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USS O’Brien (DD-725)

The USS O’Brien, designated DD-725, was a destroyer that served in the U.S. Naval fleet from the 1940s through the 1970s. During that time she and her crew served in World War II, the Korean War, and in the Vietnam War, engaging in defensive and offensive operations and rescuing hundreds of aviators. She was finally put to rest in 1972 after receiving numerous battle stars and was sunk during training and target practice on July 13, 1972.

The service history of the USS O’Brien is impressive, but this important destroyer also has a darker history. She was built during a time when asbestos was used heavily throughout navy ships. This use caused many of the men who served on her to become exposed to the harmful asbestos fibers. Some of these men, who served their country along with so many others, were later diagnosed with devastating, asbestos-related conditions.

About the USS O’Brien

The USS O’Brien, DD-725, was the fourth navy ship named for the O’Brien brothers. This destroyer was named for Captain Jeremiah O’Brien who served in the American Revolution and helped capture the British ship, the HMS Margaretta. The O’Brien was laid down by the Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine beginning in July of 1943. She launched on December 8, 1943 and was sponsored by the third great granddaughter of one of the O’Brien brothers. The O’Brien was commissioned on February 25, 1944 at the Boston Naval Shipyard under Commander P.F. Heerbrandt.

The fourth USS O’Brien was a destroyer of the Allen M. Sumner class. Characteristics of this class of destroyers include twin 38 caliber gun mounts, extra anti-aircraft weapons, and dual rudders. Several of the Sumner ships were lost in World War II, but O’Brien and others continued to serve through the 1970s. O’Brien was 376 feet long and displaced 3,515 tons when loaded with cargo, fuel, and 336 men. She was powered by Foster Wheeler boilers and Westinghouse turbines.

Construction and Repairs

The O’Brien was laid down in Bath, Maine and took less than a year to construct. She underwent shakedown trials in the Caribbean and in Norfolk, Virginia. After serving in her first deployment in Europe, the O’Brien returned to Boston for extensive repairs and additional training. In 1945 the O’Brien suffered damage after a Japanese plane crashed into her side. She was repaired at Manus Island.

After World War II the O’Brien was repaired at Mare Island Naval Shipyard and after patrolling for a couple of years in the Pacific, she was decommissioned in 1947. She was recommissioned in San Diego in 1950 to be deployed to Korea. Following the end of the conflict there in 1953, she was repaired in Japan before returning to the U.S. During deployment in the Vietnam War she had to be repaired in the Philippines. Finally, in her last years, the O’Brien suffered a lot of damage and underwent extensive repairs before finally being decommissioned in 1972.

Deployment and Active Service

The USS O’Brien had an extensive history of service during three major actions. For her service she received six battle stars for serving in World War II, five for the Korean War actions, and three stars for serving during the conflict in Vietnam. O’Brien’s first deployment was in 1944 when she was sent to Scotland. She served during the invasion of Normandy and lost 13 crew members after taking enemy fire.

Following service in Europe, she escorted the USS Ticonderoga, an aircraft carrier, to the Pacific. In the Pacific theater she participated in offensive operations and helped to sink the USS Ward, which could not be saved after kamikaze attacks. The O’Brien rescued 198 crew members from the Ward. Later she served in air strikes in 1945 against Tokyo and Iwo Jima.

The O’Brien served two deployments in the Korean War after being recommissioned. She participated in offensive operations and also rescued downed Navy and Air Force pilots. She was reported to have been sunk, but the reports were false and she returned to San Diego for repairs in 1951. Back in action in 1952, she helped with shore bombardment and search and rescue efforts.

In the 1960s, after significant upgrades, the O’Brien served in the Vietnam War. She provided escort, participated in offensive strategies, and conducted search and rescue operations. She also became one of the first ships to refuel a helicopter mid-flight. The O’Brien’s last duties were to patrol the Pacific and to conduct searches and rescues in the weeks leading up to decommissioning in 1972. She was towed into the Pacific from San Diego and was sunk as part of target practice.

Asbestos Use on the USS O’Brien

Many U.S. Navy ships were constructed with extensive use of asbestos and the O’Brien was no exception. The ships built for World War II used a lot of asbestos to provide fireproofing, insulation, and protection from the spread of fire. Asbestos is highly effective at insulating and at preventing fire, but it is also lightweight and inexpensive. The military and government stockpiled a lot of asbestos leading up to the war, knowing it would be needed to construct the fleets.

Components made by various manufacturers brought asbestos on to the O’Brien. Notably, the turbines and boilers used to power the ship generated a lot of heat and posed fire risks. These were heavily insulated with asbestos. So were the pipes that ran throughout all parts of the ship. Other items and parts with asbestos included firefighting equipment, gunner’s gloves, gaskets, valves, deck matting, spray insulation, and many others.

Exposure to Asbestos on the O’Brien

The abundance of asbestos used on the ship meant that personnel were inevitably exposed to it. Aside from the heavy use of asbestos, ships like the O’Brien were contained spaces that didn’t always have great ventilation. Any fibers that broke away from the asbestos materials entered the air in the ship and put everyone at risk. Those at the greatest risk worked in the boiler and turbine rooms or made repairs and did maintenance work that involved directly handling asbestos materials, like the pipe insulation.

Claims made to the Veterans Administration (VA) highlight just how veterans who served on the USS O’Brien were exposed and the later impact it had on them. In one claim a veteran described that the pipes in parts of the ship, including the mess hall, were sometimes in disrepair and that asbestos insulation was exposed. He and other men wrapped the damaged pipes in canvas until pipefitters arrived to fix them. He served on the USS O’Brien from 1954 to 1957 and later developed asbestosis. Another veteran made a claim for respiratory illnesses he developed after serving on the O’Brien in the 1960s. He served as a torpedoman and bosun’s mate and claimed that his service in these roles exposed him to the asbestos on the ship.

Veterans like these suffered later, after serving their countries during active wars and even saving lives. These men were exposed to asbestos because of serving on ships that were loaded with the material. Illnesses like mesothelioma, asbestosis, and other respiratory conditions are the result of their service, but these could have been prevented. Veterans now have access to funds, healthcare and support through the VA, but it requires a lengthy claims process. If you served on the O’Brien or another navy vessel and believe that your service made you sick, you can rely on an advocate to help you make a successful claim.

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