The USS Sam Houston (SSBN-609) was a Cold War-era submarine commissioned by the U.S. Navy in the early 1960s. A member of the Ethan-Allen class, the nuclear-powered submarine was designed to fire ballistic missiles, though those capabilities were later downgraded in keeping with a treaty with the Soviet Union. The USS Sam Houston was the only Navy vessel to be named for Sam Houston (1793-1863), who served as president of the Republic of Texas during its brief stint as an independent nation.
Construction of the USS Sam Houston was ordered on July 1, 1959, and her keel was laid down about six months later, on December 28, 1959, at Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company at Newport News, Virginia. She was launched on February 2, 1961, and was sponsored by Mrs. John B. Connally, the wife of the then-Secretary of the Navy. (John Connally would go on to serve as the 39th governor of Texas; while in that position, he was a passenger in the car in which President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The attack left Connally seriously wounded.)
The Sam Houston was commissioned on March 6, 1962, with Captain W.P. Willis, Jr. in command of the Blue Crew, and Commander Jack H. Hawkins in command of the Gold Crew. The two crews – each comprised of 12 officers and 128 enlisted men – switched off throughout the submarine’s service. Sometimes referred to as “Boomers,” Ethan Allen-class submarines were among the largest in the Navy’s fleet; the Sam Houston measured 410 feet in length and displaced 7,900 tons submerged.
The USS Sam Houston’s Blue Crew blasted the vessel’s first Polaris test missile on April 25, 1962 off the coast of Florida; the Gold Crew then assumed command, firing its first test missile three weeks later. After these tests and her shakedown was complete, the Sam Houston embarked on her first deterrent patrol – standard practice for submarines of her day, who were patrolling to keep the United States safe from Soviet enemies. During her first patrol, she operated submerged for 48 days without surfacing. Upon completion, she moored with the submarine tender USS Proteus (AS-19) in Holy Loch, Scotland, before commencing with upkeep.
The Sam Houston proceeded to Holy Loch again in December 1962, then departed on her third patrol in March 1963. This time, her travels took her to the Mediterranean Sea, where she became the first fleet ballistic missile submarine to enter that sea. The submarine conducted exercises with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and made a short stop at Izmir, Turkey. By the end of 1963, the young vessel had completed six deterrent patrols.
In August 1966 – after 11 additional deterrent patrols, the longest of which lasted 71 days – the Sam Houston returned to the United States. It was her first return since her 1962 deployment to Holy Loch, Scotland. She immediately reported to Portsmouth Naval Shipyard at Kittery, Maine to undergo a major overhaul.
The Sam Houston was back at sea in October 1967, and her first order of business was participating in sea trials and shakedown. By May 1968, she was ready to embark on another deterrent patrol, her 18th, which sent her again to Holy Loch. After six more patrols, the submarine traveled to the Mediterranean Sea in August 1970, where she joined Submarine Squadron 16, and operated out of Rota, Spain for the next two years.
Workers at Charleston Naval Shipyard in South Carolina began extensive work on the Sam Houston beginning around Thanksgiving 1972, updating her weapons and propulsion systems.
In the late 1970s, the United States and Soviet Union entered into a series of talks about controlling an escalating arms race between the two superpowers. The resulting agreement, known as the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, or SALT, required both sides to freeze the number of strategic ballistic missile launchers at their current levels. If they wished to build any more launchers, the nations would first have to disarm some of their current ones.
As a result, the Sam Houston and a number of other ballistic-missile-launching submarines had their missile tubes deactivated. Concrete blocks were placed in the missile tubes and their fire-control systems were removed. On November 10, 1980, the Sam Houston was reclassified as an attack submarine and given a hull number of SSN-609. From that point forward, she was used mainly for training and antisubmarine warfare exercises.
From 1982 to 1985, the Sam Houston and her sister ship, the USS John Marshall (SSBN-611), entered Puget Sound Naval Shipyard at Bremerton, Washington, where they were converted to carry divers. Alterations included the additional of troop berthing, the removal of some missile tube bases, and the addition of two Dry Deck Shelters.
On April 29, 1988, the Sam Houston ran aground on Fox Island, Washington. Three years later, she was deactivated while still in commission, and began the Nuclear Powered Ship and Submarine Recycling Program at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. Her formal decommissioning came on September 6, 1991, and she was stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on the same day. The USS Sam Houston’s recycling was completed on February 3, 1992, when she officially ceased to exist.
Asbestos Risk on the USS Sam Houston (SSBN-609)
It has been decades since veterans of our U.S. Navy have served aboard the USS Sam Houston. The submarine has long since been scrapped; even the Soviet Union – the nation against whom she was to protect her residents – has ceased to exist.
But the sacrifices made by these brave men and women lives on, not in the dangers of combat, but in threats posed by tiny, shard-like fibers that floated in the air they breathed. Coating pipes that ran throughout the USS Sam Houston, in her walls, under floorboards, as well as in adhesives, gaskets and blankets, was a naturally occurring substance called asbestos.
For decades, asbestos appeared to be harmless; in fact, many regarded it as a “miracle mineral” for its intrinsic fireproofing and heat-resistance qualities. Because of these traits – and for its abundance in nature and its cheap price tag – asbestos was an extremely popular additive in thousands of products from the 1920s to the 1970s, not just in submarines but in manufacturing, industry and homes throughout the United States. Unfortunately, it has since been discovered that asbestos is devastating to human health. The fibers that comprise the mineral, when inhaled or swallowed, can cause diseases of the lungs, including mesothelioma cancer.
Modern medicine has not yet found a cure for mesothelioma, and because it takes so long for the disease’s symptoms to appear, it remains difficult to diagnose. Therefore, it is tremendously important that if you or a loved one were exposed to asbestos – on the USS Sam Houston, at a shipyard, or in any other location – you educate yourself immediately about the disease.Sources
Wikipedia – USS Sam Houston (SSBN-609)
Navy Site – USS Sam Houston (SSBN-609)