USS Whale SSN-638 (1966-1996)

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The second ship in the United States navy to be named Whale, this Sturgeon-class vessel was constructed by the General Dynamics Quincy Shipbuilding Division shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts and launched on October 14, 1966. Commissioned on October 12, 1968, she was commanded by Commander William M. Wolff, Jr.

Service History

A week after arriving in her home port of Charleston, South Carolina on November 2, 1968, she put out to sea for shakedown training, completing that in November. December 1968 saw her undertake a series of post-commissioning tests, trials, and qualifications, followed by normal operations out of Charleston with attack submarine training along the southeastern coast of the United States beginning in January 1969.

In March she traveled to the Arctic Circle, arriving home on May 9 after reaching the North Pole and making a stop at Scotland.  After two months of local operations, she sailed to Groton, Connecticut for post-shakedown repair, lasting three months. She then continued local operations in Charleston for the remainder of 1969.

The first half of 1970 saw the Whale undertake local operations, exercises and training. In July, she departed for an overseas deployment, where she visited Faslane and Holy Loch in Scotland, lasting until mid-September. During that deployment, the Jordanian crisis necessitated her joining of the 6th Fleet in the eastern Mediterranean as a show of strength. She remained there through October and into November.

Fleet exercises and more local operations occupied her first half of 1971. Another overseas deployment began in late July, as she undertook special operations in the Atlantic which concluded in late September at Bremerhaven, Germany. Returning to Charleston in October, she resumed local operations which lasted until March 20, 1972, when she again made an Atlantic deployment. She returned to Charleston on June 9, heading to Groton, Connecticut almost two months later to make that her new home port.

On August 7, she entered the Electric Boat Division for a 46-week overhaul which lasted until October 27, 1973. Post-overhaul shakedown and training was completed in November and in December she began preparing for another Mediterranean deployment in response to the Middle Eastern crisis brought about by the Arab-Israeli War in October 1973. However, in late January 1974, she received notice that her deployment had been delayed until May.  She remained at Groton, conduction normal operations, until she left for the Mediterranean on May 3.

After changing operational control from the 2nd Fleet to 6th Fleet, she participated in two NATO exercises, “International Week” and “Dale Falcon,” with units of the Greek and Italian navies, as well as several ASW exercises with other units of the 6th Fleet. She returned operational control back to the Commander, Submarines, Atlantic Fleet, on October 18. Before returning to Groton, she participated in a Fleet ASW exercise.

The next 11 months were spent in operations out of Groton, followed by tests and evaluations during January and early February 1974. She then spent until June providing training services for various units of the Atlantic Fleet and for prospective commanding officers. In late September, she left for another 6th Fleet deployment, taking part in “Ocean Safari,” and, following her joining the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean Sea, participating in unilateral, bilateral, and multilateral exercises with units of the navies of Greece, France, Italy, and the Netherlands. She returned to Groton on March 25, 1976 following that service, where normal operations continued until September.

On September 9, she entered the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard for a refueling overhaul, which lasted until July 7, 1978. Refresher training occupied the remainder of her year. In January 1988, the Whale entered the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard at Bremerton, Washington to undergo another refit, followed by her June 1988 return to Groton.

February 1989 saw the Whale undertake another Mediterranean deployment, which lasted until July. During this deployment, she made stops in Scotland, Portugal, Spain, and Italy. 1990 saw her undertake a North Atlantic deployment under the command of Commander Ronald Deering.  Following her receiving the last Battle Efficiency Award (Battle “E”) from Submarine Squadron 10, she was assigned to Submarine Squadron 2 and conducted a second North Atlantic deployment in 1991. 1992 saw her participation in UNITAS XXXIII, an expedition around South America while under the command of Commander Andrew V. Harris, Jr., while the following year saw her visit Bermuda to conduct a scientific exercise under the ice cap at the North Pole.

After circumnavigating the world, she was deactivated while still in commission on April 28, 1995. She was placed in reserve, in commission, on October 1, 1995. On October 20, 1995, the Whale began her scrapping via the U.S. Navy’s Nuclear-Powered Ship and Submarine Recycling Program at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard at Bremerton, Washington. On June 25, 1996, she was officially decommissioned and struck from the Naval Vessel Registry. Her scrapping was completed on July 1, 1996, and it was officially listed as so on September 29, 1997.

Asbestos in Navy Ships

Although an essential component of the naval fleet, especially throughout conflicts of the last century, submarines also pose a lasting health risk to soldiers serving on them. However, these risks extend beyond the inherent dangers that existed while operating the vessels during military conflicts. Unfortunately, products containing asbestos were also common aboard submarines 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. Furthermore, the enclosed environment of submarines put servicemen at an even higher risk of exposure. Current and former military personnel who came into contact with or served on submarines should seek immediate medical attention in order to detect possible health consequences associated with asbestos exposure.


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