Asbestos on Navy Cruisers

USS Birmingham

Nov. 14, 1910, Eugene B. Ely takes off from the USS Birmingham (CL 2) as the first pilot to fly off a ship.

U.S. Navy cruisers are large combat warships with multiple target response capability. Modern guided missile cruisers, the only remaining active Navy cruisers, primarily perform a battle force role. These ships can accomplish multiple missions including air warfare, surface warfare, undersea warfare, naval surface fire support and long range strike warfare with Tomahawk cruise missiles.

Served in:

  • World War I (1914 - 1918)
  • World War II (1941 - 1945)
  • The Korean War (1950 - 1953)
  • The Vietnam War (1955 - 1975)
  • The Cold War (1945 - 1991)

Unlike other U.S. Navy war vessels that generally have one type of classification design that remains similar among modified ship designations, early construction of Navy cruisers resulted in variations among cruisers in design and size, from the small protected cruiser to the large armored cruisers, which rivaled the size of a battleship but remained less powerful.

By the early 20th century, cruiser classification designs remained more consistent between modified designations. Each ship was built similar and were larger than destroyers but smaller compared to battleships.

Throughout the following years, the Navy developed several modified Navy cruiser designations, including:

  • Armored Cruiser (CA)

  • Heavy Cruiser (CA)

  • Guided Missile Heavy Cruiser (CAG)

  • Large Cruiser (CB)

  • Large Command Ship (CBC)

  • Command Cruiser (CC)

  • Guided Missile Cruiser (CG)

  • Guided Missile Cruiser with a Helicopter (CGH)

  • Guided Missile Cruiser, Nuclear Powered (CGN)

  • Light Cruiser (CL)

  • Anti-Aircraft Light Cruiser (CLAA)

  • Command Light Cruiser (CLC)

  • Guided Missile Light Cruiser - Light cruiser converted to carry missiles (CLG)

  • Guided Missile Light Cruiser, Nuclear Powered (CLGN)

  • Cruiser-Hunter Killer Ship (CLK)

Armored cruisers and light cruisers were deployed during World War I. Many were responsible for convoy duties, escorting merchant ships, troop transports and cargo men across the Atlantic.

During the Second World War, U.S. Navy battleships became obsolete largely because of their inability to fight off air attacks, which left cruisers as the largest and most powerful surface warship during and after the war; but their role was significantly impacted by the rise in aircraft attacks during war, as well.

To later combat air warfare, especially during the Cold War, guided missile cruisers, a new cruiser classification with a number of varied designations, and other cruiser variations were constructed.

Currently, the U.S., Russia and Peru are the only nations worldwide with active Navy cruisers.

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Asbestos in Navy Cruisers

USS Helena USS Helena (CA 75) fires main battery guns at Chongjin, North Korea in October 1950.

During the 1930s through the 1970s, before the health risks of asbestos exposure were widely known, the toxic mineral was commonly used in the construction and repairing of naval ships, including cruisers.

Asbestos was commonly used in ceiling tiles, pipe insulation, switches, electrical components, fuel storage areas, boiler and engine rooms, and bulkheads of cruisers — anywhere that required protection from fire or extreme heat and anywhere insulation was needed. Its versatility, affordability and insulation properties contributed to the wide use of the material, despite its hazardous effects.

Through extended daily use, asbestos-containing products on board may become easily degraded or agitated over time. When asbestos fibers are disturbed, its fibers are released into the air. Once these fibers are inhaled, they can become lodged into the lining of the lungs and with prolonged inhalation, the accumulation of fibers may cause the development of a tumor such as mesothelioma cancer or other asbestos-related diseases.

Confirmed Asbestos Use on Navy Cruisers

Archived documents including repair logs, purchase orders, letters and related memos confirm the widespread use of asbestos-containing products aboard U.S. Navy cruisers.

Documents from the 1940s detailed the pervasive use of asbestos-containing products aboard USS Baltimore (CA 68), USS Boston (CA 69), USS Canberra (CA 70), USS Quincy (CA 71), USS Albany / USS Pittsburgh (CA 72), USS St. Paul (CA 73), USS Columbus (CA 74), and USS Helena (CA 75). These documents described extensive use of asbestos aboard the ships, including asbestos cloth insulation for valves and pipe flange cuffs, molded asbestos for insulation and lagging, asbestos paper, asbestos gaskets and packing rings, compressed asbestos sheet used for auxiliary condenser circulation pump, compressed asbestos gasket used for elevator pit drainage pumps, and asbestos gaskets for piping on main boilers.

USS New Orleans (CA 32) Naval Record Document Detail Sheets from the late 1930s and early 1940s confirmed that the ship contained asbestos Westinghouse Electric brand turbines, Jenkins Brothers brand valves, Manning, Maxwell and Moore brand valves, Milwaukee Valves brand valves, Worthington gasoline meters, and Scanlon Morris brand autoclaves. And the detail sheets confirm that asbestos was used in the repair and condition of all turbines, valves, pumps, condensers, gaskets and boilers.

Widespread use of asbestos has also been confirmed aboard USS Norfolk (CLK 1). Documents pertaining to the ship describe the extensive use of asbestos-containing insulation on board, including asbestos valve thermal insulation, asbestos high-temperature thermal insulation, and asbestos insulation and lagging for low-pressure turbines, high-pressure turbines, main condensers, cruising turbines, and pumps. Other asbestos products on board include ventilation ducts, spiral wound asbestos gaskets, asbestos gaskets for main steam piping, asbestos tape, and asbestos combined main feed pump spare parts.

Who Was at Risk?

USS Saint Paul USS Saint Paul (CA 73) off Wonsan, North Korea with her guns ready for bombardment.

Those at the highest risk for asbestos-related illnesses include Navy veterans involved in the construction of naval warships or the repair or removal of damaged asbestos materials on board. This includes shipyard workers who completed various jobs such as painting, pipefitting, electrical work, welding, plumbing, insulating, repairing, and general contracting and construction of these ships.

Many of these workers were required to saw through asbestos-containing pipes or other materials, exposing themselves to airborne asbestos fibers. Others replaced old asbestos-containing products that had been previously damaged or worn out, furthering their risk for exposure.

Others who are at a high risk for exposure are ship crew members. An average cruiser carries a crew of more than 350 people, with larger crews on heavy ships. Crews aboard these ships were exposed to asbestos used as insulation and fire-retardant material throughout the vessel on a daily basis, increasing their risk for developing an asbestos-related illness. Poor ventilation in various rooms on board also posed a threat to crew members, as airborne asbestos fibers would accumulate below deck.

Family members, especially wives, of Navy veterans may also be at risk for developing asbestos-related illnesses through secondary exposure, or indirect exposure, which can be just as dangerous. Navy veterans who came into contact with asbestos-containing products could potentially carry home asbestos fibers on their hair, skin and clothes and create a secondary exposure risk for their families.

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History of U.S. Navy Cruisers

USS Canberra USS Canberra (CA 70) fires a “Terrier” missile during fleet demonstration in December, 1963.

A U.S. Navy cruiser is a type of warship, but before its classification, the term cruiser had a few different meanings. From as early as the 16th century, cruising was a term referring to specific types of missions, including raiding, independent scouting, and commerce protection, performed by Navy frigates, which were considered cruising warships.

By the middle of the 19th century, the term was given to the Navy ship classification that we know today as Navy cruisers, but their designs often fluctuated and were relatively inconsistent. As of the early 20th century, their designs became more consistent and all modified classifications retained a similar design, which also better prepared the ships for their role in upcoming battle.

World War I

The United States entered World War I in April 1914, deploying about 30 Navy cruisers to complete mostly escort and patrol missions across the Atlantic.

Occasionally, instead of convoy mission, some ships planted enemy mines. USS Baltimore (C-3) was responsible for assisting in laying a deep mine field off the north coast of Ireland in the North Channel, where approximately 900 mines were laid. She also planted mines along the North Sea Mine Barrage between the Orkneys and Norway.

During the war, the cruisers suffered little loss. USS California / San Diego was the only major U.S. warship lost to enemy action during World War I.

Interwar Years (1918-1939)

After the First World War, the rising of Japanese militarism and an international arms race in progress, international leaders sought to prevent another war by participating in naval disarmament. The Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 placed a formal limit on U.S. Navy cruisers that required them to weigh less than 10,000 tons and to carry guns less than 8 inches in caliber. The new limits significantly impacted construction and modification of navy cruisers until the beginning of the Second World War.

About 33 cruisers were commissioned during this time as a part of the Roosevelt Administration's WPA "make-work" projects.

World War II

In response to the Second World War, all Washington Naval Treaty restrictions were no longer in force. Approximately 100 cruisers were deployed before and during the Second World War. These cruisers fulfilled multiple roles including convoy escort and protection, surface task forces, defensive screening support to Allied task forces and convoys and gun fire support.

During the war, these ships responded to the increase in enemy aircraft, which changed the overall nature of naval combat. Even the fastest Navy cruisers were unable to escape aerial attack, which prompted a change in naval operations beginning in the mid-20th century. Independent operations by a single ship or small task group were no longer successful, and the Navy began to focus more on the completion of missions based on large fleets that were better able to counter air warfare.

Korean War

USS Juneau USS Juneau (CL 119) at sea, circa 1950-51.

After the Second World War, the anti-aircraft capabilities of cruisers were no longer satisfactory and proved to be detrimental to the Navy's success, unlike the emerging aircraft carriers. Many cruisers were modernized with the removal of their complex and unreliable guns and replaced with as many 40mm and 20mm guns as possible without overcrowding their hulls.

With updated machinery, cruisers were ready to make an impact in the Korean War and USS Juneau (CL-119) delivered the first naval gunfire support of the Korean War on June 29, 1950.

Although, the only pure naval action in which an American warship was involved in during the Korean War took place on July 2, 1950 and was fought on the east coast when four North Korean torpedo boats attacked USS Juneau (CL-119) and two ships of the Royal Navy. Three of the torpedo boats were destroyed, while none of the allied ships were hit.

Vietnam War

Despite the cruiser's declining recognition compared to aircraft carriers, Navy cruisers were involved in more naval action during the Vietnam War than they were in the Korean War, often providing gunfire support and conducting naval gunfire against North Vietnamese targets. Cruisers also played other vital roles in the war.

Notably, the heavy cruiser USS Canberra (CAG-2) engaged and silenced numerous shore batteries while they shelled coastal targets around Vinh, North Vietnam. Off Vietnam, USS Canberra became the first U.S. Navy vessel to relay operational message via communication satellite, using the Syncom III to reach the Naval Communications Station in Honolulu, 4,000 miles away, in 1965.

Cold War and Modern-era Carriers

During the Cold War, President Kennedy made a nationally televised report that he was imposing a quarantine on Cuba. Cruisers USS Newport News (CA-148) and USS Canberra (CAG-2), along with other vessels imposed a quarantine of Cuba to block the entry of Soviet offensive weapons currently being manufactured on the island.

Shortly after, in 1964, USS Long Beach (CGN-9), among other vessels, became a part of the world's first nuclear-powered task group. At the end of July, Task Force 1 began Operation Sea Orbit, a two-month unrefueled cruise around the world. It was the first all-nuclear battle formation in the history of naval operations.

In the beginning of the 1980s, the U.S. Navy built the revolutionized Ticonderoga class guided-missile cruisers, which were the first cruisers equipped with new Aegis combat systems, allowing the ships to track and engage multiple aircraft targets more effectively than ever before. They are also the last class of active U.S. Navy cruisers.

The Ticonderoga-class cruisers that are currently active will soon undergo a modernization to improve their weapons, senor sets, and ability to more accurately pinpoint its enemies from wave-top to zenith, as well as other modifications to improve overall functionality. This modernization is expected to be cost-effective, as it will extend the ships' projected service through 2030.

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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.

  1. U.S. Department of State. Milestones: 1921-1936: The Washington Naval Conference, 1921–1922. Retrieved from http://history.state.gov/milestones/1921-1936/NavalConference
  2. U.S. Navy. A Brief History of U.S. Navy Cruisers: Part II - World War II (1941-1943). Retrieved from http://www.navy.mil/navydata/nav_legacy.asp?id=136
  3. U.S. Navy. A Brief History of U.S. Navy Cruisers: Part III - Korea, Vietnam and Cold War. (2009, June, 22). Retrieved from http://www.navy.mil/navydata/nav_legacy.asp?id=138
  4. U.S. Navy. Fact File: Cruisers – CG. Retrieved from http://www.navy.mil/navydata/fact_display.asp?cid=4200&tid=800&ct=4Modern
  5. U.S. Navy. The Cruisers. Retrieved from http://www.navy.mil/navydata/ships/cruisers/cruisers.asp
  6. U.S. Navy. U.S. Navy Ships Listed by Hull Number. Retrieved from http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/shusn-no/clca-no.htm

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