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USS Lafayette (SSBN 616)

Designed exclusively as a missile submarine, the USS Lafayette was one of the “41 for Freedom”—a total of 41 Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarines (SSBNs) launched by the U.S. Navy between 1960 and 1966. Often otherwise referred to as “Boomers”, the primary objective of SSBNs was strategic deterrence by means of providing the United States with an underwater platform for the potential launch of nuclear missiles intended for remote targets. The submarine’s namesake, Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, was a French-born pioneer of freedom who assisted the American colonists in their pursuit of independence from Great Britain and achieved recognition as a key player in the military defeat of the British in 1781 at Yorktown.

Construction

USS Lafayette was laid down in Groton, Connecticut on January 17, 1961 by Electric Boat, a division of the General Dynamics Corporation. Sponsored by Jacqueline Kennedy, wife of the 35th President of the United States, Lafayette was launched on May 8, 1962 and commissioned on April 23, 1963. Measuring 425 feet in length, displacing approximately 8,250 tons (submerged), and reaching speeds of 22-25 knots (submerged), Lafayette was armed with 16 Polaris/Poseidon missiles and four 21 inch torpedo tubes. The vessel employed a crew of 13 officers and 130 enlisted, divided into two separate crews.

Naval History

After having successfully completed shakedown training and missile trials off Cape Canaveral, Florida, the USS Lafayette departed her home port of Charleston, South Carolina on January 4, 1964 to set off on her maiden strategic patrol. Armed with 16 Polaris A-2 missiles, the Lafayette’s primary mission was to serve as a deterrent to anyone considering a threat to the security of the United States.

The Lafayette had two alternating crews identified as Blue and Gold. While the crews frequently returned to Charleston to visit family, Rota, Spain served as the location for Lafayette’s advanced base of operations.

May 17, 1967 not only marked the completion of Lafayette’s 15th patrol, but a milestone for the SSBNs —the 400th patrol. Lauded by Paul H. Nitze, the Secretary of the Navy, as a “silent shield of deterrence,” the SSBNs were considered a vital entity in attaining national objectives and serving as a protective guardian of American and allied forces.

Lafayette was entered into the Newport News, Virginia Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company on August 30, 1967 in preparation for an extensive overhaul which would span a 15-month time period. The addition of an S3G nuclear reactor core was noted as the most significant change to the vessel.

Upon official completion of the overhaul in December of 1968, Lafayette conducted a series of missile trials prior to departing for her 17th Polaris patrol from Charleston on May 18, 1969. By the end of December 1971, Lafayette would embark on her 28th patrol.

The early months of 1972 witnessed an additional three Polaris patrols in addition to the transitioning of Lafayette from Rota, Spain to New London, Connecticut. At her new location, Lafayette performed weekly operations and training for over 1,000 midshipmen through September.

In order for her to be capable of employing the new Poseidon missile, Lafayette was scheduled for yet another overhaul and conversion which would have her in the shipyard through November of 1974. The completion of the overhaul prompted a series of shakedown trainings of which the December 16th training session marked the successful launch by the crew of a Poseidon C-3 missile. This launch earned Lafayette the recognition of being the first of her class to fire such a weapon.

1975 witnessed further post-overhaul shakedown trainings which took the crew to Charleston, South Carolina, Port Canaveral, Florida, Exuma Sound, Bahamas, and St. Croix, Virgin Islands. By year end, two additional patrols were conducted marking Lafayette’s completion of a total of 32 patrols.

During the years 1976 through January of 1981, Lafayette conducted a series of further patrols bringing its total number of patrols completed to 51. A missile offload in Charleston in February of 1981 served as preparation for Lafayette’s arrival at the Newport News, Virginia dry dock for an extended refueling overhaul which would last through the remainder of 1982.

The 20th anniversary of the commissioning of Lafayette was celebrated on April 23, 1983, followed shortly thereafter on May 20th by a ceremony officially welcoming her back into the fleet. Eight more patrols would be carried out by Lafayette before she would suffer significant damage from high winds while anchored alongside Los Alamos (AFDB-7)—a large auxiliary floating dry dock. Repairs were successful and gave way to patrols 60-76. The 76th patrol, completed on September 20, 1990, would be the last for Lafayette.

Lafayette was deactivated on March 1, 1991 and later decommissioned on August 12, 1991. After nearly three decades of serving the Navy through implementation of regular deterrent patrols, Lafayette was relocated to Bremerton, Washington were it was disposed of by means of the submarine recycling program on February 25, 1992.

Asbestos Risk on the USS Lafayette (SSBN 616)

Asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral recognized for its heat and fire resistant properties, was widely used by the U.S. Navy from the 1930s through the mid-1970s. This substance was identified as a key component in more than 300 construction materials used aboard ships and at shipyards.

Primarily used as an insulation material, asbestos was abundant in the engine and boiler rooms of submarines such as the Lafayette where heat resistance was a necessity. However, because asbestos was readily available, low in cost, and applicable to a wide variety of uses, it was also commonly found in other areas of submarines such as navigation rooms, and areas where crew members gathered to eat and sleep. Thus, in essence, those who served aboard the USS Lafayette, as well as other submarines, were potentially subjected to asbestos each and every moment they spent in the confines of the submarine.

With two separate crews serving aboard the Lafayette, there were frequent returns to the home port to allow for visitation with family members. During these visitation periods, it was likely that family members suffered secondhand exposure to asbestos as a result of asbestos fibers being carried into the homes of crew members via their clothing and on their person (i.e., hair).

Furthermore, those individuals involved in the overhaul and repair, and later the deconstruction of the Lafayette as it was prepared to be recycled, are also at risk for asbestos exposure. When asbestos-containing materials are disturbed, asbestos fibers become airborne, posing the danger of inhalation of these fibers by those in surrounding areas.

Exposure to asbestos fibers in a confined space for an extended period of time places navy veterans in a high-level risk group for the development of the deadly diseases associated with exposure to asbestos. For those individuals who served our country aboard the Lafayette, the risk of developing an asbestos-related illness, such as mesothelioma or asbestosis, is a harsh reality. Mesothelioma symptoms are hard to detect and the latency period from time of initial exposure to the appearance of symptoms can range anywhere from 15 to 50 years. For these reasons, it is pertinent that anyone having served aboard or worked around the USS Lafayette seek a medical consultation immediately to assess risk and seek an appropriate course of treatment.

Sources
Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance Blog

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