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USS Francis Scott Key (SSBN-657)

The USS Francis Scott Key was named in honor of the American lawyer, author, and poet Francis Scott Key (1779-1843) who is most remembered for his poem “The Defense of Fort McHenry.” The words of this poem—written in August of 1814 at the entrance to Baltimore Harbor “by the dawn’s early light”—would later become the national anthem of the United States (1931) known today as “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The only United States Navy ship to bear this name, the USS Francis Scott Key was a member of the “41 for Freedom” Ballistic Missile Submarine (SSBN) Fleet.


The Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics Corporation, located in Groton, Connecticut, was awarded the contract to build Francis Scott Key on July 29, 1963. Her keel was laid down at this location on December 5, 1964. Mrs. Marjory Key Thorne and Mrs. William T. Jarvis, granddaughter and great-granddaughter of Francis Scott Key, respectively, served as co-sponsors at her launch on April 23, 1965. Commissioned and assigned to the US Atlantic Fleet on December 3, 1966, Francis Scott Key’s complement consisted of two alternating crews of 120 men each led by Captain Frank W. Graham (blue crew) and Commander Joseph B. Logan (gold crew).

Francis Scott Key measured 425 feet in length, displaced 8,250 tons (submerged), and reached speeds in excess of 20 knots and depths down to 1,300 feet. Her armament included four 21 inch torpedo tubes and 16 missile tubes. During her span of service, she was equipped with three different missile systems: Polaris (1965-1972), Poseidon (1973-1978), and Trident (1979-1993).

A member of the Benjamin Franklin class of submarines, Francis Scott Key was recognized, together with the rest of the vessels in this class, for a quieter machinery design in comparison to her predecessors.

Naval History

As the tenth ship of the Benjamin Franklin fleet and part of the contingent known as the “41 for Freedom,” Francis Scott Key served as an instrument of deterrence against the face of the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union during the time period of the Cold War.

Upon successful completion of shakedown training and post-shakedown availability, Francis Scott Key embarked on her first deterrent patrol (equipped with Polaris missiles) on June 6, 1967 out of the port of Charleston, South Carolina. Following this initial mission, she would go on to conduct 18 subsequent patrols out of Rota, Spain and Holy Loch, Scotland.

After a 15 month overhaul (February 1972-May 1973) at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington in which Francis Scott Key underwent a weapons upgrade to Poseidon missiles, she was prepared for an additional 18 patrols operating out of Rota, Spain and Charleston, South Carolina.

With 37 patrols to her credit by September 1978, Francis Scott Key underwent yet another conversion of her weaponry. Making her mark in history in October of 1979, she became the first Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarine to set off on a deterrent patrol equipped with the Trident missile system.

After 49 successful patrols, Francis Scott Key entered Newport News Shipyard (located in Newport News, Virginia) for a refueling overhaul from February 1983 through the summer of 1985. Upon completion of this overhaul, she was deployed to Charleston, South Carolina to resume normal patrols.

Having completed 72 patrols over the course of nearly 27 years of service and having received one Navy Unit Commendation (NUC), one Meritorious Unit Commendation (MUC), and several Battle Efficiency "E"s, Francis Scott Key was decommissioned and stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on September 2, 1993 while located in Hawaii. Her scrapping was completed two years later on the 1st of September 1995 via the Nuclear Powered Ship and Submarine Recycling Program in Bremerton, Washington.

Asbestos Risk on the USS Francis Scott Key (SSBN-657)

Once hailed as the best and most cost effective insulating material, specifically with regard to achieving optimum levels of fire resistance, asbestos became widely used for industrial purposes in the twentieth century. Asbestos use in submarines by the United States Navy has been documented as early as 1922 with evidence that its use became mandatory by the 1930s. It is believed that as much as 9,849 million pounds of asbestos were employed in the shipbuilding industry during the peak years of the Cold War from 1950-1985.

Navy ships constructed prior to the mid-1970s contained asbestos materials such as insulation, gaskets, tape, and packing materials. These asbestos products were utilized in all sections of the ship from mechanical rooms (e.g., engine, boiler, and navigation rooms) to living quarters where the sailors ate and slept. In essence, those veterans who served aboard US Navy ships were completely surrounded by asbestos and thus, subject to its long-term, hazardous health effects.

Undisturbed, asbestos poses much less of a risk to individuals of acquiring a harmful asbestos-related illness such as asbestosis, lung cancer, or mesothelioma. Once disturbed, however, those particles of asbestos that become airborne and are eventually inhaled by individuals within its range, pose significant medical risks. Once inhaled, these particles attach to the linings of the lungs where they remain for extended periods of time. Eventually, these particles cause scarring and inflammation which can result in difficulty breathing with an end result of permanent lung damage.

Mesothelioma, while still regarded as a rare form of cancer, has been scientifically established as the most common form of cancer linked to asbestos exposure. Currently, approximately 2,500 deaths per year in the United States are attributed to this disease.

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