The USS Billfish, a member of the Sturgeon class of nuclear-powered fast attack submarines (SSNs), was named for any fish (e.g., spearfish, gar, sailfish) whose features included long, narrow, bill-shaped jaws. The second US Navy ship to bear this name, Billfish was guided by the motto “Spirit of 76” during her 28 years of service to her country.
The Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics Corporation laid down the keel of the USS Billfish on the 20th of September 1968 in Groton, Connecticut — just over two years after the company was awarded the contract to construct this vessel on July 15, 1966. Sponsored by Mrs. Earle G. Wheeler, Billfish was launched on May 1, 1970 and commissioned just over ten months later on March 12, 1971. Aboard this submarine, Commander Richard M. “Mac” Hughes led a complement of 109—14 officers and 95 enlisted.
Powered by one S5W nuclear reactor, two steam turbines, and one propeller, Billfish measured 292 feet, 3 inches, and when submerged, displaced 4,640 tons and reached speeds of up to 25 knots. Her armament included four 21 inch torpedo tubes to accommodate MK48 torpedoes along with Harpoon, Tomahawk, and SUBROC missiles. In addition, she possessed the capability to lay MK57 deep water and MK6 CAPTOR mines.
Descendants of the Thresher/Permit class and predecessors of the Los Angeles class, vessels of the Sturgeon class were referred to as the “work horses” of the US Navy’s submarine fleet during the time period of the Cold War. Sturgeon-class submarines were equipped with significantly larger sails, aimed at improving intelligence gathering efforts, in comparison to their predecessors. In addition, these sails were outfitted with rotating fairwater planes enabling them to surface through thin layers of ice. These new features assisted the ships of the Sturgeon class, such as USS Billfish, with successfully accomplishing their primary task of identifying, pursuing, and tracking movements and noise signatures of submarines within the Soviet naval fleet.
Aside from trailing Soviet submarines, Billfish’s operations included a joint exploration of the Arctic ice cap with British sailors in May of 1987 and combat rescue training with members of the French Navy and the U.S. Navy Sea-Air-Land (SEAL) team in June of 1992.
Billfish was unique in that it was one of the few select submarines designed to carry a Mystic-class deep submergence rescue vehicle (DSRV). This vehicle, named DSRV-2 Avalon, was intended to perform rescue operations, when necessary, on a submerged, disabled submarine. In the event of an accident, DSRV-2 Avalon was capable of transporting up to 24 individuals at a time to a safe location. While the rescue abilities of DSRVs were proven through testing and practice missions, some reports claimed that these vehicles merely served as a front for the Navy’s efforts to conduct research on espionage techniques beneath the ocean’s surface.
Decommissioned and stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on the same day—July 1, 1999—USS Billfish was transported to the Nuclear Powered Ship and Submarine Recycling Program at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington. Her disposal was completed on April 26, 2000—less than one year after her arrival at this location.
Asbestos Risk on the USS Billfish (SSN-676)
Asbestos, once utilized aboard submarines to ensure safety and protect crew members from dangerous fires, would years later be identified as a human carcinogen. A naturally occurring mineral possessing superior heat and fire resistant properties, asbestos was mandated by the US Navy for use in its ships mainly between the 1930s through the mid-1970s. Aboard these vessels, materials such as insulation, gaskets, adhesives, cables, and valves were all known to have contained some form of asbestos. Estimates show that more than 1.4 million pounds of asbestos per year were used during peak shipbuilding years for the duration of the Cold War. A substance once purchased at a relatively low cost would, over time, cause many of those who were exposed to it to pay a high price in the form of devastating asbestos-related illnesses.
Asbestos exposure at any level poses a risk. However, the greatest risk of developing lung disease occurs when asbestos is disturbed and individuals are exposed to the airborne fibers. These fibers, once inhaled by an individual, can become embedded in the lung tissue. Extended periods of exposure can result in accumulation of these fibers within the lungs. As a result, individuals are at risk for the development of diseases such as asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma.
Estimates show that approximately 10,000 deaths per year in the United States are attributed to diseases acquired as a result of exposure to asbestos. Although mesothelioma is considered a rare cancer (with roughly 2,500 US deaths per year), it remains the most common form of cancer linked to asbestos exposure. With asbestos-related illnesses having a latency period ranging from 20-50 years from time of initial exposure to the presentation of symptoms and diagnosis of illness, they are often difficult to track and continue to be an ever-evolving health epidemic.
Navy veterans and shipyard workers find themselves at the top of the list of occupations at an increased risk of exposure to asbestos products. The construction, maintenance, repair, and demolition of US Navy submarines is believed to have exposed more than 4.5 million individuals to asbestos. While there is currently no cure for mesothelioma, a proper diagnosis by a medical professional, in conjunction with awareness of the current therapeutic strategies available, may ease some of the overwhelming physical and psychological health effects of this illness.
If you believe you have been a victim of asbestos exposure or know of someone who has, please request an information packet today to receive more information on the vast array of resources available to those who face this serious health challenge.Sources
Wikipedia –USS Billfish (SSN-676)
NavSource Online: Submarine Photo Archive
Naval History and Heritage Command
Wikipedia –Sturgeon class submarine
Wikipedia – Mystic class deep submergence rescue vehicle
nvironmental Protection Agency