The USS Okinawa, an amphibious assault ship that carried helicopters and a complement of Marines, saw action in Vietnam and played a part in the Apollo space program during its 30-year service life. The Okinawa’s keel was laid in Philadelphia on April 1, 1960, the 15th anniversary of the American invasion of the Japanese island of Okinawa in World War II. Displacing 11,000 tons and 592 feet in length, the Okinawa had a top speed of 22 knots and a crew of 667. It carried 25 helicopters. The ship was armed with four .50-caliber antiaircraft batteries and a pair of Phalanx close-in weapons systems.
During the ship’s first fleet exercise in the Caribbean in 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred, and the Okinawa’s stay in the region was extended to help support the American blockade of Cuba.
In April 1965, the Okinawa was diverted from an exercise to the area of the Dominican Republic to serve as a medical evacuation ship during a crisis in that nation. The ship’s Marine contingent acted as a reserve force.
In 1967, the Okinawa transferred to the Pacific Fleet, making San Diego its home port. The Iwo Jima–class helicopter carrier remained in the Pacific for the remainder of its service.
The ship’s first deployment to Vietnam came in March 1967. That spring, while en route to Taiwan, the Okinawa’s crew rescued the 38-man crew of a Panamanian ship that had run aground. Later, on its Vietnam mission, the ship acted as a mobile base for helicopter operations by its Marines.
Next up for the Okinawa was a special task: recovery of the Apollo 6 space capsule. The spacecraft splashed down north of Hawaii on April 4, 1968. This was not the ship’s only contribution to U.S. space program. On Aug. 7, 1971, the Okinawa recovered the capsule of Apollo 15 after its three-man crew returned from the moon.
Service in the Vietnam War
In April 1975, when South Vietnam fell to North Vietnamese forces, the Okinawa took part in the evacuations of Saigon and Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
The Okinawa was decommissioned in 1992 and spent a decade in the Naval Reserve Defense Fleet before being sunk as a target in June 2002 off the coast of California. The stout ship absorbed hits from several Maverick and Harpoon missiles, bombs, and a torpedo before sinking.
The Okinawa earned two Combat Action Ribbons and five Navy Unit Commendations during its service.
Asbestos in Navy Ships
Although an essential component of the naval fleet, some auxiliary vessels also posed a lasting health risk to soldiers serving on them. Unfortunately, products containing asbestos were common, especially on older ships, because of the material’s high resistance to heat and fire. Despite its value as an insulator, asbestos fiber intake can lead to several serious health consequences, including mesothelioma, a devastating cancer without cure. Current and former military personnel who came into contact with these ships should seek immediate medical attention to detect possible health consequences associated with asbestos exposure.