U.S.S. Albert T. Harris DE-447 (John C. Butler Class/Destroyer Escort)
The History of the U.S.S. Albert T. Harris:
The Albert T. Harris was named for Lieutenant Harris, who was killed in action at Guadalcanal, and posthumously received the Navy Cross for his heroism. The ship and crew also went to serve valiantly, winning two battle stars.
The U.S.S. Harris had her keel laid by Federal Shipbuilding and Drydock Shipbuilding (Kearny Point) in Newark, New Jersey, and Lt. Harris’s mother christened the vessel. The year before the U.S.S. Albert T. Harris was to be launched, US shipbuilding was already using more than 600 million pounds of what was later shown to be potentially deadly asbestos.
At 306 feet in length, and a range of 6,000 nautical miles at 12 kN, the U.S.S. Albert T. Harris was part of the Navy’s urgent job of building light, tough vessel escorts. The Harris was to be part of almost 300 “Butler Class” escorts, but most of the class was canceled in 1944, as battle plans for attacking mainland Japan changed. Nevertheless, these ships were fact famed for endurance: the most famous of this escort vessels class (the Roberts) fought an hour-long running battle in the Leyte Gulf, averaging almost 30 knots. The expected top speed was only 24 knots. One key in these fighting prowess required asbestos as an insulation in the miles of wiring and conduits that protected against the extreme temperatures and risks of fire. In meeting their contract deadlines, any knowledge about the dangers of asbestos were largely ignored as being less pressing than meeting the dangers of Nazi Germany and Japan.
Repairs and Upgrades
Wartime was not the only dangerous period for the crew of the Harris. In 1962, a massive four-day storm on the Eastern Seaboard almost sank the ship. Crewmen later wrote of how they had little opportunity for anything but fighting for survival during the storm and had constant repair crews working. The port and starboard guns were staved in. Lockers were tossed from the Harris’s bulkheads. Passageway bulkheads buckled under the weight of water. As the years later showed, these work crews frequently uncovered (and were exposed to) asbestos in making these emergency repairs.
Asbestos Risks On the U.S.S. Albert T. Harris (DE-447)
Gulf Shipbuilding, a subsidiary of US Steel, as with most shipyards in those days, depended on asbestos to get their work done at the Kearny Point location. The risks of the rapid shipbuilding project were not confined to asbestos, used by the yard workers or vessel crew members. The Federal Shipyard itself closed a few years after the end of WWII in 1949. Decades later, though, the area was proposed as part of the EPA’s “superfund” pollution site.
The Harris was stricken from the Navy’s rolls in the fall of 1968. The proud old Harris was sunk the following year in Naval target practices off the Virginia Capes, almost 25 years to the day from her first launch.