USS Barb SSN 596 (Nuclear Attack Submarine)
USS Barb, unusually for a nuclear submarine, was built by the Ingalls Shipbuilding Corporation in Pascagoula, Mississippi, commissioning into the Navy in the late summer of 1963. Barb was destined to spend its operational career in service with the Pacific fleet, including earning campaign stars for service in the War in Vietnam.
During the 1960s the role of American submarines began to change from their duties in preceding decades. The attack submarine became itself an anti-submarine warfare platform, used to detect and track enemy submarines and protect surface assets from attack from beneath the sea. Submarine design began to reflect the need for stealth, and increased ability to detect the sounds made by enemy submarines operating beneath the surface. Barb was instrumental in developing the new techniques and equipment needed to achieve this new and evolving mission.
In 1968 Barb reported unusual Soviet naval activity, with numerous ships and submarines operating in a relatively small area and moving slowly in patterns. Data Barb provided allowed American analysts to correctly determine that the Soviets had lost a submarine. Barb was able to provide the coordinates that allowed the US Navy to pinpoint the sunken vessels location and eventually raise portions of it, recovering amongst other things, the bodies of six Russian crewmen. The bodies were buried at sea and a videotape of the ceremony was eventually given to Soviet authorities. Barb’s involvement in the actual sinking has long been an area of speculation and controversy, with official documents remaining classified more than forty years after the event.
In the early 1970s Barb participated in the at sea rescue of the crew of a downed B-52, recovering several crew members despite the impediment of nearly forty foot seas, earning a Meritorious Unit Commendation.
Throughout the 1970s Barb continued to carry out its assigned missions interspersed with refits and scheduled overhauls for refueling its reactor and maintenance of onboard equipment. Upgrades to its sonar and weapons capabilities were part of its service life throughout its career.
By the 1980s, Barb’s age was showing and time spent in maintenance facilities for overhaul and repair was increasing. In March of 1989 the submarine was deactivated and decommissioning occurred in December of that year. The ex-Barb was dismantled at the Nuclear Powered Ship and Submarine Recycling facility in 1996.
Asbestos Exposure on USS Barb
Ingalls Shipbuilding, like all ship constructors at the time, used asbestos extensively to build ships, and USS Barb was no exception. Asbestos was used extensively as an insulating material and as a fire retardant. Materials containing asbestos onboard USS Barb included gaskets and seals, ventilation dampers and plenums, electrical panels and insulation, glues and cements, overhead and deck tiles and pipe insulation.
Pipes lagged with insulation manufactured from asbestos cloth were present in every space on the submarine. All ships contain extensive piping systems, nuclear submarines more than others, and in more closely contained spaces. Damage to pipe insulation, caused by maintenance to nearby equipment or by normal deterioration, could and did go frequently undetected and unrepaired for lengthy periods. As exposed asbestos deteriorates it releases microscopic fibers into the atmosphere, which in the enclosed space of a submarine would be dispersed throughout the vessel. It would be impossible for any space, including berthing and dining areas, to be free from the possibility of asbestos exposure, as has been documented in the scrapping of ships at civilian facilities.