U.S.S. Belknap CG 26 (Guided Missile Cruiser)
Built by the Bath Iron Works and commissioned in 1965, U.S.S. Belknap was the lead ship of a class of guided missile cruisers that were innovative for the extensive use of aluminum in the construction of their superstructures. To save weight, the superstructure (the part of the ship built upon and rising above the main deck) was constructed mainly of aluminum. This would prove disastrous during the ship’s service life.
After sea trials and shakedown operations, Belknap operated with the Atlantic fleet in 1965, conducting routine patrols and training operations. In 1966 the ship participated in a major NATO exercise off the coast of Norway and operated above the Arctic Circle for the first time. September of that year found the ship conducting its first Mediterranean deployment, operating with the Sixth Fleet.
A year later the ship deployed to the Pacific, where it served as a radar platform in the Gulf of Tonkin, simultaneously performing search and rescue operations for downed fliers. After scheduled maintenance in1968, Belknap returned to operations in Vietnam in 1970, returning to the United States in May.
Routine Atlantic operations followed, with Belknap again joining the Sixth Fleet. Atlantic operations and Mediterranean cruises continued until November 1975.
On the night of November 22, the twelfth anniversary of the assassination of its namesake, U.S.S. John F. Kennedy collided with Belknap in heavy seas off the coast of Sicily. The collision started fires on Belknap which spread rapidly. Other ships in the area, hampered by the sea conditions, struggled to assist the stricken vessel. Belknap’s aluminum superstructure could not withstand the heat of the fire; it rapidly melted and collapsed. The fires were not brought under control until the next day, and Belknap was not in a seaworthy condition when they were. Seven sailors died on Belknap, and one John F. Kennedy, with another 47 Belknap crew members injured.
After the fire, the hull was basically intact but the ship's superstructure was totally destroyed. Belknap was towed back to the United States, where it was decommissioned and entered the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. Over the course of the next four years, the ship was rebuilt from the weather deck up.
After rebuilding was complete, Belknap was re-commissioned and returned to service in 1980. The ship played a role in several major deployments over the remainder of its active career, including the American intervention in Lebanon in 1983 and as the flagship of the Sixth Fleet in 1985 and 1986. In 1989 Belknap served as an accommodation vessel for the President of the United States, George H. W. Bush, during his meeting at Malta with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
Belknap continued to serve in the Atlantic Fleet until decommissioned in 1995. In 1998 the ship was sunk by naval gunfire in a training exercise. Because of the disastrous fire in 1975, it was decided that all future cruisers would be built with steel superstructures, a decision reinforced when HMS Sheffield, a British ship with an aluminum superstructure, was destroyed largely by fire after being struck by an Exocet missile during the Falklands War.
Asbestos Exposure on U.S.S. Belknap
As with most ships of its period, asbestos use was common during the construction of Belknap, and materials containing asbestos remained within the ship throughout its service career. Asbestos materials within the engineering spaces included boiler linings, seals, gaskets and thermal insulation for pipes and electrical wiring.
Asbestos lagging insulated pipes throughout the ship, which ran through spaces uses for all purposes, including dining and berthing. Other materials containing asbestos included gaskets for watertight doors and hatches, ventilation dampers and plenums, exhaust vents for diesel engines and other internal combustion engines, brakes, clutches and other components of winches and capstans, deck tiles, overhead tiles and fireproofing of bulkheads and decks.
Friable asbestos remained present on Belknap throughout its service life. Since the ship was disposed of by sinking, it is impossible to quantify the amount remaining aboard at the end of its service, although reasonable estimates can be made by comparing it to similar vessels in service at the same time.