Unlike other Navy vessels with direct predecessors, the destroyer is a unique ship class developed to counter a new threat -- the agile torpedo boats that emerged in the Chilean Civil War of 1891 and the Sino-Japanese War of 1894.
The unrivaled agility and subsurface firepower of these crafts allowed them to storm large armored ships, deploy their torpedoes and make a hasty retreat. The world’s navies quickly realized the devastating capabilities of the torpedo boat — they were indeed a formidable threat.
By the mid-1890s, many navies were building ships that could quickly dispose of the nimble torpedo boats. These ships became known as “torpedo boat destroyers,” and later evolved into the powerful destroyers that serve the U.S. Navy to this day.
Modern destroyers, like those of the Arleigh Burke ship class, are known as guided missile destroyers. They are equipped with the latest advances in military technology and structural design. These versatile ships contribute to numerous offensive and defensive missions, whether operating independently or alongside surface action groups, strike groups, amphibious ready groups and underway replenishment groups.
Prior to the mid-1970s, the U.S. military made use of hundreds of types of asbestos-containing materials for the construction and repair of Navy warships. The unrivaled heat resistance, insulation properties, fireproofing applications and affordability of asbestos made it a highly desirable shipbuilding material. In practically every ship and shipyard, the Navy once required the use of asbestos-containing materials like gaskets, valves, adhesives, cement and lagging (floor and pipe insulation).
From navigation rooms to engine and boiler rooms — and even in service members’ sleeping quarters and mess halls — multiple types of asbestos products could once be found on these ships. Virtually every area below deck contained asbestos materials for fire safety purposes. Poor ventilation in these locations heightened the risk for harmful exposures, as it was common for airborne asbestos fibers to remain trapped below deck with sailors.
Especially at risk were Navy veterans tasked with removing damaged asbestos insulation from engine and boiler rooms and re-wrapping pipes with asbestos paste. Navy pipefitters, welders and boiler workers who served aboard ships whose keels were laid before 1983 may have also experienced harmful exposures.
On shore, the dangers of asbestos in Navy shipyards were equally potent. Shipyard workers and veterans involved in the renovation of asbestos-laden structures or the removal of asbestos materials from the 1930s through the 1990s were rarely given sufficient safety gear to protect them from inhaling asbestos. Heavy exposures occurred frequently.
Evidence of abundant asbestos use aboard Navy vessels is confirmed with archived documents. In one 1946 memo, the Navy ordered the replacement of badly worn asbestos deck matting on USS Benner, a Gearing-class destroyer.
And a series of memos from the early 1940s detailed excessive asbestos use aboard 42 destroyers (DD 649 – 691). These ships contained woven asbestos deck matting, amosite asbestos insulation around cold water pipes and asbestos cloth on steam drums and F.O. heaters.
In a testimony to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, one Navy veteran asserted that the collapse of his right lung was directly related to asbestos exposure aboard the USS Chevalier when he served during the Korean conflict. As a gunner’s mate, he was required to wear asbestos gloves while shooting guns and loading ammunition in combat.
He also reported asbestos exposure in his sleeping quarters, stating that hundreds of asbestos-insulated pipes passed through his living space. As the ship’s guns were fired, he described asbestos being shaken from the pipes in such great quantities that it appeared as if it were snowing.
In an 1898 report from the Naval War Board, Theodore Roosevelt, then assistant secretary of the Navy, identified Spanish torpedo boats as the only real threat to the U.S. Navy. With a conflict on the horizon, Congress approved the construction of 16 new destroyers to serve in the Spanish-American War.
By 1901 the Navy launched its first destroyer and the lead ship of her class, the USS Bainbridge. Placed in full commission on December 23, 1903, Bainbridge was armed with two 3-inch guns, five 6-pounders and two 18-inch torpedo tubes.
The Navy made vast improvements to the Bainbridge class by the dawn of World War I. The new ships, longer and with greater displacement, took on new roles as escorts and submarine hunters. While the United States remained neutral during the first few months of the war, German submarine attacks on British merchantmen were claiming American lives. On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany.
In 250 battles against German submarines, the American destroyers of World War I set a precedent for modern antisubmarine warfare. They also transported 2 million men across the Atlantic without losing one life or a single transport ship. By the end of the war, the United States boasted the world’s largest destroyer fleet. More than 200 ships were decommissioned as a result of the Disarmament Treaty of 1922, and an additional 40 were scrapped.
The Navy built no new destroyers from 1921 to 1934, but Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in the early 1930s prompted the construction of 45 new ships by the decade’s end. The newly commissioned ships were equipped with 5-inch, dual-purpose guns capable of surface and anti-aircraft fire, 20mm and 40mm anti-aircraft guns, multiple 21-inch torpedo mounts and depth charge projectors. Fast, powerful and efficient, these destroyers kept submarines at bay across both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
World War II destroyers performed a wide range of tasks in the Atlantic, from hunting and eliminating German submarines to rescuing fallen airmen. They also oversaw the landings in North Africa, Sicily and Europe, using their guns to take out shore batteries, clear the skies of enemy planes and protect Allied landing craft.
Once World War II came to an end, the Navy’s fleet of destroyers remained on standby until they were needed once again.
In the Korean War, the ships’ ability to enter shallow waters proved invaluable for delivering accurate gunfire support close to shore. They also vigilantly patrolled the seas during the Cuban Crisis of 1962, as well as the Vietnam conflict.
The modern, all-steel destroyers in service today are among the most powerful surface vessels on the water. The Navy plans to continue the destroyer’s legacy with the upcoming DDG 1000 Zumwalt-class destroyer, a multi-mission surface ship tailored for defending against current and projected threats.
Starting with USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51), the Navy is modernizing its Arleigh Burke-class destroyers to ensure their relevance in future naval operations. A series of new DDG destroyers, commencing with USS Spruance (DDG 111), will soon be built and later joined by the upcoming Zumwalt-class destroyers.
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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