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USS Nathanael Greene (SSBN-636)

The third ship of the U.S. Navy to be named for the famed Revolutionary War general, the USS Nathanael Greene (SSBN-636) was a James Madison-class fleet ballistic missile submarine built in the early 1960s. She was one of the Navy’s “41 for Freedom,” a name given to 41 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines launched from 1960 to 1966 that were designed to protect the U.S. during the Cold War. Today the Nathanael Greene’s sail hangs in Port Canaveral, Florida as a memorial to these 41 ships.

The Nathanael Greene’s career was cut short when she ran aground in the Irish Sea in 1986. It was the Navy’s first major accident involving a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine.


The contract to build the USS Nathanael Greene was awarded in July 1961 to Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, and her keel was laid down there in May 1962. She was launched two years later, in May 1964, sponsored by Mrs. Neander W. Wade, a descendant of the Revolutionary War general. The submarine was commissioned on December 19, 1964 with Commander Robert E. Crispin in command of the Blue Crew and Commander William M. Cossaboom in command of the Gold Crew.

Ballistic missile submarines were the largest subs in the Navy; the Nathanael Greene measured 425 feet in length and weighed 8,250 tons submerged. Like other ships of her class, she alternated between carrying two crews – a Blue and a Gold Crew, each of which contained 14 officers and 126 enlisted men.

Naval History

The Nathanael Greene completed her initial shakedown exercises with the Gold Crew from December 1964 to February 1965. When those were complete, she reported to Portsmouth for repairs and alterations. Her first mission – a Polaris missile deterrent patrol – was with the Blue Crew.

The vessel received upgrades at Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company in 1970 and 1971 to make her compatible with new technology – the Poseidon missile. The new missile equipment received a test launch at Cape Canaveral following the conversion. Shortly thereafter, the Nathanael Greene went on patrol to Holy Loch, Scotland.

The most memorable moment in the Nathanael Greene’s career is perhaps also the most unfortunate. On March 13, 1986, the ship ran aground in the Irish Sea. No men were lost, but the vessel suffered serious damage and had to be retired as a result. She was deactivated in May 1987, while still in commission. The incident was the U.S. Navy’s first major accident involving a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine.

The Nathanael Greene was officially decommissioned on December 15, 1986, and was stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on January 31, 1987. She was scrapped under the Navy’s Nuclear-Powered Ship and Submarine Recycling Program from 1998 to 2000.

Asbestos Risk on the USS Nathanael Greene (SSBN-636)

While today it is generally known as a highly toxic substance to be avoided at all costs, it was not so long ago that asbestos was utilized in a vast array of products and industries. For much of the 20th century, the naturally occurring mineral was prevalent in home building supplies, industrial parts, insulation and even cigarettes.

By the time the USS Nathanael Greene was constructed in the early 1960s, the United States was importing massive quantities of asbestos into its borders – more than 1,400 million pounds per year, estimates say. Substantial amounts of that asbestos was used in ship-building during the Cold War; in fact, in 1922, the U.S. Navy set requirements that asbestos be used in insulation, gaskets, tape and in other materials throughout each of its newly built submarines – including the USS Nathanael Greene.

Anyone who spent time aboard a submarine between the 1920s and 1980s – enlisted men, mechanics, shipyard workers, deckhands, even family members who visited sailors during port visits – was likely exposed to hazardous asbestos fibers on the ship. Asbestos insulation was especially dangerous at times when the material was being torn, repaired or replaced, all processes that were performed several times throughout the lifetime of a ship. When this occurred, large quantities of asbestos dust were released into the air; if these fibers were inhaled or swallowed, they could become embedded in a person’s lungs or abdomen and “plant the seed,” so to speak, for an asbestos-related disease like mesothelioma cancer.

There is no cure for mesothelioma, but treatment options are available. If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with the disease, or if you fear you may have been exposed to asbestos, learn more about the symptoms and treatment options by requesting a mesothelioma information packet today.

Author: Linda Molinari

Editor in Chief, Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance

Linda Molinari


Wikipedia – USS Nathanael Greene (SSBN-636)

Fast Attacks and Boomers: Submarines in the Cold War

“Asbestos and Ship-building: Fatal Consequences”