USS Guitarro (SSN-665)

In commission for nearly 20 years, the Sturgeon-class submarine USS Guitarro was the second ship of the US Navy’s fleet to bear this name. Her predecessor, USS Guitarro (SS-363), was active during World War II and was responsible for the sinking of eight ships. These vessels were named for the guitarro, a ray of the family of fish known as Rhinobatidae or guitarfish.

Construction

The Mare Island Naval Shipyard, located in Vallejo, California, received the contract for the construction of USS Guitarro on December 18, 1964. Nearly a year later, on December 9, 1965, her keel was laid down at this site. On July 27, 1968, USS Guitarro was the 14th nuclear submarine to be launched at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard. Her sponsor at the launching ceremony was Mrs. John M. Taylor, wife of Vice Admiral of the US Navy John McNay Taylor.

Measuring 292 feet, 3 inches in length, the USS Guitarro employed a crew of 108 officers and enlisted men. When submerged, this vessel was capable of displacing 4,640 tons and reaching speeds of up to 25 knots. With regard to her defense mechanisms, she possessed the ability to lay mines in addition to being equipped with four 21 inch torpedo tubes engineered to accommodate MK-48 torpedoes, Harpoon, Tomahawk, and SUBROC missiles.

Naval History

Less than a year after her launch on May 15, 1969, USS Guitarro was under construction while anchored at a dock in the Napa River at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard when two separate civilian construction crews began to carry out assignments requiring water to be pumped into the ship—one crew was pumping water into the fore of the ship, while the other pumped water into the aft section. These crews, unaware of each other’s activities, caused massive flooding aboard Guitarro and were ultimately responsible for the ship’s sinking at 8:30 P.M. (Pacific Daylight Time) that evening in 35 feet of water.

Originally slated to be commissioned in January of 1970, USS Guitarro endured a 32-month delay due to repairs with damages estimated upwards to 35 million dollars.

On September 9, 1972, Guitarro was finally commissioned. Commander Gordon Lange led the original crew of the ship that came to be known as the “Mare Island Mud Puppy.”

Shortly into her career, in the mid-to-late 1970’s, Guitarro conducted testing of a new addition to the Navy’s collection of weaponry—the Tomahawk cruise missile—while stationed at Point Loma in San Diego, California. Additional highlights of her tenure in service included deployments to the Pacific, the Western Pacific, and the Indian Ocean.

Concurrently decommissioned and stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on May 29, 1992, the USS Guitarro was completely scrapped by October 18, 1994 via the Nuclear-Powered Ship and Submarine Recycling Program located at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington.

Asbestos Risk on the USS Guitarro (SSN-665)

USS Guitarro, once notorious for being the ship that sank before her commissioning, would later find herself joining the ranks of numerous other navy vessels constructed between 1930 and the late 1970s that would gain notoriety for serving as a primary site of asbestos exposure that would directly impact the health and well-being of millions of sailors and shipyard workers.

The naturally-occurring mineral asbestos possessed a variety of attributes that made it appealing for industrial use. Not only was asbestos strong, durable, and resistant to heat and fire, it was relatively low in cost and easily accessible. The shipbuilding industry was a key consumer of asbestos—in conjunction with steel, it was the most widely used product in US shipyards. Historical estimates document that asbestos use in the United States climbed from 423 million pounds in 1930 to a record-high of 1,589 million pounds in 1965.

The extensive industrial use of asbestos, in combination with the estimated 4.5 million workers employed by US shipyards from 1930-1978, set the stage for a significant number of incidents of exposure to this hazardous substance.

Sailors and shipyard workers were exposed to numerous products containing asbestos, among them being insulation materials, gaskets, paints, valves, pipe coverings, and adhesives. Since the Navy mandated the use of asbestos in a myriad of products that she purchased, a career in the Navy almost assured exposure to asbestos at one point or another.

Asbestos has proven to inflict the most danger to an individual’s health when its friable fibers become airborne as a result of deterioration due to age or decomposition due to maintenance or demolition. Once these fibers are released into the atmosphere, they are poised for inhalation and/or ingestion. Over time, these strong and durable fibers accumulate inside the body giving rise to the development of one of several diseases currently associated with asbestos exposure: asbestosis, pleural plaques, lung cancer, or mesothelioma.

There is currently no known cure for mesothelioma—an advanced cancer that attacks the lining of the lungs, heart and abdomen. Medical science currently supports the widespread belief that asbestos exposure is the only cause for developing mesothelioma. This disease has an extended latency period ranging from 15 to 50 years—thus, symptoms may not present themselves until years after the initial exposure has occurred and well after the disease has taken a toll on the individual afflicted with its debilitating effects.

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