USS Woodrow Wilson—nicknamed “The Woody Woo”—was the seventh Lafayette-class nuclear powered fleet ballistic missile submarine (SSBN). Named for Thomas Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), scholar, statesman, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and 28th President of the United States, she was the only US Navy ship to bear this name.
Mare Island Naval Shipyard, located in Vallejo, California, was awarded the contract to build Woodrow Wilson on February 9, 1961. Her keel was laid down at this site seven months later on September 13, 1961. Sponsored by Miss Eleanor Axson Sayre, granddaughter of President Woodrow Wilson, the vessel was launched on February 22, 1963 and commissioned later that year on the 27th of December.
Woodrow Wilson’s complement consisted of two alternating crews (blue and gold) of 143 individuals each—13 officers and 130 enlisted. The blue crew was led by Commander Cleo N. Mitchell, while Commander Walter N. Dietzen led the gold crew.
Powered by a S5W pressurized water nuclear reactor, two geared turbines, and one propeller, Woodrow Wilson measured 425 feet in length, reached speeds in excess of 20 knots, and displaced 7,250 tons surfaced and 8,250 tons submerged. With regard to her armament, she was equipped with four 21 inch torpedo tubes and 16 missile tubes capable of accommodating Polaris or Poseidon ballistic missiles.
Woodrow Wilson was the 17th of the US Navy’s “41 for Freedom” fleet of ballistic missile submarines. The “41 for Freedom” consisted of five classes of submarines, who as a group were limited to a total of 656 missiles amongst them as a result of the 1972 SALT I Treaty. Hence, with 16 missiles each, this five class collection of 41 submarines earned its nickname. The primary duty of the “41 for Freedom” was to serve as a deterrent force against the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union during the time period of the Cold War.
Woodrow Wilson departed on her first voyage to the east coast via the Panama Canal on January 9, 1964—just 13 days after her commissioning. Upon her arrival at the west coast end of the canal on January 19th, an outbreak of violent anti-American demonstrations forced her to travel the canal in a record time of seven hours and ten minutes.
Arriving at her port of Charleston, South Carolina on February 5, 1964, Woodrow Wilson conducted shakedown training through March and completed postshakedown availability into April. June 1964 marked the beginning of her first deterrent patrol out of Charleston.
Through the fall of 1968, Woodrow Wilson conducted operations in the Atlantic Ocean from bases at Rota, Spain and Holy Loch, Scotland. Following this assignment, she underwent a 13-month overhaul and conversion at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia before being transferred to the Pacific Fleet. Arriving in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on November 19, 1969, via Charleston and the Panama Canal, she then proceeded to Apra Harbor, Guam which would serve as her base of operations for conducting deterrent patrols through 1972.
Transferred yet again back to the Atlantic Fleet, Woodrow Wilson underwent another overhaul and conversion at Newport News Shipbuilding before being home-ported at Charleston where she would conduct 40 more deterrent patrols in her capacity as an SSBN.
Woodrow Wilson had completed 71 successful strategic patrols prior to 1990 at which time she was reclassified as an attack submarine and assigned hull number SSN-624. Upon completion of her conversion, she performed a series of special operations patrols in her new role from1990-1993.
In service for nearly 31 years (1963-1994), Woodrow Wilson was decommissioned and stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on September 1, 1994. The process of her recycling was initiated on September 26, 1997 at the Nuclear Powered Ship and Submarine Recycling Program in Bremerton, Washington. The recycling process was completed by the 27th of October 1998.
Asbestos Risk on the USS Woodrow Wilson (SSBN-624)
The inside of a ship was the ideal setting for the use of asbestos—a naturally occurring mineral with a low cost and a high resistance to heat and fire. Asbestos was widely used for industrial purposes by the US Navy, to a great extent with regard to shipbuilding, from the 1930s through the 1970s. As the adverse health effects resulting from asbestos exposure became evident, the use of this substance began to be examined more closely and was eventually determined to be a human carcinogen by several government agencies.
Estimates show that as many as 4.5 million individuals were employed by U.S. shipyards from 1930-1978 where 25 million tons of asbestos was utilized. In addition, the family members of those employed by the shipyards were considered at risk for exposure to asbestos as a result of fibers entering the home environment on the workers’ articles of clothing. In short, asbestos has jeopardized the health and well-being of a significant number of people throughout history.
Aboard ships, asbestos was used in products ranging from insulation materials to cables, valves, gaskets, and adhesives. Working in close proximity with these products often resulted in the release of asbestos fibers, and in turn, inhalation by those individuals in the surrounding area. Once inhaled, asbestos fibers attach to the lungs and surrounding membranes, and over time, these embedded fibers may result in a serious disease of the lungs including mesothelioma.
Reports indicate that the US Navy’s Surgeon General was fully aware of the harmful effects of asbestos on humans as early as 1939, but declined to inform personnel of this fact. Instead, the Navy perpetuated the use of this injurious substance creating the impression that the industrial advantages of asbestos took precedent over the value of human life.
The environment within a submarine such as the USS Woodrow Wilson was conducive to the development of an asbestos-related illness: high quantities of asbestos for extended periods of time in close quarters. Due to the extended latency period of mesothelioma—ranging anywhere from 15-50 years from the time of initial contact with asbestos—those exposed may just be beginning to experience symptoms or may have yet to fall victim to the harmful effects of this toxic substance. If you believe you have been exposed to asbestos as a result of service to your country aboard a ship such as Woodrow Wilson, please contact us for an information packet to assist you in your efforts to take the best course of action aimed at preserving your health and well-being and to explore the legal options available to you.Sources
Wikipedia –USS Woodrow Wilson (SSBN-624)
NavSource Online: Submarine Photo Archive
Wikipedia –41 for Freedom
Naval History and Heritage Command
United States Department of Veterans Affairs—Occupational and Environmental Exposures: Asbestos