Cruisers and Asbestos

During World War II many naval personal were assigned to cruisers, which are warships that are larger than destroyers yet smaller than battleships. These warships were used to protect other naval vessels as well as to carry out raids. Cruisers today have largely been replaced with slightly smaller and much more maneuverable destroyers.  However, there are 22 Ticonderoga-class cruisers that have been built and are today used to provide air defense as guided missile cruisers.

Cruisers in the U.S. Navy

In 1930, “light” cruisers began to be replaced by “heavy” cruisers, ships built for greater speed and range and armed with naval guns. One such heavy cruiser, the USS Salt Lake City, is known for participating in more operations than any other cruiser. Between 1930 and 1941, this ship sailed many long cruises to several different countries. It also was part of a task force that was sent out to hunt for submarines after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The last all-gun heavy cruiser to be commissioned, the USS Salem (CA-139), now resides in Quincy, Massachusetts, where it exists as a ship museum open to the public.

While they are used less frequently today, cruisers played an important role during World War II.  The advent of aerial warfare greatly changed the nature of naval warfare, as ships now had to deal with not only with assault from the water, but aerial attacks as well.  No longer were single ships sent out on independent missions. Instead, larger fleets began to be commissioned.  Now ships could specialize, acting in one role (for example, anti-submarine or anti-aircraft) for the fleet, and the use of larger, multipurpose ships began to decline.

Asbestos Exposure

While both the Salt Lake City and the Salem provided heroic service in their time, they were both manufactured in an era when asbestos was considered a miracle material for protecting and fire-proofing naval vessels.  Asbestos was used for insulation primarily near the engine room, where heat-resistance was needed most.  Different forms of the mineral were either sprayed on or wrapped around cables, pipes, joints, gaskets, and valves to protect them from extreme temperatures and prevent fires.  Any cracking, flaking, or other destruction of these materials, either incurred in combat or in the course of normal operations, could allow deadly asbestos fibers to leak into the air.  Many veterans who served on ships built during this time period, including cruisers, have developed serious health problems due to their exposure to asbestos.

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