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U.S.S. Barton DD-599. (Destroyer, Benson-Class)

The History of the U.S.S. Barton

The Barton was named for John Kennedy Barton. Barton was born in 1851, Philadelphia, and rose to prominence as the US Navy moved to steam power. Barton excelled as a teacher, too, and had several tours of duty at the Naval Academy. But his advancement was tied, most of all, to his knowledge of how to build and maintain steam engines. And with the Navy’s growing reliance on steam, came the American reliance on asbestos to insulate the engines and boilers.

Barton served as an Admiral for only two days and retired due to illness. His namesake vessel was to fight in one of the first pivotal sea battles with the Japanese, the First Sea Battle of Guadalcanal. Though the Barton never survived the Pacific Theater, her courageous tradition and name did live on. Unfortunately, the health problems associated with asbestos also caused later decades of profound problems as well.


The U.S.S. Barton DD-599 had her keel laid by Bethlehem Steel’s Fore River Shipyard. Barton, as a Benson-Class destroyer, was a jump forward in ship design from the old four-stack design. Yet it was still to suffer from widespread asbestos use. Wisely (but in Barton’s case, uselessly), the new Benson-class design alternated boiler and engine rooms, to help protect against torpedo attack. Scantlings were added to support the U.S.S. Barton’s extra weight. Decades later, studies suggested that asbestos was a common element in protecting most of these WWII power plants.

Construction of the day put an emphasis on controlling the risks of fire while ignoring what was by then fairly well known about asbestos. This combination of tactical and economical choices meant asbestos was used in vessels such as the Barton, for miles of insulation and in dozens of uses….from gaskets, boilers, and engines, or armament and machinery that were likely to be subject to severe heat or fire risks.

Repairs and Upgrades

The new, anti-torpedo designs of the Benson-class vessel called for an extra sixty tons. The designers also counted on asbestos for fire suppression, and the high temperatures of her gun emplacements also meant asbestos was liberally used in the unique engine/boiler configuration. The blow at Pearl guaranteed the Barton would be at sea for extended periods. This also meant repairs would often be at sea, often under urgent need. The Battle at Guadalcanal, for example, brought the ships within a mile of each other before either side had first visual contact. The Americans had an advantage, with better radar that had detected the Japanese fleet’s proximity. Even this tactical advantage would carry some risk to other crews, history showed, since asbestos was often used to protect this new equipment from high temperatures, too.

Asbestos Risks On the U.S.S. Barton (DD-599)

Though active for less than a year, the Barton remains an honored vessel in US Naval history. The Barton sailed literally into the thickest part of hell on November 13, 1942, and allowed herself to be completely “enveloped” by the enemy in order to protect another US vessel. At one crucial point, to avoid ramming a sister ship, the Barton stopped engines and saved that ship. It was at that point, as the Barton attempted to restart her engines, two Japanese torpedoes struck the Barton: 164 men died, as the Barton sank in a matter of minutes. Her crew’s valor was eventually reflected in the award of four battle stars.

Asbestos was used as a fire retardant in literally hundreds of places on vessels such as the U.S.S. Barton. Experts later proved there were many ways in which asbestos could be spread throughout cramped areas of vessels such as the Barton. The asbestos fibers were often carried on clothing, for example, and might have exposed people second-hand. Bethlehem Steel, which had constructed the U.S.S. Barton, eventually had to address their extensive uses of asbestos in the history of Naval construction.

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