The only U.S. Navy submarine to be named after the prolific American journalist, publisher, author, scientist, inventor and diplomat, the USS Benjamin Franklin (SSBN-640) was the lead ship of her class of ballistic missile submarines. She served the Navy from 1965 to 1993.
The USS Benjamin Franklin was ordered on November 1, 1962, and the contract to build her was awarded to the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics Corporation. Her keel was laid down there, on the shoreline of Groton, Connecticut, on May 25, 1963. She was launched a year and a half later, on December 5, 1964, sponsored by Mrs. Francis L. Moseley and Mrs. Leon V. Chaplin. Her commissioning came the following year, on October 22, 1965, with Captain Donald M. Miller leading the Blue Crew and Commander Ross N. Williams leading the Gold Crew.
The ballistic missile submarine was the first of the Benjamin Franklin “640-class.” A large submarine, she measured 425 feet in length and 33 feet at her beam, and was propelled by an S5W pressurized-water nuclear reactor, two steam turbines and one shaft, allowing her to travel at speeds over 20 knots. Like other submarines of her class, the Benjamin Franklin was manned by two crews – a Blue Crew and a Gold Crew – that alternated their time on the ship; each crew consisted of 120 men.
The first order of business for a newly commissioned submarine is generally its shakedown cruise. For the USS Benjamin Franklin, this cruise began on October 26, 1965, four days after she was commissioned at the U.S. Naval Underwater Sound Laboratory at New London, Connecticut. On that initial cruise, the Benjamin Franklin’s Gold Crew successfully launched a Polaris A-3 missile. Every first missile firing is a momentous event, but this launch was special, as it was coordinated with an orbital pass of Gemini 7 astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Lovell. The Blue Crew would launch its first missile the following December.
During the Cold War, submarines were frequently charged with deterrent patrols – that is, patrolling to keep watch on enemy ships, generally belonging to the then-Soviet Union. In preparations to begin that task, the Benjamin Franklin passed through the Panama Canal on April 4, 1966, and made her first arrival at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on April 20. Manned by her Blue Crew, the ship set out on her first deterrent patrol on May 6, 1966.
The Benjamin Franklin completed 19 Polaris patrols before entering the shipyard where she was constructed – the Electric Boat Company at General Dynamics Corporation – for a missile conversion. During the two-year process, the ship’s missiles were upgraded from the Polaris missile system to the Poseidon. In November 1979 – after 16 Poseidon patrols – the Benjamin Franklin entered Portsmouth Naval Shipyard for her second overhaul. Again, the vessel’s weapons system was upgraded, this time to the Trident 1 system. The Franklin was back at sea in September 1981. A final overhaul was conducted in July 1986, when the ship’s nuclear reactor was refueled at Charleston, South Carolina.
The Benjamin Franklin completed 69 deterrent patrols before she reached the end of her career, and she received several honors for her battle-readiness and efficiency. These included two Meritorious Unit Commendations (1969 and 1990), SubRon16’s Battle Efficiency “E” (1990), and the title of the Atlantic Fleet’s Ballistic Missile Submarine of the Year (1990). She was decommissioned on November 23, 1993, and was stricken from the Naval Vessel Register the same day. She was scrapped via the Nuclear-Powered Ship and Submarine Recycling Program in Bremerton, Washington, and ceased to exist on August 21, 1995.
Asbestos Risk on the USS Benjamin Franklin (SSBN-640)
One can only imagine the tremendous amount of labor that went into building a submarine like the USS Benjamin Franklin. Construction of these vessels often took several years of careful, difficult work, requiring the assistance of hundreds of skilled laborers. These men were tasked with installing complicated nuclear-powered engines, fitting complex weaponry and making sure every seam on the exterior of the vessel was carefully guarded against cracks.
One of the many tasks required of these shipyard workers – and oddly enough, one of the most dangerous – might not have seemed dangerous at all at the time: It was fireproofing the mechanical areas and living quarters of the ships. Starting in the 1920s, the U.S. Navy had ordered shipyards to use a naturally occurring mineral called asbestos throughout their ships in order to protect them against the threat of fire. Heeding these orders, shipyard workers installed asbestos-laden pipe covering, insulation, gaskets, adhesives and other materials throughout the ships. At the time, no one thought asbestos was problematic; the mineral was used in numerous applications, not just in shipbuilding, but in a wide variety of products and industries, from car parts to cigarette filters. But as the decades passed, the mineral’s devastating affects became too obvious to ignore.
As products made with asbestos age, or when they are torn or cut, they release hazardous asbestos fibers into the air. If inhaled or swallowed, these fibers can become lodged in the lining of a person’s lungs or abdomen, causing deadly diseases such as asbestosis, emphysema and mesothelioma cancer. Very high quantities of dust were released when asbestos insulation and other products were installed and repaired at shipyards, putting shipyard workers at high risk. But the products also released dangerous amounts of dust on board the vessels, when the ship was in active service. This means that virtually all sailors and Navy personnel who worked aboard a submarine between the 1920s and the 1970s were exposed to asbestos at some point during their service.
Mesothelioma cancer can be difficult to diagnose, as there is a very long latency period for the disease; it can take as long as 40 or 50 years for symptoms to begin to appear. And sadly, there is no cure, but cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation have been shown to extend a patient’s life and quality of life. To achieve the best results, it is vital to begin treatment as soon as possible. If you think you may have been exposed to asbestos, educate yourself about mesothelioma risk factors, symptoms and treatment options today.Sources
USS Benjamin Franklin (SSBN-640) – History
Wikipedia – USS Benjamin Franklin (SSBN-640)
“Asbestos and Ship Building: Fatal Consequences”