The fourth ship and the second warship in U.S. Navy history to bear the name honoring the Shawnee Indian chief Tecumseh (ca. 1768–1813), the USS Tecumseh was the second of ten ships comprising the James Madison class of Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarines (SSBNs). In conjunction with submarines from the following classes—the George Washington, the Ethan Allen, the Lafayette, and the Benjamin Franklin—those of the James Madison class were recognized as the “41 for Freedom”. Totaling 41 in number, the primary strategy of these nuclear-powered submarines was to serve as a means of deterrence against the threat of a nuclear attack in the era of the Cold War by their mere presence conducting continuous patrols beneath the ocean’s surface around the globe.
Ordered on July 20, 1961, Tecumseh’s keel was laid down less than a year later on June 1, 1962 by the Electric Boat Division of the General Dynamics Corporation in Groton, Connecticut. Sponsored by Mrs. Robert L. F. Sikes, wife of a U.S. representative from Florida, Tecumseh was launched on the 22nd of June 1963 and commissioned on May 29, 1964. Two alternating crews, numbering approximately 140 (enlisted and officers), served aboard Tecumseh and were led by Commander Arnett B. Taylor (blue crew) and Commander Charles S. Carlisle (gold crew). Armed with 16 missile tubes (carrying Polaris missiles prior to converting to Poseidon missiles) and four 21 inch torpedo tubes, Tecumseh measured 425 feet in length, reached speeds in excess of 20 knots, and had a surface displacement of 7,250 tons and a submerged displacement of 8,250 tons.
Pearl Harbor in Hawaii was the first base of operation for Tecumseh prior to her deployment to the Marianas Islands on December 17, 1964. She would commence her patrols from Guam at the southern end of this island chain 12 days later. By 1969, Tecumseh had completed a total of 21 patrols throughout the Pacific before she received notification of her impending transfer to the Atlantic Fleet.
November 8, 1969 marked Tecumseh’s arrival into the Newport News, Virginia Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company for a weapons upgrade to replace her Polaris missiles with the new and improved version—Poseidon. Able to fit into the same 16 missile tubes that housed the Polaris version, the Poseidon offered increased accuracy and flexibility in terms of the range of targets and the assured permeation of enemy defenses. Upon completion of her missile conversion overhaul, Tecumseh was deployed from Holy Loch, Scotland for a series of additional deterrent patrols over the next few years.
After having completed a total of 44 patrols, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, New Hampshire was the site of yet another overhaul for Tecumseh from 1977-1979. Completion of this overhaul gave way to the assignment of a new home port in Charleston, South Carolina.
The year 1982 was witness to two accolades for Tecumseh—selection as the Atlantic Fleet’s SSBN Outstanding Performance Award Winner and recognition by the Secretary of the Navy for sustained superior performance.
Tecumseh returned to Newport News, Virginia from April 1984-November 1986 for a nuclear refueling overhaul followed by a series of shakedown operations.
Tecumseh’s crews were combined on December 19, 1991 as she continued to carry out missions beyond the 73 deterrent patrols completed since her commissioning.
After 28 years of service, Tecumseh was deactivated in ceremonies held on November 21, 1992 in Charleston, South Carolina—a tribute to her success and the dedication and service of her crew.
A final voyage for the combined crew originated in Charleston, South Carolina in January of 1993 and concluded in Bremerton, Washington where Tecumseh was decommissioned on July 23, 1993. The Nuclear Powered Ship and Submarine Recycling Program was the means of her disposal which was completed by April 1, 1994 at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard located in Bremerton, Washington.
Asbestos Risk on the USS Tecumseh (SSBN-628)
Asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral with superior heat-resistant properties, was widely used in industrial applications prior to the late 1970s. Estimates of individuals in the United States who have suffered from significant levels of asbestos exposure range anywhere from two to six million. Asbestos-related diseases, such as asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma, have increasingly moved to the forefront among public health issues in recent years due to an extended latency period of 20 years or more from time of initial exposure to asbestos to the presentation of symptoms of an illness caused by this hazardous substance.
Held in high regard, not only for its beneficial industrial properties, but for its value, the use of asbestos was mandated by the U.S. Navy for a variety of uses in conjunction with the construction, maintenance, and repair of ships from the 1930s through the mid-1970s. Thus, veterans of the U.S. Navy who served aboard SSBNs, such as Tecumseh, are at an increased risk for the development of an illness directly resulting from exposure to asbestos. Individuals ranging from crew members to those involved with the overhauls, weapons upgrade, repairs, and dismantling of the ship for the recycling program are all considered potential candidates for asbestos-related lung diseases resulting from exposure and probable inhalation of asbestos fibers.
Sadly, the reach of the devastating effects of asbestos exposure goes beyond the vessels and into the homes of veterans where spouses, children, and other loved ones suffer the consequences of secondhand exposure via the asbestos fibers carried in on clothing and other personal effects.
It is a great misfortune that those who served our country aboard ships such as Tecumseh are now, years later, being served a myriad of serious ailments. The confined space of the submarine, combined with the extended duration of time spent within those confines during patrols, and the quantities of asbestos utilized are all contributing factors that increase an individual’s risk of contracting a life altering and potentially fatal asbestos-related lung disease.Sources
Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships
USS Tecumseh (SSBN-628)
Federation of American Scientists
National Cancer Institute