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USS James K. Polk (SSBN-645)

USS James K. Polk was the second ship of the US Navy’s fleet to be named in honor of James K. Polk (1795-1849) who served as a member of the US House of Representatives (1825-1839), Speaker of the House (1835-1839), Governor of Tennessee (1839-1841), and eleventh President of the United States (1845-1849). As President, James K. Polk, together with his administration, accomplished “Four Great Measures” that were outlined as the goals of his term in office: the resolution of the Oregon dispute with Great Britain; the acquisition of California; the decrease of the tariff; and the reinstatement of the Independent Treasury System.


The Electric Boat Division of the General Dynamics Corporation, located in Groton, Connecticut, was the recipient of the contract to construct James K. Polk on November 1, 1962. Her keel was laid down at this site just over a year later on November 23, 1963. Mrs. Horacio Rivero, Jr., wife of Admiral Horacio Rivero, Jr. who served as Vice Chief of US Naval Operations, was this vessel’s sponsor at her launch on May 22, 1965. Commissioned on April 16, 1966, James K. Polk’s two crews (Blue and Gold), each comprised of 14 officers and 129 enlisted men, were led by Commanders R.M. Douglass (Blue Crew) and F. D. McMullen, Jr. (Gold Crew).

Armed with four 21 inch torpedo tubes and 16 ballistic missile tubes, the 425 foot James K. Polk was capable of reaching speeds between 16 and 21 knots and depths down to 1,300 feet. She displaced 7,325 tons when surfaced and 8,251 tons when submerged below the ocean’s surface.

Naval History

Shortly after her commissioning, the USS James K. Polk voyaged to Charleston, South Carolina in September of 1966 to be outfitted with Polaris ballistic missiles in preparation for her first deterrent patrol. Once her weaponry was in place and fully functioning, she underwent shakedown training prior to embarking on her initial deployment. As a member of the Atlantic Fleet, James K. Polk completed 19 strategic deterrent patrols between September of 1966 and May of 1971.

July of 1971 marked James K. Polk’s first overhaul at Newport News Shipbuilding located in Newport News, Virginia. This process included a nuclear refueling in conjunction with an upgrade of her nuclear defense system to accommodate the Poseidon C-3 missiles. Upon completion of this overhaul in late 1972, the James K. Polk endured a demanding schedule of sea trials, exercises, and testing of her new ballistic missile system.

Equipped with her new Poseidon missiles, James K. Polk resumed her duties in May of 1973—patrolling the Atlantic Ocean and serving as a vehicle of deterrence in the face of enemy forces.

September of 1981 marked James K. Polk’s completion of 50 deterrent patrols and the beginning of her second overhaul at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine. Seven additional deterrent patrols ensued for James K. Polk after the overhaul was completed in 1983.

Once again returning to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, James K. Polk endured yet another overhaul in January of 1986. At the time of this third service period, this submarine had 58 deterrent patrols to her credit.

A final series of Poseidon patrols for James K. Polk was underway by May of 1989. Shortly after celebrating her 25th year of service in April of 1991, James K. Polk concluded her 66th and final deterrent patrol in August of 1991.

Exactly one year later, James K. Polk’s ballistic missiles were removed and her missile tubes were deactivated as she was transformed from a Benjamin Franklin-class fleet ballistic missile submarine into an attack submarine during a 19-month shipyard conversion. The one-time James K. Polk (SSBN-645) was now James K. Polk (SSN-645) as she concluded her career by carrying out three deployments to the Mediterranean Sea in combination with numerous special forces’ operations and exercises.

Deactivated on January 9, 1999 in Norfolk, Virginia, James K. Polk was later decommissioned and stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on July 8 of that same year. Aside from her sail, which is currently on display at the National Atomic Museum in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the James K. Polk ceased to exist on April 26, 2000 via the US Navy’s Ship and Submarine Recycling Program located at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington.

Asbestos Risk on the USS James K. Polk (SSBN-645)

Did you serve aboard a vessel such as the USS James K. Polk? Did your occupation involve you in the construction and/or maintenance of this submarine or a vessel similar to this one? Did you reside with someone who was in the Navy or involved in any way with the shipbuilding industry? If your answer was yes to any of the above questions, it is likely that you are a victim of asbestos exposure—either first- or second-hand.

The naturally-occurring mineral asbestos, once praised for its superior tolerance to heat and fire and mandated for use by the US Navy in the construction of her ships, has now been identified as a human carcinogen that is wreaking havoc on the health and well-being of millions of individuals. Those individuals whose past occupations have put them in contact with asbestos, primarily between the years of 1930 and 1978, have either already succumbed to the fatal consequences of asbestos-related illnesses—such as asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma—or are just beginning to exhibit symptoms. The extended latency period, ranging anywhere from 15-50 years, that is typical of diseases originating from asbestos exposure often means that individuals are experiencing the gradual development of these diseases without the presentation of any symptoms. It is often common that by the time the symptoms of these diseases present themselves and a diagnosis is issued, the period of life expectancy is limited and quality of life may be compromised.

Insulation materials, gaskets, packing materials, adhesives, valves, and cables—these asbestos-containing products, to name a few, were employed by the US Navy and the shipbuilding industry to a great extent. Over time, or during periods of construction, maintenance, or demolition, the friable fibers of asbestos were released into the surrounding atmosphere. Once airborne, these fibers were able to enter the lungs of those individuals in close proximity, become embedded in their lung tissue, and eventually lead to scarring and inflammation which in turn can result in the development of serious diseases of the lungs, such as mesothelioma.

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