At one time, battleships were the United States Navy’s backbone. These huge armored vessels formed the core of naval battle fleets and rained devastating firepower on enemy ships and shore batteries. But battleships were also targets for opposing naval forces and subject to direct shell strikes. To protect the ships and sailors from fire, the U.S. Navy demanded that most interior parts of a battleship were coated in asbestos.
World War II saw the height of battleship action. Although a number of battleships were sunk or severely damaged at Pearl Harbor, America’s navy had sufficient battleship numbers to support the Atlantic and Pacific conflicts. Many new battleships were planned and authorized for construction early in the war, but battleship building was put on hold in 1943 when aircraft carrier technology and tactics proved much more successful than the now-outdated battleship.
In total, there were 71 U.S. Navy battleships. All bore the hull classification symbol “BB” although they were divided into certain classifications depending on the series these heavy-armored weapons were produced in. All American battleships were named after states such as the famous ships BB-61USS Iowa, BB-62 USS New Jersey and BB-63 USS Missouri.
The end of World II wasn’t the end of American battleships even though no more were constructed. Battleships remained a vital part of the U.S. Navy’s military sea presence in Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War and the first Gulf conflict. Battleships were decommissioned in the early 1990s with the last two stricken from the Navy’s registry in 2014. The surviving battleships are now public museums like the Missouri that was returned to Pearl Harbor.
Asbestos Use in Navy Battleships
Every United States Navy battleship built from the early 1900s was loaded with asbestos. Back then, naval architects and shipbuilders saw asbestos as the ideal product to insulate and fireproof battleships. Asbestos was also non-corrosive making it ideal for saltwater environments. Furthermore, asbestos was non-conductive, lightweight, chemically inert and cheap to buy.
U.S. Navy records report that the USS Iowa contained almost 500 tons of insulation. Most of this contained asbestos in percentages from 10 to 90 percent. Asbestos was everywhere inside battleships and on some outer surfaces, too. Sailors couldn’t escape asbestos exposure on a battleship, regardless where they were posted.
The highest-risk places for asbestos exposure were:
- Engine, boiler and propulsion rooms
- Magazines and munition stores
- Galleys and sleeping quarters
- Fire and pump rooms
- Gun and cannon turrets
Because asbestos seemed the perfect insulator and fire protector, battleships coated every pipe, duct, and cable with asbestos-containing materials (ACM). Besides heat and fire control, asbestos was a durable material for floor, wall and ceiling surfaces.
These are some ACM products used on U.S. Navy battleships:
- Spray-on, block, loose-fill and pipe-wrap insulation
- Firewall and heat control products
- Boiler liners and blankets
- Gaskets, valves, and packing
- Paint, sealant, caulking and adhesive
- Electric wire coating
- Floor and ceiling tiles
- Cement and mortar powder
- Ropes and cables
- Fireproof protective clothing
- Welding rods
- Fireproof paper and underlayment
High Asbestos-Risk Occupations on Battleships
It’s safe to say every sailor deployed on a battleship prior to the 1980s was exposed to airborne asbestos fibers. Old and dry asbestos materials easily become friable and turn to powder. Battleships were poorly ventilated. Clouds of microscopic asbestos fibers filled the air where sailors and shipyard workers inhaled and ingested them.
Some of the highest-risk battleship occupations were:
- Firefighters and temperature control personnel
- Welders and metal fabricators
- Boilermakers and tenders
- Electricians, plumbers, and steamfitters
- Insulators, painters, and wallboard installers
- Engine and propulsion room technicians
- Weapons specialists
- Hull maintenance workers
- Mechanics, millwrights, and machinists
Help for Navy Veterans with Mesothelioma
U.S. Navy veterans who served onboard or around battleships have a high risk of developing diseases like mesothelioma. This terrible disorder has a lengthy latency period of 10 to 50 years from the time of exposure to when disease symptoms present. Controlling a late-stage mesothelioma case is hard, but veterans can receive financial compensated and other eligible healthcare benefits.