The USS El Paso—a Charleston-class amphibious cargo ship—was the fifth and final ship of this series. Named for the city of El Paso, Texas, this US Navy vessel was in commission in service to her country for 24 years, three months. Throughout the years ranging from 1977-1982, this ship’s unofficial motto was “You call, we haul—N-o-o-o problem!”
Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company (Newport News, Virginia) originally laid down the keel of the USS El Paso on October 22, 1968 as an attack cargo ship with the classification assignment of AKA-117. Shortly thereafter, on January 1, 1969, she was redesignated as an amphibious cargo ship—LKA-117. Launched on May 17, 1969, El Paso was commissioned eight months to the day later on January 17, 1970. She employed a complement of 36 officers and 375 enlisted men.
The 575 foot, six-inch USS El Paso was capable of speeds of up to 20 knots and displaced 18,600 tons with a full load. Initially armed with four twin, three-inch, 50-caliber dual purpose gun mounts, El Paso was later equipped with two 20mm Phalanx CIWS (radar-guided Gatling guns mounted on swiveling bases).
Throughout the duration of her career, the USS El Paso’s assignments brought her to Barcelona, Spain (1977), Marseille, France (date unknown), Genoa, Italy (1991), and Rota, Spain (date unknown).
El Paso was transferred to the Naval Reserve Force in the early 1980s, but remained there only for a short time before being called upon to return to active duty based on the need for additional sealift capacity within the US Navy’s fleet.
In 1993, El Paso was deployed to the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf where she served as a key participant in Operation Restore Hope—a US initiative with the aim of creating a secure environment in the southern half of Somalia that was conducive to carrying out humanitarian efforts.
The USS El Paso was decommissioned on April 21, 1994 and was assigned to the Military Sealift Command (MSC) in 1995. She was then transferred to the Bethlehem Steel Shipyard (Sparrows Point, Maryland) where she was scheduled to undergo a conversion to support her new role. This conversion, however, was cancelled and El Paso was officially placed out of service on October 23, 1996.
A decorated vessel, the USS El Paso was the recipient of several awards and ribbons that were issued for her distinguished service. Amongst these accolades were a Joint Meritorious Unit Award, a Navy Unit Commendation, three Navy Battle “E” Ribbons, a National Defense Service Medal, five Armed Forces Expeditionary Medals, and two Coast Guard Special Operations Service Ribbons.
At the present time, the USS El Paso is docked at the Naval Inactive Ships Maintenance Facility (NISMF) located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where she remains at the ready should a military emergency arise that would call for her return to active duty.
Asbestos Risk on the USS El Paso (AKA-117/LKA-117)
The US Navy was once a primary consumer of asbestos and asbestos products for the construction and maintenance of her ships. Historical estimates cite that the US shipbuilding industry employed as much as 25 million pounds of asbestos from the time period of the 1920s through the 1980s. Held in high regard, asbestos was praised by the US Navy, as well as by industrial America, for its unparalleled resistance to heat and fire, its ease of accessibility, and its cost efficiency.
Today asbestos is better known as a carcinogenic substance having been labeled as such by several government agencies—the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Proven to be the only cause for the fatal disease of mesothelioma, asbestos has also been proven as the root cause of other ailments such as asbestosis, lung cancer, and gastrointestinal cancer. In combination, this collection of diseases accounts for nearly 10,000 deaths in the US per year with a large proportion of those individuals included in these mortality statistics having direct ties to the shipbuilding industry.
The question at large remains at what point in time the US Navy attained the knowledge that the asbestos products that she was mandating for use in the production of her ships, as well as for periods of overhaul and repair, were resulting in serious health conditions for her personnel. Historical documents cite claims that the Navy’s Surgeon General was fully aware of the negative impact of asbestos on human lives as early as the year 1939.
Numerous resources exist today to support individuals that have developed mesothelioma from asbestos exposure. If you believe that you were exposed to asbestos as a result of your service in the US Navy aboard a vessel such as the USS El Paso or as a result of your employment in the shipbuilding industry, please contact us at once to obtain a detailed information packet. This packet will highlight your rights as a victim and provide you with contact information for physicians and lawyers who can assist you with your medical needs and legal rights.Sources
Wikipedia–USS El Paso (AKA-117/LKA-117)
NavSource Online: Submarine Photo Archive
Wikipedia–Unified Task Force