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As one of many U.S. Navy ships constructed using asbestos, the USS Brownson put its crew at serious risk of exposure and of developing asbestos illnesses decades later. A member of the Gearing class of destroyers, the Brownson was an important vessel in the naval fleet and served in wartime operations and peacetime training and testing.
Although this was just one ship in the navy, the Brownson is documented as having contained asbestos and some of the veterans who served aboard her are now living with or have died from mesothelioma and similar illnesses. These veterans can make claims through the Veterans Administration (VA) to get support, health care, and financial resources, but the burden of proof is high and many are turned away. If you served on the Brownson and are now suffering because of asbestos, you may need assistance in making a VA claim.
About the USS Brownson
The USS Brownson was a destroyer, designated DD-868, that served in the U.S. Navy between 1945 and 1976. She was one of 98 destroyers in the Gearing class, a group of ships built at the end of World War II and in the years soon after. They were made when nearly all ships, military and civilian, were constructed using some amount of asbestos.
The Gearing destroyers, like other destroyers, were built as fleet escorts, to protect larger ships, and to assist in offensive operations. They were not huge ships, but they were heavily armed and could travel long distances with larger vessels, like aircraft carriers. The Gearing ships were powered by General Electric turbines and four large boilers. The Brownson was 390 feet in length and displaced 3,460 tons when loaded at capacity. She could carry 336 crew members. The namesake of the USS Brownson was Rear Admiral Willard Herbert Brownson, who served from 1866 to his retirement from the navy in 1907.
Construction, Upgrades, and Repairs
Laid down in 1945 the USS Brownson was designed by Naval Architects Gibbs and Cox and was built by the Bethlehem Steel Corporation on Staten Island. Construction took less than a year and she launched on July 7, 1945. She was sponsored by Ensign Caroline Brownson Hart, the granddaughter of Rear Admiral Brownson. Commissioning took place on November 17, 1945 under the command of Commander William R. Cox.
The Brownson received her first major upgrades in 1949 in the Boston Naval Shipyard, which modernized many of her components. A collision with another destroyer in waters off Bermuda in 1950 sent the Brownson back to Boston for repairs and more upgrades. She also received upgrades and modifications to weapons in 1959, including the addition of antisubmarine missiles. Upgraded sonar was added in 1967.
Active Service and Tours of Duty
The USS Brownson was active for nearly three decades and participated in training, testing, and active war time service in the Pacific, the Caribbean, and the Mediterranean. After commissioning in November of 1945, the Brownson underwent shakedown training in the Caribbean and the Atlantic. Her first mission was in Operation Highjump, attempting a landing in Antarctica that was unsuccessful.
In 1948 the Brownson joined the Sixth fleet and deployed to the Mediterranean. Following subsequent upgrades she was sent for training and participation in fleet exercises in the Caribbean. She collided with the destroyer USS Charles H. Roan, causing damage during night operations that required repairs. After further operations in the Mediterranean and Atlantic the Brownson went to the Pacific through 1955.
During the 1960s the USS Brownson served in the Vietnam War and underwent training at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. In the early 1970s she served in the Mediterranean north of Egypt and participated in NATO exercises. She was decommissioned on September 20, 1967 and was sold to a company to be scrapped in June of 1977.
Asbestos on the USS Brownson
Like other navy ships from the same period, the Brownson was loaded with asbestos. There are many reasons for this, chief among them the unique properties of this mineral that suit it to shipbuilding. Asbestos is efficient at insulating against heat and preventing the spread of fire. It is also lightweight but strong. Because there is heat-generating equipment and steam on board a destroyer like the Brownson and adding weight is not ideal, asbestos was chosen as a cheap material to insulate and protect the crew from fire.
While asbestos was used throughout the ship, from adhesives and flooring to deck coatings and firefighting and safety gear worn by the crew, it was used most in the engine, boiler, turbine, and machine rooms, and in pipe insulation. These were the places where it was most needed to insulate hot equipment and hot water in pipes and to prevent the start or spread of a deadly fire.
USS Brownson Veterans Exposed to Asbestos
The heavy use of asbestos on all navy ships, not just the Brownson, means that today U.S. Navy veterans have high rates of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses. Any work environment with asbestos put people at risk of inhaling the harmful small fibers of the mineral, but on a ship with confined spaces and limited ventilation, the risk was especially high. If the asbestos materials wore down, were damaged in accidents, or were damaged through routine maintenance and repairs, fibers could be released and cause harm.
The men who served on the USS Brownson at the greatest risk worked with and around the boilers, turbines, and machinery that was made with asbestos. Maintenance and repair workers who may have had to manipulate asbestos materials, like pipe insulation, were also at risk. Workers in the shipyards that built the Brownson and made upgrades and repairs to her were also likely to be exposed to asbestos.
In one documented case a veteran who served aboard the Brownson came to the VA with a claim after being diagnosed with mesothelioma. He served on the ship, which the VA recognizes as one that contained asbestos. He worked as a boilerman, a role that made him more likely than other personnel on the ship to have been exposed to harmful asbestos. His work in and around the boilers in a confined, poorly ventilated space is likely to have caused his later diagnosis of mesothelioma.
The servicemen aboard the USS Brownson were put at risk of asbestos exposure and later illness related to that exposure. While some were at a greater risk than others, all could have developed mesothelioma after serving. If you served on the Brownson or any other navy ship and you now have an asbestos related illness, your service could be what made you sick. Let an expert guide you through the process of submitting a VA claim so that you get the best chance of getting the support and resources you need.
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.