The USS Plunger—a Thresher/Permit-class submarine—was originally contracted as a guided-missile submarine (SSGN), but was later redesigned and built as an attack submarine (SSN). In commission for 28 years (1962-1990), Plunger was guided by her motto “The past is prologue.” She was the third U.S. Navy ship to bear her name.
Awarded on March 23, 1959, Plunger’s keel was laid down nearly a year later on March 2, 1960 at Mare Island Shipyard in Vallejo, California. Sponsored by Mrs. Clinton P. Anderson, Plunger was launched on the 9th of December 1961 and later commissioned on the 21st of November 1962. The complement of approximately 100 (officers and enlisted) was led by Commander William M. Adams. Specifications of this vessel included a length of 278 feet, 5 inches, a submerged displacement of 4,200 tons, speeds of 28+ knots (submerged), and an armament consisting of four 21 inch torpedo tubes.
On November 27, 1962, six days after her commissioning, Plunger traveled to Puget Sound to conduct testing of torpedo tubes and sound gear. Her shakedown training initiated several weeks later with a departure from Mare Island to Pearl Harbor on January 5, 1963.
Having completed shakedown, Plunger returned to her homeport of Mare Island to perform further testing, this time of her sonar and fire control system. Following a brief stint at this location, Plunger departed once again to Pearl Harbor which would serve as her new homeport. Here she became flagship of ComSubDiv 71 on April 1, 1963.
Subsequent years spanning through the mid-1960s would witness Plunger further serving in a testing capacity by carrying out evaluations for her class—the most advanced class of nuclear attack submarines:
- September 1964 (Wake Island): Plunger conducted SubRon Operational Evaluation missile firing
- January 1965 (Pearl Harbor): Plunger exhibited the potential of the Navy’s most recent ASW (anti-submarine warfare) weapon system
- May 1965 (Wake Island): Plunger took part in the SubRon Operational Training Test (C/S-17)
- September 1965-mid-1966 (WestPac deployment): Plunger conducted evaluation of the AN/BQQ-1 sonar systems in addition to carrying out oceanographic and port surveys
- March 1967 (Pearl Harbor): Plunger was involved in ASW exercises and advanced type-training work
- Puget Sound served as Plunger’s homeport for the last six months of 1967 before her return to Pearl Harbor on February 1, 1968.
During her time in service, Plunger underwent three major overhauls—two at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and one (for refueling) at Mare Island Shipyard (1971-1973). With each overhaul, Plunger was outfitted with upgraded sonar, fire control, and electronic equipment, as well as improved propulsion gear.
The winner of many awards, Plunger was granted the Arleigh Burke Fleet Trophy in 1969 for being the ship to exhibit the most improvement in battle efficiency. Years later in 1986, Plunger was awarded the prominent Marjorie Sterrett Battleship Fund Award which recognized her as the most combat-ready warship in the Pacific. Among her other accolades, she was the recipient of six Battle “E” efficiency awards, four Navy Unit Commendations, and two Meritorious Unit Commendations.
A final WestPac deployment took place for Plunger in 1988 taking her to Japan, the Philippines, Guam, and South Korea, with port calls in Okinawa and Hong Kong. Her return from this deployment gave way to an interval of routine operations out of San Diego followed by a final “special operation” in December of 1988.
While still in commission, Plunger was deactivated on February 10, 1989. She was decommissioned on January 3, 1990 and later stricken from the Navy Register a day shy of a month later on the 2nd of February. Entered into the Nuclear Powered Ship and Submarine Recycling Program in Bremerton, Washington on January 5, 1995, Plunger’s existence came to an end on March 8, 1996.
Asbestos Risk on the USS Plunger (SSN-595)
Asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral once lauded as a “wonder product” for its relatively low cost, resilience, and fireproof properties, was applied to a wide variety of industrial applications, especially with regard to shipbuilding. Between the 1930s and the 1970s, the U.S. Navy not only utilized asbestos in nearly every vessel it produced, but utilized it in nearly every crevice of each vessel. From adhesives and gaskets to valves, cables, and insulation materials, the use of asbestos was mandated by the U.S. Navy in more than 300 materials involved in the construction, maintenance, and repair of warships. In short, asbestos was likely to be found in all areas of submarines such as the USS Plunger—from equipment rooms to areas designated for eating and sleeping.
Fast forward to the present day and the need arises to examine what effects this widespread use of asbestos in the past by the U.S. Navy has had on those veterans who served aboard and/or who serviced submarines such as the USS Plunger. Asbestos, the once highly valued “wonder product”, is today classified as a known human carcinogen—a cancer causing agent—by several government agencies, including the EPA, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer. As a result of their occupational exposure to asbestos fibers, veterans are at an increased risk for the development of asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma.
How asbestos exposure affects an individual and the likelihood that they are at risk to develop an asbestos-related disease is said to be determined by the following factors:
- Dose (amount of exposure)
- Duration (length of time exposure occurred)
- Composition of asbestos fibers
- Source of exposure
If these factors are put into perspective with regard to exposure while serving aboard a submarine, it is unquestionable that such an environment was conducive to the eventual risk of developing a disease attributed to asbestos exposure. Veterans were confined to a limited space filled with asbestos products for extended periods of time underwater. This space had inadequate ventilation which allowed for them to be encircled by asbestos fibers whenever they may have been disturbed. The end result of this scenario—being the inhalation of these fibers—creates the potential for significant adverse health effects years down the road.
With a latency period of 15-50 years before asbestos-related disease symptoms arise, the challenge lies not only in detecting the disease, but establishing the link between asbestos exposure and the onset of symptoms. Often by the time the disease becomes a reality, the victims do not remember the source of the exposure that is responsible for the devastating hardship they will face. While there is presently no cure for mesothelioma, an early diagnosis will generally result in a greater range of treatment options, a more favorable prognosis and overall higher quality of life.
Wikipedia – USS Plunger (SSN-595)
National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry