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Auxiliary Ships in the Navy

The U.S. Navy in the past and in the present has included a number of auxiliary vessels in its fleets. These are the ships that have specialty roles or may be called upon to perform a variety of specific duties. They fall outside the major classifications of navy vessels, such as submarines, cruisers, and aircraft carriers, and may be used for transport, replenishing supplies, repair, research, and many other purposes.

These ships have played vitally important roles in both wartime and during times of peace, providing mostly defensive and miscellaneous services for other ships and troops. Like the ships used for offensive purposes, though, the navy’s auxiliary ships were often made using asbestos for insulation and other components. Many navy veterans became sick decades after serving on these ships and 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, the auxiliary ships have served in major wars from World War I to the present and during peace time. Early auxiliary ships were armed with significant weaponry, but after World War II they became more specified to different tasks. These tasks were not typically related to offensive or defensive measures, and so being armed so much was not as necessary. Modern auxiliary ships are armed just enough for self-defense.

While there are only a handful of auxiliary ships currently active in the U.S. Navy, over the decades there have been hundreds. They ranged from small to large and performed duties ranging from cargo, towing and tug, refueling other vessels, salvage and rescue, repairs, and more. Some of these were built as other types of ships, like cruisers, and were 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 of the ships had been privately owned, but the navy had to build up a fleet quickly and needed these vessels, which were acquired and then commissioned. Most of these 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. This mostly consisted of constructing transport ships and repair ships and seizing German ships to convert and commission.

Leading up to and during World War II the pace of shipbuilding for the navy accelerated. Auxiliary repair ships became especially important so that the offensive ships of the navy could continue to remain afloat and operating during the war. Oilers were also built and commissioned during the war to refuel vessels at sea. Also built during this time were many barracks ships and stores ships.

During the Korean War the auxiliary fleet expanded at a slower pace, but more store ships were built and commissioned to keep the navy and armed forces supplied with weapons for the conflict. These ammunition ships continued to be important during the Vietnam War, but the transport ships were no longer as needed as they were in previous wars with the use of large aircraft for moving personnel.

Today the auxiliary force is much smaller than in the past, but in 2006 the navy did create a new category: the Dry Cargo and Ammunition ships, AKE. The first ship in this category is 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 a material of choice for many applications because it was cheap and abundant and because it is so effective at insulating, fireproofing, and strengthening materials while remaining flexible. This helped fit asbestos materials into awkward spaces on ships. Hundreds of components on ships in the navy contained asbestos including insulation, pipe insulation, gaskets, fireproofing materials, firefighting equipment and fireproof clothing, asbestos rope, deck matting, bulkheads, and many others.

So many of the ships built during this time period used asbestos that it can safely be assumed that they all were made with asbestos to some degree. But, there are also confirmed uses of asbestos in specific auxiliary navy ships. 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

The workers and veterans who were put at the greatest risk of being exposed to asbestos on auxiliary ships were those who constructed, maintained, and repaired them. These workers handled and were around asbestos materials and products that went into the ships. They may have cut and fitted the materials and manipulated them in other ways that would have led to fibers being exposed. Those fibers of asbestos in the air could then have been inhaled by the workers, putting them at risk of developing mesothelioma or other illnesses decades later.

The men who served on these ships were also at risk of being exposed to asbestos and of developing later asbestos illnesses. Anyone on the ships could have been exposed when asbestos materials were damaged by repairs, by accidents, or just by wear and tear over time. The close quarters in these ships and poor ventilation increased the risks for exposure and inhalation of fibers.

The sailors at more risk were those who were stationed in areas of the ship with less ventilation and more asbestos, and those that had to handle asbestos parts. This would have included those working in the boiler and engine rooms, pipefitters, ship fitters, electricians, and firefighters. The longer someone served on one of these ships, the greater the risk of exposure. Exposure could have occurred before World War II and through the Vietnam era.

If you or someone you know served on auxiliary ships in the U.S. Navy, you need to be aware of the risks of developing mesothelioma or asbestosis. These illnesses often don’t cause symptoms until decades after exposure, so don’t assume you are safe because you have not felt sick yet. If you may have been exposed, get screened for asbestos illnesses and then talk to a veterans’ advocate who can help you recover damages and compensation through the Veterans Administration.

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