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U.S. Navy includes a number of auxiliary vessels in its fleets. Auxiliary vessels are ships with specialty roles. These vessels performed a variety of specific duties. Falling outside the major classifications of navy vessels, such as submarines, cruisers, and aircraft carriers, auxiliary ships may be used for transport, replenishing supplies, repair, research, and many other purposes.
These ships play vitally important roles in both wartime and times of peace, providing defensive and services for troops and other ships. Like ships used for offensive purposes, asbestos was used in the construction of the Navy’s auxiliary ships. Many navy veterans became sick decades after serving on these ships. Some of those illnesses can be traced back to asbestos exposure during service.
About Auxiliary Ships
Unlike some ships in the U.S. Navy, which go into dry dock between wars, auxiliary ships have served in major wars from World War I as well as during peace time. Significant weaponry armed early auxiliary ships. However, after World War II, they became more specified for tasks not typically related to offensive or defensive measures. Therefore, modern auxiliary ships are armed just enough for self-defense.
While there are few auxiliary ships currently active in the U.S. Navy, there have been hundreds through history. Auxiliary ships ranged from small to large and performed duties like towing and tug, refueling, salvage and rescue, repairs, and more. Some were built as other types of ships, like cruisers, and then recommissioned as auxiliary ships. There have been numerous designations under the category of auxiliary ships, including:
- Crane Ships (AB)
- Colliers (AC)
- Ammunition Ships (AE)
- Store Ships and Combat Store Ships (AF and AFS)
- Icebreakers (AGB)
- Environmental Research Ships (AGER)
- Major Communication Relay Ships (AGMR)
- Survey Ships (AGS)
- Hospital Ships (AH)
- Cargo Ships (AK)
- Vehicle Cargo Ships (AKR)
- Oilers – Fuel Oil Tankers (AO)
- Transport Ships (AP)
- High Speed Transport Ships (APD)
- Aircraft Ferry (AKV)
- Net Laying Ships (AN)
- Repair Ships (AR)
- Ocean Tugs (ATO)
- Seaplane Tenders (AV)
- Aircraft Escort Vessels (AVG)
- Distilling Ships (AW)
- Unclassified Ships (IX)
The History of Auxiliary Ships in the U.S. Navy
The U.S. Navy first acquired ships to build its auxiliary fleet for World War I. Many ships were privately owned, but the Navy acquired and commissioned these private vessels to build up its fleet. Most were used during the war to transport men and supplies. After the war, the Navy decommissioned the ships and began to build its own auxiliary fleet, consisting mostly transport ships and repair ships. The Navy also seized German ships to convert and commission.
During and leading up to World War II, Naval shipbuilding accelerated. Auxiliary repair ships became especially important so offensive ships could continue to continue to operate during the war. Oilers were also built and commissioned during the war to refuel vessels at sea. The Navy also built barracks ships and stores ships during this time.
During the Korean War, the auxiliary fleet expanded more slowly. However the Navy continued to build and commission vessels to keep military forces supplied with weapons for the conflict. These ammunition ships continued to be important during the Vietnam War. However, transport ships were no longer necessary as in previous wars. Instead the Navy employed large aircraft for moving personnel.
Today, the auxiliary force is smaller than in the past. In 2006, however, the Navy created a new category of auxiliary vessel: the Dry Cargo and Ammunition ships, AKE. The first ship in this category was the USNS Lewis and Clark (AKE-1). Other active auxiliary ships include barracks ships, unclassified ships, dry cargo ships, and vehicle cargo ships.
Asbestos Use in Auxiliary Ships
For a period of several decades, most ships in the U.S. Navy were made with asbestos. This occurred between the 1930s and 1970s and included auxiliary ships. Asbestos was widely used because it was cheap and abundant. Asbestos was also effective for insulating, fireproofing, and strengthening materials while remaining flexible. This helped asbestos materials fit into awkward spaces on ships. Hundreds of components on naval ships contained asbestos including insulation, pipe insulation, gaskets, fireproofing materials, firefighting equipment and fireproof clothing. Other components include asbestos rope, deck matting, bulkheads, and many others.
Numerous ships built during this time period used asbestos. Several specific Navy auxiliary ships had confirmed asbestos use. These include the following:
- USS Caliente, commissioned 1943
- USS Caloosahatchee, commissioned 1950
- USS Sangamon, commissioned 1942
- USS Carpellotti, commissioned 1959
- USS Delta, commissioned 1952
- USS Wyandot, commissioned 1944
- USS Hector, commissioned 1949
- USS Cabot, commissioned 1943
- USS Cowpens, commissioned 1943
- USS Franklin, commissioned 1943
- USS Monterey, commissioned 1943
- USS San Jacinto, commissioned 1943
- USS Myrmidon, commissioned 1945
- USS Arcadia, commissioned 1945
- USS General G.O. Squier, commissioned 1943
- USS Vulcan, commissioned 1941
- All AP designated ships built in the 1940s
Exposure to Asbestos on Auxiliary Ships
Workers and U.S. veterans who constructed, maintained, and repaired auxiliary ships were at he greatest risk of asbestos exposure. These workers handled regularly asbestos materials and products that went into the ships. They may have cut and fitted materials, or manipulated them in other ways, releasing tiny asbestos fibers into the air. Workers could then inhale hose microscopic asbestos fibers, putting them at risk of developing mesothelioma or other illnesses, sometimes decades later.
Men who served on these ships were also at risk of asbestos exposure and of developing later asbestos illnesses. Anyone could be exposed when asbestos materials were damaged by repairs, accidents, or normal wear and tear. A ship’s close quarters also provided poor ventilation, increasing the risks for asbestos exposure and inhalation.
Sailors at more risk were those stationed in areas with less ventilation and more asbestos, as well as those that handled asbestos parts. This includes those working in boiler and engine rooms, pipefitters, ship fitters, electricians, and firefighters. The longer someone served on these ships, the greater the risk of exposure. Exposure could have occurred before World War II through the Vietnam era.
If you or someone you know served on auxiliary ships in the U.S. Navy, you should be aware of the risks of developing mesothelioma or asbestosis. These illnesses often do not develop symptoms until decades after exposure. Therefore, do not assume you are safe just because you have not experienced symptoms. You should receive screening for asbestos illnesses if you have been exposed. Then talk to a veterans’ advocate who can help you recover damages and compensation through the Veterans Administration.
Page Edited by Patient Advocate Dave Foster
Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available.