Minesweepers were some of the smaller ships used in the U.S. Navy. These ships had very specific duties. It was the job of these ships and their crews to protect other navy vessels from mines, explosives that could be hiding under the water. Minesweepers detected mines to help create a safe path for ships, including amphibious ships landing troops and equipment during war. These ships were crucial during World War II landings.
Like other navy ships the minesweepers were constructed using asbestos. In fact, the use of asbestos was especially important in these vessels because it was used to protect against heat and fire. U.S. Navy veterans today have some of the highest rates of mesothelioma and other asbestos illnesses because of the amount of the substance used throughout all types of navy vessels, including the minesweepers.
The modern use of minesweepers dates back to just before World War I. The British government recognized the important need to clear the seas of mines and initially used fishing trawlers to do the job, clearing mines from the English Channel. A special fleet of mine-clearing trawlers assigned to the Royal Navy became the first modern minesweeping force. The first modern minesweeper crews were made up of fishermen outfitted with protective gear.
Eventually the British navy, along with others like the U.S. Navy, developed and constructed specialized vessels with equipment designed specifically for sweeping for and clearing out mines. The first dedicated minesweepers were used in World War I. The use of minesweepers peaked during World War II when both Axis and Allied forces relied heavily on them to protect their fleets and civilian and supply ships. They may even be considered the unsung heroes of that war. They often entered waters long before any other fleet ships did, clearing the way and making sure the area was safe. In the U.S. Navy, minesweepers would go on to serve in other conflicts, including the Korean and Vietnam Wars and during the Cold War.
Modern minesweepers contain specialized equipment, devices known as sweeps that detect mines under water. They are not supposed to detonate the mines and they are soundproofed to evade detection by enemy fleets. Mechanical sweeps cut the cables tied to mines and tag them so that the can be secured later. When detonating mines, minesweepers use equipment called influence sweeps. These are towed behind the ship and give off a signature that makes the mine detonate.
Types of Minesweeper Vessels
Over many decades of using minesweeper vessels, the U.S. Navy has used a number of designations for various types of these ships. The basic designation for the original minesweeper is simply AM. Other variations on this type include:
- Motor minesweepers (AMS)
- Coastal minesweepers (MSC)
- Inshore minesweepers (MSI)
- Harbor minesweepers (AMB)
- Mine Countermeasures (MCM)
- Ocean minesweepers (AMO)
- Coastal minehunters (MHC)
- Underwater mine locator (AMCU)
History of Minesweepers in the U.S. Navy
The U.S. Navy’s first minesweeper was the USS Lapwing, designated AM 1. It was built in 1917 and commissioned in 1918. It gave its name to the first class of U.S. minesweepers, the Lapwing class. The first use of the newly created minesweepers was in World War II. About 30 of these ships were sent to the North Sea to clear mines along the coasts of Scotland and Norway and to prevent movement of the German Navy. Many of these ships continued to clear mines even after the war ended.
During World War II the minesweepers really came into their own, a time during which most of the AM-designated ships were built and commissioned for the U.S. Navy. In total the navy deployed nearly 500 ships that were involved in mine detection and clearing. The technology on these ships was not advanced as on today’s few remaining minesweepers. They simply towed equipment that cut cables to mines. The mines floated to the surface and were detonated with guns. In addition to minesweeping these vessels had escorting duties, conducted patrols, and even conducted anti-submarine operations.
Minesweepers were deployed to a lesser degree during the Korean War, sweeping the waters off the coast of the Korean Peninsula and restricting the movement of the North Korean military. Unfortunately the minesweepers used during this war had a major flaw. Their steel hulls were targeted by the enemy’s magnetic mines. A large portion of U.S. casualties during the war was caused by mines.
The destruction caused by mines during the Korean War led the U.S. to create a new class of minesweepers, designated MSOs. They had technology enabling them to detect and clear magnetic mines, acoustic mines, and more traditional moored mines. They were smaller than previous minesweepers and had wooden and bronze hulls.
Minesweepers were used much less frequently after the Vietnam War, but a few were instrumental in patrolling waters during the Cold War. In the 1980s the U.S. Navy constructed a new class of vessels called mine countermeasure ships, or MCMs. A few of these are still active today and are used to clear waterways by detecting and destroying mines. They were used during the Persian Gulf wars of the early 1990s.
Asbestos Use and Exposure on Minesweepers
Most U.S. Navy ships used asbestos from the 1930s to the 1970s. Asbestos was chosen for its abundance, inexpensive cost, and for its ability to effectively insulate and fireproof. Heat and fire on ships can be very dangerous, so being able to manage and control it is important. For decades asbestos was relied upon to do this in minesweepers and other vessels.
Asbestos was heavily used in insulating many components and areas of minesweepers. It was used around and in boilers and turbines and around steam pipes. Packing, cement, cloth, felt, and gaskets throughout the ships were made with asbestos. Protective gear for men who handled hot equipment and guns, such as heat-proof gloves, was made with asbestos. Hundreds of parts on all types of navy ships were made with asbestos. There is documentation as well that record specific use of asbestos on minesweepers including the USS Tanager, used in World War II.
Any navy veteran who served on a ship could have been exposed to asbestos. The fibers of the mineral were capable of coming loose and contaminating the air that sailors breathed. The inhaled fibers could lodge in the body and cause damage over the years that would eventually cause mesothelioma or lung cancer in some veterans. Veterans who were at the greatest risk worked in the boiler and engine rooms, engaged in maintenance and repair work, or were electricians, pipefitters, steamfitters, or other workers that handled asbestos components. Those that worked in the shipyards building and repairing these ships were also at particular risk of being exposed to asbestos. Some of the U.S. minesweepers that are likely to have been made with asbestos include:
- USS Admirable, commissioned 1943, sold
- USS Affray, commissioned 1958, scrapped
- USS Albatross, commissioned 1940, to Maritime Commission
- USS Barrier, commissioned 1944, sold
- USS Cardinal, commissioned 1940, scrapped
- USS Chickadee, commissioned 1943, sold to Uruguay
- USS Conquest, commissioned 1955, sold to Taiwan
- USS Curlew, commissioned 1940, scrapped
- USS Dominant, commissioned 1954, scrapped
- USS Eagle, commissioned 1942, sold
- USS Excel, commissioned 1955, scrapped
- USS Goldfinch, commissioned 1941, sold
- USS Gull, commissioned 1940, sold
- USS Illusive, commissioned 1953, sold
- USS Intrigue, commissioned 1944, sold to Mexico
- USS Murrelet, commissioned 1945, sold to Philippines
- USS Oracle, commissioned 1943, scrapped
- USS Persistent, commissioned 1956, sold to Spain
- USS Pilot, commissioned 1943, sold to Mexico
- USS Reaper, commissioned 1954, scrapped
- USS Revenge, commissioned 1943, scrapped
- USS Rival, commissioned 1954, sold
- USS Salute, commissioned 1955, sunk by mine
- USS Starling, commissioned 1942, sold to Mexico
- USS Staunch, commissioned 1944, scrapped
- USS Tanager, commissioned 1945, to U.S. Coast Guard
- USS Wheatear, commissioned 1945, scrapped
- USS Zeal, commissioned 1943, sunk as target
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