The U.S. Naval Base in San Diego constitutes a virtual, self-contained “city-within-a-city.” What started out as a minor repair operation in 1921 (consisting of a single repair tender docked at a 97 acre facility) has grown into the Navy’s largest and most technologically advanced base of operations. Now covering over 1,000 acres, it is home to 4,000 officers and enlisted personnel, employs 40,000 military and civilian workers, and is home port to 50 vessels.
During the Second World War, the facility was officially designated Repair Base San Diego. Between 1943 and 1945, well over 5,100 vessels underwent repair, conversion overhaul and maintenance procedures. In addition, 155 floating dry docks were constructed and delivered to other naval bases.
After the war, the facility was re-designated Naval Station San Diego and continued to provide repair and dry dock services to active duty ships. By the time of the Korean Conflict, 14,000 workers were employed at the yards.
Workers Exposed to Asbestos
Anyone who worked at Naval Base San Diego prior to 1980 was very likely exposed to asbestos. Due to government policy following the Morro Castle disaster of 1934 in which 124 crew and passengers died, all ship builders made extensive use of asbestos materials for over forty years. Because of its fire-resistant characteristics, asbestos was used for pipe coverings, wall insulation, gaskets, turbines, cement, and pumps. When these were damaged, asbestos fibers became friable, meaning they turned into dust. This dust was frequently inhaled and ingested, leading to a host of asbestos related illnesses, including asbestosis and pleural plaques, as well as a number of forms of asbestos cancer, such as lung cancer and mesothelioma.
A 1941 memo entitled “Asbestos” stated: “We are not protecting these men as we should.” It was written by U.S. Navy Commander of Preventive Medicine C.S. Stephens to Rear Admiral Ross McIntire. The memo, circulated in March of that year, went on to address the fact that the Navy had objected to any studies by Public Health Service scientists of working conditions at ship repair and construction sites. Admiral McIntyre had “indicated that President Roosevelt thought that it might not be the best policy, due to the fact that they might cause disturbances in the labor element”.
In a sense, President Roosevelt and his staff may have been concerned that workers might walk off their jobs, had they known of the hazard. Although the mood of the country in general at the time of one of isolationism, the Administration believed that U.S. involvement in the war was inevitable. The situation became even more dire after 7 December, when nearly the entire U.S. Pacific Fleet was destroyed at Pearl Harbor; the repair and replacement of such vessels became a top priority.
Ultimately, the federal government issued standards for the protection of shipyard workers in 1943; however, these were not enforced until the late 1970’s.
Ultimately, it came down to money. Charles Ay, a former shipyard worker who has testified in a number of asbestos legal actions, said: “By the time you add up the cost of all that protective gear, you are talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars…it was a lot cheaper to let them work unprotected”.