USS Robert E. Lee (SSBN-601) was the only ship of the US Navy’s fleet to be named in honor of Robert E. Lee (1807-1870)—Commander of the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. The first nuclear-powered ship to be constructed in the South, USS Robert E. Lee was the fourth ship out of five that comprised the George Washington class of submarines. In commission for 23 years, this ship bore the motto Pax Deterrendo (Peace Through Deterrence).
Ordered on July 30, 1958, USS Robert E. Lee’s keel was laid down by the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, located in Newport News, Virginia, less than one month later on the 25th of August. Sponsored by Mrs. Hanson E. Ely II (granddaughter of Robert E. Lee), the launch of this ship took place on December 18, 1959. Upon her commissioning on September 16, 1960, two alternating crews (Blue and Gold), consisting of 12 officers and 100 enlisted men each, were led by Commander Reuben F. Woodal (Blue) and Commander Joseph Williams, Jr. (Gold).
USS Robert E. Lee measured 381 feet, 6 inches in length and was capable of speeds up to 25 knots when submerged. She possessed a surface displacement of 5,946 tons and a submerged displacement of 6,700 tons. She was equipped with 16 missile tubes (which housed Polaris A1 and later A3 missiles) and six 21 inch torpedo tubes.
USS Robert E. Lee operated out of Newport News, Virginia immediately after her commissioning through the 2nd of December 1960. At this time, she traveled to the Narragansett Bay Operating Area and Cape Kennedy, Florida to carry out testing exercises for torpedoes and Polaris missiles.
Robert E. Lee was stationed at the Bermuda Operating Area for the month of January 1961. Here she performed further missile test launches in addition to anti-submarine warfare exercises with the USS Torsk (SS-423). By the 30th day of this same month, Robert E. Lee had returned to Norfolk where she commenced a month-long period of shipyard work at the Newport News drydock.
ollowing a period of “special operations” based out of Cape Kennedy during the months of May and June of 1961, Robert E. Lee was reassigned to the base of Holy Loch, Scotland where she became a member of Submarine Squadron 14 on July 10, 1961.
After a brief phase of torpedo test firing, Robert E. Lee embarked on her first deterrent patrol on August 9, 1961. She continued to conduct operations out of Holy Loch through 1964 and by that time had 16 patrols to her credit.
February 22, 1965 marked the initiation of Robert E. Lee’s first overhaul with her entrance into the Mare Island Division of the San Francisco Bay Naval Shipyard. During this overhaul, the ship underwent a modernization of her navigation system, an upgrade to her weapons system to accommodate the new Polaris A3 missile, a refueling of her reactor, and a reengineering of several of her systems in an effort to provide enhanced safety features.
After nearly a year and a half spent in overhaul, Robert E. Lee emerged ready to undergo a period of testing of her new equipment. She initiated sea trials on the West Coast on July 12, 1966. These trials, which endured through the beginning of August, were followed by her voyage to the East Coast for shakedown training which included the successful launch of a Polaris A-3 test missile.
A successful testing period gave way to Robert E. Lee’s resumption of deterrent patrols. She departed Charleston on December 4, 1966 and completed her 17th patrol with her arrival in Holy Loch on January 30, 1967.
A continuous cycle of patrols ensued for Robert E. Lee over the course of the next four years. By January 1, 1971 she had completed 33 deterrent patrols as a member of Submarine Squadron 14.
Robert E. Lee entered drydock at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington on January 27, 1971 for her second major overhaul. Upon completion of this maintenance period, she carried out post-overhaul trials on the West Coast before resuming normal operations on the East Coast which would endure through the first seven months of 1973.
August 17, 1973 marked Robert E. Lee’s return to the West Coast with her arrival in San Diego, California. She continued onward to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii followed by a voyage to Apra, Guam where she continued to conduct deterrent patrols into 1977.
A third and final overhaul for Robert E. Lee took place at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard and would last until the middle of 1978. This overhaul included a refueling for the ship, as well as upgrades to her equipment and weapons system. By December of 1978, Robert E. Lee resumed active duty.
In the early 1980s, during the final years of Robert E. Lee’s service to her country, her missiles were removed and she was reclassified as an attack submarine as a result of limitations enforced as part of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) II.
Decommissioned on December 1, 1983 and later stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on April 30, 1986, the scrapping of USS Robert E. Lee took place in Bremerton, Washington via the Nuclear- Powered Ship and Submarine Recycling Program and was completed by September 30, 1991.
Asbestos Risk on the USS Robert E. Lee (SSBN-601)
Individuals who served aboard the USS Robert E. Lee once traveled the seas on a mission to prevent battles by means of deterrence in the name of freedom for the United States. Today, these same individuals may lose their freedom to live as they battle for their lives against diseases resulting from exposure to the toxic substance, asbestos, encountered during their years of service to their country.
Asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral, was mandated for use by the US Navy in a variety of materials used in the construction and maintenance of ships over the course of the years from the early 1930s through the mid-1970s. Not only was asbestos abundant in nature, but it was deemed to be cost-effective and possess superior resistance to heat and fire. The question is did the Navy know that this material also possessed highly toxic properties that would prove to result in serious health conditions for many individuals in the future?
Historical documents cite that the Surgeon General of the Navy was fully aware as early as 1939 that asbestos was directly linked to the development of the condition known as asbestosis. This condition was stated to have resulted from veterans and shipyard workers direct exposure to asbestos dust from pipe coverings and insulation materials. Despite this knowledge, however, the Navy continued to employ asbestos in her ships placing human health and safety at risk in the years to come.
The friable fibers of asbestos are released when materials containing this toxin are disturbed or when they decompose over time. These fibers, inhaled by humans, become embedded in their lung tissue, and over time, cause scarring which can give way to the development of serious health conditions–asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma. These diseases, mesothelioma in particular, have extended latency periods ranging anywhere from 15-50 years. As a result, harmful health effects may not become evident until many years after the initial asbestos exposure has occurred.
If asbestos exposure is part of your past as a result of your service to your country or your employment by a shipyard, it is important that you are fully aware of the health risks that may lie ahead in your future if you have yet to experience any symptoms to date. Asbestos-related illnesses are extremely serious in nature and often have a poor prognosis once identified. It is pertinent that you seek out the expertise and care of a pulmonologist—a physician who specializes in diseases of the lungs. The sooner you identify your potential risk factors for the development of an asbestos-related disease, the sooner you can embark on the best course aimed at achieving an optimal level of medical care and attainment of the highest level of quality of life.
You may also have legal rights regarding your exposure to asbestos that may entitle you to compensation. Please contact us to obtain an information packet to learn more.
NavSource Online: Submarine Photo Archive
Wikipedia–USS Robert E. Lee (SSBN-601)