The USS Wilkes-Barre was built in Camden, NJ and commissioned in 1944. A 10,000-ton light cruiser of the Cleveland class, this ship served with distinction in a variety of combat missions during WWII.
Action in World War II
After shake down cruises in Chesapeake Bay and the Caribbean in October 1944, the USS Wilkes-Barre passed through the Panama Canal to the western Pacific where she entered the war zone, serving as an escort ship for fast carriers attached to the Fifth and Third Fleets. As a part of these battle groups, the USS Wilkes-Barre participated in actions against the enemy in the Philippines, China, Indo-China, the Ryukyu Islands, the Bonin and Volcano Islands, and against the islands of Japan itself.
In February 1945, the USS Wilkes-Barre was involved the Battle of Iwo Jima. Its guns were used to shell heavily-fortified enemy positions in support of the US Marine Corps’ assault to capture the island and its strategically important airfields. Having proven its effectiveness, the cruiser repeated this role in late March of the same year against targets in the Ryukyu Islands and again against the enemy’s home islands in Japanese waters.
On April 11, 1945, the USS Wilkes-Barre was deployed in the company of the USS Bunker Hill CV-17 off Okinawa. Suicide planes had badly damaged the carrier and the USS Wilkes-Barre pulled alongside to assist with damage control, fighting fires and evacuating some of the stricken crew members.
After the War
When the war finally ended, the USS Wilkes-Barre remained in the Far East in support of occupation forces until she received orders to cross the Pacific. She arrived on the west coast of the U.S. in January 1946 and carried on to Atlantic waters that March. For the next year and a half, the USS Wilkes-Barre was a member of the fleet that operated in the Atlantic and the Caribbean. She successfully completed one cruise to the United Kingdom and to Norway in 1947, after which the ship was decommissioned that October.
The ship spent the following years laid up at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, finally being removed from the Naval Vessel Registry in January 1971. However, its career was not finished. Rather than being sold for scrap, the USS Wilkes-Barre was used in naval ordinance experiments to test fleet readiness and capability. The USS Wilkes-Barre was badly damaged in May 1972 and sunk off the Florida Keys in her last act of service.
Asbestos in Navy Ships
Although an essential component of the naval fleet, even today, naval cruisers also pose a lasting health risk to soldiers serving on them. Unfortunately, products containing asbestos were common, especially on older ships, because of the material’s high resistance to heat and fire. Despite its value as an insulator, asbestos fiber intake can lead to several serious health consequences, including mesothelioma, a devastating cancer without cure. Current and former military personnel who came into contact with these ships should seek immediate medical attention in order to detect possible health consequences associated with asbestos exposure.