The USS Lewis and Clark (SSBN-644) was a ballistic missile submarine that served the U.S. Navy from 1965 to 1992. She was a member of the Benjamin Franklin class, a group of subs known for their quiet machinery and general improvements over the previous James Madison class. The Lewis and Clark was the first Navy ship to be named for Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) and William Clark (1770-1838), a pair of explorers who carried out the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806), marking the first United States exploration to the Pacific Coast.
The contract to build the Lewis and Clark was awarded in November 1962 to Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company at Newport News, Virginia. Her keel was laid down there the following year, in July 1963. She was launched in November 1964 with two sponsors, Mrs. M. F. Engman and Mrs. M. G. Sale. The Lewis and Clark was commissioned on December 22, 1965, with Commander John F. Fagan leading the Blue Crew and Commander Kenneth A. Porter leading the Gold Crew.
The Lewis and Clark was a large submarine, measuring 425 feet in length and displacing 8,250 tons submerged. She was outfitted with 16 ballistic missile tubes; at first, they were capable of firing Polaris missiles, but she would later receive upgrades to make her capable of warfare using Poseidon missiles. As with all submarines in her class, the Lewis and Clark switched between two crews – the Blue and the Gold – each comprised of 14 officers and 126 enlisted men.
The year after she was commissioned, the USS Lewis and Clark completed her shakedown exercises and initial missile firings off the coast of Cape Kennedy, Florida. She then kicked off her first deterrent patrols in 1966, joining the ranks of Polaris missile-armed submarines patrolling to protect the U.S. against threats, largely from the then-Soviet Union.
In July 1972, the Lewis and Clark underwent a conversion to make her capable of firing Poseidon C2 ballistic missiles. Her new weaponry was first successfully launched by the ship’s Gold Crew on December 18, 1972 on a Demonstration and Shakedown Operation. Shortly thereafter, she deployed on further deterrent patrols.
Additional test missiles were fired in 1981, when the Lewis and Clark successfully fired four Poseidons. The following month, she entered Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company for a refueling overhaul of her nuclear reactor. The vessel launched four more missiles in June 1985 – again, as part of testing. The Lewis and Clark would never in her career fire in combat.
The Lewis and Clark was deactivated while still in commission on October 1, 1991; she was decommissioned the following year, on June 27, 1992, and was stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on August 1, 1992. She was disposed of by scrapping at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard at Bremerton, Washington, from October 1, 1995 to September 23, 1996.
In the scrapping process, however, parts of the Lewis and Clark were preserved. Her sail, fairwater planes and the top of her rudder were put on display at the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, where they remain part of a memorial to the Navymen who served during the Cold War.
Asbestos Risk on the USS Lewis and Clark (SSBN-644)
Individuals who spent time aboard the USS Lewis and Clark – whether they were shipyard workers at Newport News Shipbuilding, Navy officers, enlisted men, or even family members who visited enlisted loved ones during port visits – should know that unfortunately, they could be at risk of developing an asbestos-related illness. Asbestos, a mineral that grows in large deposits in nature, played a significant role in shipbuilding throughout much of the 20th century, and it was present in large quantities aboard the Lewis and Clark and other submarines of her class.
Asbestos was used because of its effectiveness at preventing fire, mainly in insulation in the mechanical areas of ships, but also in gaskets, adhesives, pump parts, in walls and under floorboards, and in fireproof cloth and blankets. These products tended to cast off a dusty substance that contained large quantities of asbestos fibers – shard-like bits of the mineral that, when inhaled, could irreparably damage a person’s lungs. The risk of asbestos exposure was greatest when there were large amounts of this dust in the air, such as when asbestos insulation was installed, ripped out, or repaired, a process that shipyard workers conducted several times during the life of most submarines.
Extended exposure to asbestos – especially by cigarette smokers – has resulted in diagnoses of mesothelioma cancer for many shipyard workers and U.S. Navy veterans. Unfortunately, it may be decades before individuals know the extent of the damage asbestos has had on their bodies. The latency period for mesothelioma cancer is extremely long – often as long as 40 or 50 years – so men who worked aboard the USS Lewis and Clark may not be aware yet that their health was compromised.
For more information about mesothelioma cancer’s risk factors and treatment options, request an information packet by filling out the form on this page.
Wikipedia – USS Lewis and Clark (SSBN-644)
Naval Vessel Register – USS Lewis and Clark (SSBN-644)
Deployments and History – Lewis and Clark (SSBN-644)