within the shipbuilding industry, from the 1920s through the 1980s. The superb heat- and fire-resistant properties of this mineral, in combination with its relatively low-cost and ease of accessibility, earned it a reputation as a “wonder product” whose use was actually mandated by the US Navy in the construction and maintenance of her ships.
Although asbestos use in the United States has yet to be altogether eliminated, its use has been significantly limited since the early 1980s. At that time, this substance began to become more widely recognized as a known human carcinogen and its devastating health effects began to rise to the forefront as an issue of serious concern in the realm of public health.
Asbestos-related diseases—asbestosis, mesothelioma, lung cancer, and gastrointestinal cancer—are currently responsible for nearly 10,000 deaths per year in the United States alone. As these diseases frequently exhibit extended latency periods—in essence a time span ranging anywhere from 20 to 50 years from initial exposure to the onset of symptoms—we can anticipate that we will continue to see asbestos-related mortality statistics remain steady as we approach the end of the 21st century.
Gaskets, valves, adhesives, insulation materials, lubricants, ducts, and cables…these are just a few of the more than 300 materials utilized aboard US Navy ships that contained asbestos and subjected navy veterans and shipyard workers to airborne asbestos fibers. As asbestos products age and decompose and when they are disturbed during maintenance procedures are when they pose the greatest risk to human health and safety. Once airborne, asbestos fibers easily enter the human body by means of ingestion and/or inhalation and attach themselves to the inner linings of the heart, lungs, and abdomen. Over time, these fibers result in scarring, inflammation, and in some cases, cell mutations, that give way to the onset of symptoms—difficulty breathing, coughing, and chest pain—indicative of the presence of disease. In many cases, by the time symptoms present themselves and a diagnosis is obtained, treatment options are limited, along with one’s life expectancy, as the disease has progressed to an advanced stage.
An early diagnosis of an asbestos-related illness is an individual’s best option for an optimal course of treatment aimed at preserving the highest level of quality of life possible. If you have been diagnosed with mesothelioma and believe your service aboard a ship such as the USS Saipan, or your employment by a US shipyard, has put you at risk for exposure to asbestos, please contact us immediately to obtain a detailed information packet. This packet can supply you with the appropriate resources to guide you as you seek a certified healthcare professional in your area, a treatment center to accommodate your medical needs, and legal support.