The USS Sunfish (SSN-649) was the seventh member of Sturgeon class, a group of nuclear-powered submarines designed to seek out and destroy enemy submarines. The Sunfish was the second U.S. Navy vessel named after the ocean sunfish (Mola Mola), a giant tropical-water fish that weighs an average of 2,200 pounds and survives mainly on jellyfish.
The USS Sunfish was ordered in March 1963, and her keel was laid down in January 1965 at the General Dynamics Quincy Shipbuilding Division in Quincy, Massachusetts. She was launched in October 1966 and sponsored by Mrs. Robert C. Byrd, the wife of West Virginia Senator Robert C. Byrd. She was commissioned on March 15, 1969 under the command of Commander Richard L. Thompson.
The Sunfish measured 289 feet in length and, when full, weighed in at more than 4,300 tons. She traveled at a speed of more than 20 knots submerged and carried 14 officers and 95 enlisted men.
After her initial shakedown period and exercises like torpedo firing, sound trials and casualty drills, the USS Sunfish started preparing for her first extended deployment. She set off on her first deployment from June to August 1970, then arrived at her home port of Charleston, South Carolina before embarking on another sea voyage from October to December of the same year.
The Sunfish set off again almost immediately, in January 1971. It was expected to be a short fleet exercise, but her operational commitments changed and she ended up traveling for two months, returning in March. In April 1971, she cruised to Port Everglades, Florida, and then spent the remainder of the year participating in a fleet exercise and antisubmarine warfare exercises with destroyers and aircrafts.
In January 1972, the Sunfish set off from Charleston for a deployment to the Mediterranean Sea with the United States Sixth Fleet. When that voyage was complete, she entered the Norfolk Naval Shipyard at Portsmouth, Virginia for a major overhaul. She remained there until August 1973.
Following her overhaul, the Sunfish stopped at New London, Connecticut for refresher training before returning to Charleston in November 1973. She then traveled to the Caribbean Sea for sound training and weapons testing, proceeding home again in December 1973 for a leave and upkeep. Early 1974 brought the Sunfish to the east coast of the U.S., where she operated from New London to Cape Kennedy, Florida until June, when she stood out to begin a deployment.
By the time she was decommissioned more than two decades later, the Sunfish had made history: In early 1996, shortly after pulling away from the submarine tender USS Simon Lake (AS-33), she made her 1,000th dive.
"Many subs don't make it this far and are decommissioned before their 1,000th dive," Commanding Officer CDR [Commander] E. Jackson Roeske said in a statement released at the time by the U.S. Navy's Chief of Naval Information. "This dive is not only a unique event, it also demonstrates the tremendous longevity and outstanding engineering capabilities of our submarine force."
The Sunfish made her final deployment in 1996 and was decommissioned and stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on March 31, 1997. She was scrapped through the Nuclear-Powered Ship and Submarine Recycling Program at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington. The scrapping process was completed on October 31, 1997.
Asbestos Risk on the USS Sunfish (SSN-649)
Decades before the USS Sunfish was pieced together on the shores of Massachusetts, officials in the U.S. Navy made a decision. In 1922, the Navy ordered that all vessels constructed for them be outfitted with asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral with powerful insulating and fireproofing abilities. The Navy specified what types of asbestos should be used and where aboard the ship it should be placed – mainly in pipe insulation, in boilers, in engine and mechanical rooms and in other locations that needed to be fireproofed.
At roughly the same time – the early 1920s – the Navy issued a medical bulletin listing substances that were hazardous to human health. Asbestos was included on that list. By this point, health officials had begun to notice that people who were frequently exposed to asbestos – including factory and construction workers, asbestos miners and those in the shipbuilding profession – were frequently afflicted by lung cancer and other diseases.
Unfortunately, asbestos would continue to be used aboard Navy vessels for more than 50 years, and in that time, numerous sailors, deckhands, shipyard workers and others were exposed to the toxic substance. It is highly likely that individuals who served aboard the USS Sunfish and other submarines of its era breathed harmful asbestos dust; in the close quarters of a submarine, exposure was nearly impossible to avoid.
If you served aboard a U.S. Navy submarine, you may be at risk of being diagnosed with mesothelioma cancer, a rare and inoperable type of cancer for which asbestos is the only known cause. There is no cure, but treatments are available – and time is of the essence. For more information about this disease, and to learn about treatment and legal options, request a mesothelioma information packet today.Sources
Wikipedia – USS Sunfish (USS-649)
USS Sunfish (USS-649)
Naval Vessel Register – USS Sunfish (USS-649)
“Asbestos and Ship-building: Fatal Consequences”