U.S. Navy aircraft carriers belong to the CV series of ship designations, which evolved from the cruiser -- a high-speed, general-utility class of warships. The first of the Navy’s aircraft carriers, developed and tested in the first half of the 20th century, emerged less than a decade after the world’s first manned airplane flight.
Experimentation with these early prototypes during and after World War I paved the way for the Essex- and Independence-class carriers that played a vital role in World War II naval operations.
World War II ships with auxiliary duties, such as escorting convoys and transporting aircraft, were originally known as aircraft escort vessels (AVG). These Naval ships later came to be known as auxiliary aircraft carriers (ACV) and escort aircraft carriers (CVE).
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During the Vietnam War, many escort aircraft carriers were redesignated as escort helicopter aircraft carriers (CVHE) and utility aircraft carriers (CVU). Numerous variations of Navy carriers, including CVL-, CVA-, CVU- and CVE- designated aircraft carriers, also served during the Korean War and the Cold War.
The Vietnam-era also saw the Navy’s first nuclear-powered supercarriers, whose design influenced the 10 aircraft carriers that remain in commission to this day.
Before the long-term health risks of asbestos exposure were widely known, the mineral fiber was incorporated into countless products vital to the operation of Navy ships. Because fires aboard warships were a routine and potentially devastating threat to Navy assets and personnel, the extensive use of quality insulation was a key aspect of ship construction.
Although medical experts later identified asbestos as a potent carcinogen, it once served as the choice material for containing heat and preventing the outbreak of fires at sea. Asbestos ingredients once composed vinyl floor tiles, valves, water pump gaskets and various types of insulation for piping and auxiliary equipment. Its affordability and unrivaled fireproofing qualities led to extensive use of the material in Navy shipbuilding, despite the dangers it posed to service members and shipbuilders.
Archived documents, including purchase orders, repair logs and related memos, confirm the pervasive use of asbestos products aboard U.S. Navy aircraft carriers. USS Enterprise documents from the late 1950s and early ’60s describe ample use of asbestos-containing gaskets, asbestos tile and asbestos insulation in numerous ship compartments.
Asbestos gaskets could once be found in Enterprise’s main feed pumps, tube sheet exchangers and main condensate pump. Asbestos cloth lagging was applied to all of the ship’s piping and related components, and service members also faced exposure risks from vinyl asbestos tile. Records show this product was used in the ship’s laundry room, laundry issue room and laundry receiving room.
Extensive asbestos use was also described aboard Forrestal-class aircraft carriers, which includes USS Forrestal, USS Saratoga, USS Ranger and USS Independence. Navy documents list the use of asbestos cloth in the main boilers of these ships and the use of woven asbestos material in flanged casing panels. A product known as asbestos marine furring was also used to insulate boiler stacks in Forrestal-class carriers.
These ships contained numerous asbestos products like asbestos gaskets, cloth and insulation. Records show that Kitty Hawk-class carriers used asbestos gaskets in main feed pump turbines, asbestos blankets in water drums and asbestos packing in Buffalo-brand pumps. Kitty Hawk carriers also used a Benjamin Foster-brand insulation sealer that contained asbestos materials.
As asbestos-contaminated products deteriorate over time, fibers are released into the air. Any service member exposed to airborne asbestos fibers on a regular basis was at an elevated risk of developing lung cancer, mesothelioma and numerous other severe respiratory illnesses later in life.
Before asbestos use waned in the mid-1970s, there were few compartments in Navy aircraft carriers that did not contain the toxic material. Asbestos insulation was commonly used to coat pipes that passed through navigation rooms, mess halls and even sleeping quarters. Service members who worked and lived in these and other asbestos-contaminated compartments may have been exposed.
Those at the highest risk for asbestos-related disease include Navy veterans involved in the repair or removal of damaged asbestos materials. Shipfitters and pipefitters were often required to saw through asbestos-covered pipes, which released airborne fibers in massive quantities. Poor ventilation on these ships worsened the problem, as airborne asbestos was often trapped below deck.
Navy veterans tasked with maintaining the carriers’ boilers and engine rooms were also at high risk for exposure. These workers handled asbestos-containing gaskets and valves and frequently removed damaged asbestos insulation from ships.
Health risks from asbestos exposure also applied to shipyard workers involved in the construction of Navy vessels. Navy veterans and civilians who worked in shipyards from the 1930s through the 1990s may have been exposed to asbestos, as the material was widely used in shipbuilding and construction during that time.
In 1910 — just seven years after the Wright brothers made history with the world’s first successful airplane flights — aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss foresaw the advent of aerial warfare and presented the concept to the U.S. Navy.
Curtiss said publicly after completing a 150-mile record flight from Albany, New York, to Manhattan:
The battles of the future will be fought in the air, The aeroplane will decide the destiny of nations.
-Glenn Curtiss, Aviation Pioneer
Although numerous challenges made the Navy question the feasibility of employing aircraft at sea, Curtiss’s prediction proved true. On November 14, 1910, civilian pilot Eugene Ely achieved the first successful takeoff from a warship, the cruiser USS Birmingham, and completed the first ship landing on USS Pennsylvania two months later.
The Navy equipped at least three ships to launch aircraft during World War I, but a lack of encouragement and finances prevented the aircraft from playing an influential role at sea. By the war’s end, despite dramatic improvements to aircraft design, the Navy had no ships specifically intended to carry aircraft.
This changed after the war, however, when the Navy’s General Board approached Congress with concrete recommendations to promote the development of aircraft carriers. In 1922, Congress allotted a small amount of money to convert the cargo ship USS Jupiter to USS Langley, the Navy’s first official aircraft carrier.
Although USS Langley was comparatively slow and would hold back a fast-moving fleet, she offered a favorable deck length for takeoffs, large holding spaces for aircraft, and a small crew requirement. But most importantly, Langley allowed the Navy to experiment with gear and aircraft while training pilots and support personnel for aircraft carrier operations.
Five years after USS Langley was commissioned, the Navy converted a partially built battle cruiser into its second aircraft carrier, USS Lexington. But it wasn’t until 1931 that the Navy started construction on USS Ranger, the first ship specifically built to serve as an aircraft carrier.
Two additional carriers were launched by 1938, when global tensions preceding World War II prompted the U.S. to increase significantly its number of naval aircraft. The looming war also accelerated the Navy’s engagement in a series of large-scale mock battles, known as fleet problems, from 1923 to 1940. These war games advanced naval aviation, refined aircraft carrier operations and confirmed the tactical advantages of adding these ships to the naval fleet.
The United States joined the war in 1941 after 353 aircraft, launched from Japanese Imperial Navy carriers, initiated a devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. In the years that followed, Essex- and Independence-class carriers joined the naval fleet in increasing numbers. The Navy’s tactics changed when it realized the combined power of task group carriers. Two or more carrier task groups often supported each other throughout the war, performing operations including carrier raids, amphibious landing support and carrier-versus-carrier battles.
In the months before the start of the Korean conflict in June 1950, the capabilities of U.S. Navy carriers improved notably. The Navy set a new record for the range of its aircraft in February of 1950, when a P2V-3C Neptune embarked from USS Franklin D. Roosevelt. The plane spanned 5,060 miles in less than 26 hours, marking the longest flight ever made from a carrier deck. By July of that year, USS Valley Forge commenced the first carrier air strikes in Korea.
As the Navy sent planes and support troops to Korea, it continued research to improve the power of its carrier fleet. In 1957 the Navy installed an angled deck on USS Antietam, which later proved to be superior to the standard fore-aft flight deck. Other notable upgrades to the carriers included the addition of high-performance aircraft catapults, more powerful arresting gear and new deck elevators with greater capacity.
Aircraft carriers played a crucial role throughout the Vietnam War, and the Korean War upgrades served the ships well. USS Constellation and USS Ticonderoga performed numerous strikes on motor torpedo boats and their support facilities along the coast of North Vietnam, sinking or incapacitating 25 boats and destroying important petroleum reserves and storage facilities. Vietnam-era carriers also provided support for NASA, recovering Alan B. Shepard and other astronauts involved in America’s earliest ventures into space.
Today’s carriers serve as the backbone of the U.S. Navy. Operating in battle groups, modern carriers traverse international waters to support U.S. interests and promote peace. Although the Navy’s first nuclear aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise, was decommissioned in December of 2012, 10 Nimitz-class nuclear aircraft carriers are currently active. These carriers will soon be joined by two Gerald R. Ford-class carriers, a new class of ships expected to be completed in 2015.
Former U.S. Army Capt. Aaron Munz is director of the Veterans Department at The Mesothelioma Center. He received the Bronze Medal of Valor in 2004 during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Munz retired from the Army in 2006. Aaron has intimate knowledge of how veterans were exposed to asbestos because he served under similar conditions.
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