Written by Aaron Munz | Edited By Walter Pacheco

Asbestos in Auxiliary Ships

From the 1930s to the post-Vietnam era, the United States Navy used a lot of asbestos in their ships. Asbestos is a mineral that was popular because it could resist heat and electricity and was cheap. Unfortunately, people didn’t know how dangerous this material could be for your health until much later.

The USNS Arctic was in the Persian Gulf on January 23, 2008. It provided supplies to two ships called the USS Harry S. Truman and the USS Winston S. Churchill while they were moving through the water.

USNS Arctic
USNS Arctic (AOE 8), center, replenishes USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) and USS Winston S. Churchill (DDG 81) while underway in the Persian Gulf, Jan. 23, 2008.

When asbestos fibers get into the air, some may end up in the lungs, abdomen or heart. Over time, these fibers can cause tumors to grow and lead to mesothelioma cancer or other illnesses related to asbestos exposure.

Navy auxiliary ships contained many parts made with asbestos. , Bulkheads, insulation, cloth, pipes, boilers and fire-resistant sheets contained asbestos. Even the decks and weather-exposed areas of the ship were likely to have asbestos insulation products.

In 1943, the government put in place certain measures to help keep Navy veterans safe. Unfortunately, these rules were not always followed.

Confirmed Asbestos Use on Auxiliary Ships

Old documents prove that asbestos-containing materials were used a lot on U.S. Navy auxiliary ships. Examples include purchase orders, repair logs, letters and memos.

USS Arcadia
USS Arcadia (AD 23) at sea, circa 1965.

A document from the 1940s reveals that ships in the AP class, such as USS General G.O. Squier (AP 130), were constructed with asbestos gaskets.

Memos from the USS Arcadia (AD 23) show that it had Johns Manville and Eagle Picher brand asbestos insulation and lagging. It covered machinery, piping and other equipment. Asbestos cement was used for insulation in the main steam piping.

Research from the U.S. Navy Bureau of Ships and Board of Inspection and Survey shows that asbestos was used in many areas on board the USS Myrmidon (ARL 16). This includes sprayed asbestos insulation for all decks, bulkheads, beams, girders, magazines, ready service rooms, spaces exposed to weather, refrigeration spaces and navigation bridge.

A document about the USS Vulcan (AR 5) shows that all vessels with an AR label had Unibestos asbestos blocks made by Union Asbestos and Rubber Co.

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Who Is at Risk?

People responsible for building and fixing Navy auxiliary ships are highly likely to be exposed to asbestos. Shipyard workers do a variety of tasks that may expose them to asbestos. Examples include electrical work, insulation, general repairs, painting, plumbing, mending and welding.

During World War II, many shipyards in America employed almost 2 million workers. One out of five employees worked directly with asbestos materials like insulation and bulkheads during construction or repairs. Unfortunately, the majority of these shipyard workers were exposed to dangerous asbestos dust while on the job.

During the middle of the 20th century, asbestos was used to build ships. It was found almost everywhere on board, from places like engine rooms and mess halls to sleeping areas. This put people who worked around ships at risk for health issues related to asbestos exposure.

Boilermen, enginemen, firefighters, machinist mates, shipfitters and pipefitters, electricians mates and Seabees (military construction), were often exposed to large amounts of asbestos during their time in the Navy.

Crew members on auxiliary ships often worked with parts that contained asbestos. If they were stationed on a ship for a long time, they could have been exposed to parts that became worn out from everyday use.

People who live with shipyard workers or Navy crew members may also be in danger of getting sick from asbestos, even if they don’t work with it directly. This is called secondary exposure and can still be dangerous.

In the early 1900s, people did not know how dangerous asbestos was. Those who worked around asbestos products often brought fibers home. Fibers would stick to their clothes, skin, and hair. This put their families at risk.

Sailors, workers and their families were exposed to asbestos for many years after World War II. This included the Korean and Vietnam wars, lasting until the 1970s.

Auxiliary Ship Service

Auxiliary ships used to have big guns, like 127-mm and 76-mm ones, for self-defense in the late 1930s and World War II. Nowadays, these ships mostly just carry 20-mm Gatling guns for protection if they get close to any danger. The only Navy auxiliary ship that has missiles is the Fast Combat Support Ship (AOE). All other Navy Military Sealift Command ships don’t have any weapons on board.

Auxiliary ships served in the following wars:

  • World War I (1914 – 1918)
  • World War II (1941 – 1945)
  • The Korean War (1950 – 1953)
  • The Vietnam War (1964 – 1975)

Unlike most Navy vessels, there are multitudes of auxiliary ships. Oilers and tenders bring fuel, ammo, supplies and food to other ships. Tankers transport fuel around the world while other auxiliaries help move people and ships. Salvage boats come to the rescue when a ship is damaged in battle. Repair ships act like sea-side repair shops for fixing up hurt vessels. Tugboats provide support at ports, and some even do research or test out new technology.

The Navy has created many different types of ships over the years, such as oilers, tenders, tankers, salvage ships and tugboats.

Navy auxiliary ships include:

  • Crane Ships (AB)
  • Colliers (AC)
  • Destroyer Tenders (AD)
  • Ammunition Ships (AE)
  • Store Ships (AF)
  • Combat Store Ships (AFS)
  • Miscellaneous Auxiliaries (AG)
  • Icebreakers (AGB)
  • Environmental Research Ships (AGER)
  • Miscellaneous Command Ships (AGF)
  • Major Communication Relay Ships (AGMR)
  • Oceanographic Research Ship (AGOR)
  • Motor Torpedo Boat Tenders (AGP)
  • Survey Ship (AGS)
  • Technical Research Ships (AGTR)
  • Hospital Ships (AH)
  • Cargo Ships (AK)
  • Attack Cargo Ship (AKA)
  • Advanced Auxiliary Dry Cargo Ships (AKE)
  • Net Cargo Ships (AKN)
  • Vehicle Cargo Ship (AKR)
  • Stores Issue Ships (AKS)
  • Aircraft Ferry (AKV)
  • Net Laying Ships (AN)
  • Oiler, or Fuel Oil Tankers (AO)
  • Fast Combat Support Ships (AOE)
  • Gasoline Tankers (AOG)
  • Replenishment Oilers (AOR)
  • Transports (AP)
  • Non-self-propelled Barracks Ship (APL)
  • Repair Ships (AR)
  • Battle Damage Repair Ships (ARB)
  • Cable Repair Ships (ARC)
  • Internal Combustion Engine Repair Ships (ARG)
  • Landing Craft Repair Ships (ARL)
  • Salvage Ships (ARS)
  • Submarine Tenders (AS)
  • Submarine Rescue Ships (ASR)
  • Ocean Tugs (AT)
  • Auxiliary Ocean Tugs (ATA)
  • Fleet Ocean Tugs (ATF)
  • Ocean Tugs, Old (ATO)
  • Seaplane Tenders (AV)
  • Seaplane Tenders, Destroyer (AVD)
  • Aircraft Escort Vessels (AVG)
  • Small Seaplane Tenders (AVP)
  • Auxiliary Aircraft Transports (AVT)
  • Distilling Ships (AW)
  • World War I Acquired Vessels (ID)
  • Unclassified Ships (IX)

Today, there are not many ships left in the Navy’s auxiliary fleet. Some that are still around include USS Emory S Land (AS 39), USS Frank Cable (AS 40), USS Mercer (APL 39), and others. There are 14 advanced dry cargo vessels, 13 Unclassified Ships, and 16 Non-self-propelled Barracks Ships. Altogether, more than 2,000 Navy auxiliary ships have been built over time.

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History of U.S. Navy Auxiliary Ships

Auxiliary ships have been a major part of the U.S. Navy since way back in the 1800s. Destroyer tenders (AD) were introduced in the 1890s and helped take care of destroyers and other surface ships. The number of active auxiliary ships has changed over time. During World War II, there were more than 2,000 auxiliaries commissioned. Even though the Navy has about 50 auxiliary ships, they still play an important role.

World War I

During World War I, the U.S. Navy needed to build its fleet fast. So, they modified privately owned pleasure boats and made them into navy ships. This was a great way to get more ships quickly. These new vessels became known as World War I Acquired Vessels (ID).

USS Finland
USS Finland (ID 4543) arrives at Newport News, Va., with returning U.S. troops in 1919.

The ships acquired during World War I had two main jobs. They helped larger ships by taking people and supplies to them from land, and they also made sure the harbor was running smoothly. This included transporting vessels around the port area and helping out any ships already in the harbor.

The USS Orizaba and USS Covington were two ships used by the Navy to transport troops during World War I. The Orizaba took 15,000 people in six trips across the sea to France. Unfortunately, on July 1st, 1918, an enemy vessel hit the Covington and it was sunk with six sailors losing their lives.

USS Finland Smoking Room
The second-class smoking room aboard USS Finland (ID 4543).

Once the war was over, most of the civilian ships were retired and the U.S. started to build its own navy fleet. One of the most important types of ships during WWI was transport ships (AP). These kinds of vessels carried soldiers from land to sea, as well as fuel and other necessary items. The first AP ship in this new fleet was USS Henderson (AP 1) which began service in 1917.

Interwar Years (1918-1939)

At the end of World War I, the Navy needed more transport ships. They built five and then added another 60 during peacetime. All these vessels were part of their auxiliary fleet.

At the start of World War II, the United States took several German ships and changed them into cargo vessels. Plus, extra cargo ships were constructed to help with important supplies that some believe made a huge difference in winning the war.

In 1918, the U.S. Navy started building different types of auxiliary ships to help out in battle. One type called ammunition ships (AE), was especially important because it gave other naval vessels ammunition and supplies while they were still at sea. These special ships had a system that allowed them to quickly give ammo to other boats in a hurry.

The U.S. Navy wanted to make sure they had a strong and capable support team, so they created repair ships (AR). These ships would fix the hulls, decks and bulkheads of any type of naval vessel that was damaged in battle. To make them even better, the first few repair ships were upgraded from oil-powered to coal-powered.

World War II

With the threat of the Unites States’ involvement in World War II, the Navy focused on constructing new ships, as well as modernizing past naval auxiliaries, to prepare for its impending combatant fleet expansion.

Construction of repair ships continued throughout the war to ensure Navy vessels remained at peak strength and operated with flawless efficiency. The Navy also started construction of landing craft repair ships (ARL) at this time.

The majority of transport ships and Oiler, or fuel oil tankers (AO), were fully commissioned during the Second World War. Oilers, or fuel oil tankers, were midsized combat logistics ships designed to carry 180,000 barrels of petroleum. They were the primary source of fuel replenishment during the Second World War.

In 1944, the Navy had an urgent need for self-propelled special barracks and store ships (AF). In response to this request, World War II-era store ships reached their 47th ship and last ship of that era with the AF designation, USS Valentine (AF 47). She and her sister ship, USS Vega (AF 59), were the Navy’s largest reefers and were built to a modified merchant ship design.

Korean War

The Korean War required yet another rapid, but smaller expansion of the auxiliary fleet, because supplies were largely inadequate as the United States attempted to slow the advances of the North Korean Communists. In response to the lack of supplies and the need for sheer force, many ships, including USS Mount Baker (AE 4), were recommissioned for service. USS Mount Baker was responsible for replenishing the United States and other U.N. forces fighting against North Korea with ammunition and other necessary supplies during battle.

USS Mount Baker and USS Ticonderoga
USS Mount Baker (AE 4) and USS Ticonderoga (CVA 14) while conducting a transfer between ships during the Korean War, circa 1951-52.

Vietnam War and Modern-Era Carriers

Ammunition ships played a vital role in the Vietnam War. USS Rainer (AE 5) reached her first underway record for transporting 826 tons of ammunition and supplies to USS Camden (AEO 2) in five hours, and USS Mount Baker (AE 4) spent her last years replenishing the 7th fleet ships operating off the coast of Vietnam.

The once-imperative transport force was replaced during the Vietnam War with long-range jet-propelled passenger aircraft, which were more affordable and provided a more convenient way of moving soldiers and Navy personnel long distances.

Toward the end of the war, the U.S. Navy auxiliary ship roster diminished. Today, the tender classification, repair ships and many others have been completely eliminated from the naval force.

USNS Lewis and Clark
USNS Lewis and Clark (AKE 1) arrives in port, 2011.

However, in 2006, the U.S. Navy launched a new breed of auxiliary ships: the Dry Cargo and Ammunition Ship (AKE). These vessels are operated by the Navy’s Military Sealift Command and provide multi-product combat logistics support to the Navy fleet.

The classification – including its first ship, USNS Lewis and Clark (AKE 1) — replaced the Kilauea class of ammunition ships (AE) and the Mars class of combat store ships (AFS), with the objective of replenishing other ships to ensure a more effective battle fleet at the lowest life cycle cost. The new AKE classification includes 14 ships that were completed by the fourth quarter of 2012 with a budget of more than $6 billion.

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