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USS Wisconsin (BB-64)

Serving in several wars throughout her decades of service, the USS Wisconsin was one of the many battleships to be built for the U.S. Navy. She served in World War II, the Korean War, and the Gulf Wars of the early 1990s before finally being decommissioned for the last time. She was then donated and turned over to the City of Norfolk in Virginia to become a battleship museum.

The many men and women that served aboard the USS Wisconsin served their country, but they were put at risk in return. The ship was constructed using asbestos in hundreds of its components. Before the full dangers of this mineral were known, the Wisconsin was causing exposure in many, who as veterans were then diagnosed with mesothelioma, asbestosis, and other respiratory conditions.

About the USS Wisconsin

The USS Wisconsin was ordered in 1940 and built at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard between 1941 and 1943. She launched in December of 1943 and was commissioned for the first time in 1944. She was one four ships built as part of the Iowa class of battleships, ships designed to travel far and fast to protect fleets and to participate in offensive actions. The Iowa ships, including the Wisconsin, were designed to escort fleets to the Pacific Ocean during the end of World War II.

The USS Wisconsin was 887 feet long, could travel at 35 miles per hour, and displaced 52,000 tons when loaded with equipment, fuel and men. The full complement of officers and men carried by the Wisconsin numbered 1,921. The Wisconsin was heavily armored to protect her and also heavily armed with numerous guns and missiles. She was powered by General Electric steam turbines and eight large boilers. The rooms that housed these offered some of the greatest risk for asbestos exposure on board.

Construction, Repairs, and Upgrades

The Wisconsin was laid down in Philadelphia on January 25, 1941 and was completed and launched on December 7, 1943. She was designed and built to be a fast battleship and was designed by the Bureau of Construction and Repair. Over decades of service she was decommissioned and recommissioned a few times. Prior to recommissioning she received upgrades to technology, armaments, and other components. One of her biggest upgrades occurred when she was reactivated in the 1980s. This included more modern weapons and improved armor.

She underwent several cycles of repair and upgrades, beginning in the middle of service in World War II. She received other repairs and maintenance post-World War II, during the Korean War, and a major upgrade and repair session was undertaken in 1957, after the Korean War. Repair and maintenance of a ship like the Wisconsin, which had been built with asbestos, represented a serious exposure risk for workers. Workers had to handle the materials that contained asbestos and this put them at serious risk for later illnesses.

Service and Deployment History

The USS Wisconsin was built for World War II and that was where she saw her first service. After shakedown and training in the Chesapeake Bay and the Caribbean, she set sail for the Pacific in late 1944. She missed much of the heated action that took place around the Philippines but engaged in actions to prepare for future offensive attacks. Soon after arriving in the Pacific theater, though, the Wisconsin and other members of the fleet suffered major losses in Typhoon Cobra. While some ships sank and hundreds of lives were lost, the Wisconsin only saw two injured crew members and no fatalities.

Throughout the remainder of the war, the Wisconsin provided escort services, supported airstrikes, and participated in offensive maneuvers, including the landing at Iwo Jima and the bombardment of Japan. She then took part in the occupation of Japan after the surrender. The Wisconsin helped ferry men home from the war, then participated in training before being deactivated at Norfolk in 1948.

She was reactivated for the Korean War. She relieved the USS New Jersey in late 1951 and participated in the war effort by providing support for South Korean and U.N. troops and shelling and bombarding strategic North Korean sites on shore. She also supported numerous airstrikes, and was inactivated again after the war.

In 1986 the Wisconsin was reactivated as a part of a push by President Reagan to expand the U.S. Naval fleet. In the early 1990s she was deployed to the Persian Gulf to support Operation Desert Shield and then Operation Desert Storm. She was decommissioned shortly after in 1991. The Wisconsin and the USS Iowa were both struck from the Naval Vessel Register on the same day: March 17, 2006. They were officially the last battleships to be a part of a navy anywhere in the world.

Asbestos on the USS Wisconsin

The USS Wisconsin was built to protect the naval fleet, but unfortunately, one way in which it was built caused harm to the men who served on her. Asbestos was used heavily throughout her construction, providing material for insulation and fireproofing. The heaviest use was in the engine and boiler rooms, insulating those heat-generating machines, and in insulation covering the pipes that ran all over the ship.

Asbestos was not limited to these high-heat ship components, though. It was also used in deck matting, gaskets, valves, flooring material, as spray-on fireproofing and insulation, and in the fire safety gear worn by the men who fought fires and those who fired the weapons on the ship. The asbestos protected them from heat and prevented the spread of fire throughout the ship.

Asbestos Exposure

Anyone who served on the Wisconsin had some level of risk of being exposed to asbestos. Anyone exposed was then at risk of later developing serious illnesses, including mesothelioma. Exposure to asbestos occurs when the small fibers that make up the mineral break free and enter the air or settle on surfaces. On ships, the risk is high because there is so much asbestos present but also because the lack of ventilation makes it more likely the fibers will be inhaled.

Most at risk on the Wisconsin were the workers in the boilers and engine rooms, those who made repairs to insulation and other asbestos-containing materials, and workers in the shipyards that constructed and repaired her. Claims made to the Veterans Administration document how men on board were exposed. In one claim, for example, a veteran who served on the Wisconsin developed asbestosis later. He served in the late 1950s and reported being exposed to asbestos that was around the pipes in the ship and that was in the gloves he used to change hot shells while manning the guns.

Men like these served the country and made great sacrifices, only to find later that their heroic service made them very sick. The asbestos used on the Wisconsin did not make everyone sick, but those unlucky few that did develop asbestos illnesses have suffered and died because of it. If you served on a ship in the navy, you were likely to have been put at risk of asbestos exposure. With a diagnosis of a related illness you can make a claim to the Veterans Administration to seek medical care and adequate compensation for your pain and suffering. Let a qualified advocate help you through the process so you can get what you deserve.

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