U.S.S. Alden DD-211 (Clemson-Class)
The history of the USS Alden:
The U.S.S. Alden was named for Rear Admiral James Alden, Jr., one of the first commandants of the important West Coast Naval Yard, Mare Island. William Cramp & Sons’ shipyard laid the keel for the Alden, just weeks before the Armistice that stopped WWI, in 1918.
By the time of the attack on Pearl, the U.S.S. Alden was already an important part of the Pacific vanguard that had been prepared by FDR in case of war. By the 1930s, a greatly renovated Alden had been patrolling hot spots in the Pacific throughout the 1920s. As with most US vessels of that era, asbestos was used in virtually all parts of the vessel. After narrowly surviving the reduction in US Naval power, the Alden saw her importance in monitoring both Russia and Japan become essential. The Alden and her crew demonstrated the ability of the US Navy to adapt successfully, from a light WWI battleship to the later dominance of versatile American Navy destroyer.
The William Ramp & Sons’ shipyard remains among the most famous of American vessel manufacturers. The very first US battleship (the U.S.S. Indian, B-1) came from their yards in 1893. Unlike shipyards in Great Britain, however, the use of asbestos was not banned in US vessels. In fact, until 1970, US shipyards used more asbestos than any other country in the world.
Not only was the U.S.S. Alden a part of American Navy history, from WWI until her demise, the pre-WWII weak US Navy desperately needed her crew to be flexible in keeping her afloat. This had implications for her frequent at-sea repairs. As experts have since shown, this need for constant repairs eventually had potentially troubling risks to shipyard workers and crew members, in terms of asbestos exposure.
Repairs and Upgrades
Even before her heavy WWII duty, the U.S.S. Alden and crew were engaged in monitoring Japanese troop ship movement. This required extended work to repair the Alden: sometimes fitting into the Alden’s strategy of passive spying. In one pre-war 1940 communiqué, the Alden was told to head for New Hollandia, and to feign making repairs on the way, so as to be able to watch Japanese shipping. Regardless, the miles of asbestos used in insulating the equipment, tools, and passageways of the Alden were sometimes exposed to working crew members, only inches away.
Owing to her isolation when America was attacked at Pearl, the Alden started her WWII service alongside British warships Prince of Wales and Repulse. Days after leaving them, the Alden learned both vessels had been sunk by Japanese torpedoes. Once ordered in to cover the retreat of much newer US battleships, an Alden officer remarked, “I always knew these old four-pipers would have to go in to save the day.” And in point of fact, the aging vessel and her determined crew won three battle stars in WWII. The risks of asbestos, used indiscriminately by the ton throughout vessels such as the Alden, were not known to the crew. Decades later, the costs of these brave attacks by vessels such as the Alden, and repairs at sea, often caused long-lasting harm, since emergency repairs often caused crew exposure to potentially deadly asbestos in incredibly confined spaces.
Towards the summer of 1944, the Alden served escort duty off the California coast. Her age was beginning to tell, and repairs were more frequent. Asbestos was probably removed and probably reapplied. Updated equipment, also using asbestos in its wiring as a fire retardant, was brought onboard. She was dry-docked at Charleston for hull repairs in August and into September of 1944,
Asbestos Risks On the U.S.S. Alden (DD-211)
The risks on vessels such as the Alden, historians now point out, came from some unexpected sources. Few crew members learned of the dangers of asbestos, even as they often complained of breathing it in from many different places on a vessel such as the Alden. Asbestos was plentiful and cheap to use in preventing fires, controlling temperatures, and within many types of machines on board vessels such as the Alden.
In late 1945, with Japan occupied by the US, the proud U.S.S. Alden DD-211 concluded its work of screening and sub chasing. She was sold for scrap in November 1945. Decades later, with asbestos-related symptoms becoming obvious, the US Navy finally began changing American asbestos use policy. But these changes often came too late for Naval vessel crews such as aboard the Alden, who had worked with asbestos during their entire service.